Pauline Kael

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Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 942

[In "The Mystery of Kaspar Hauser"] Werner Herzog has achieved a visionary, overcast style. The higgledy-piggledy pink and blue roofs of the town of Dinkelsbühl … suggest the world of a German primitive painter, or of an awkward, self-taught puppeteer who has gone a little haywire. The gentle farmlands have something ominous hovering in the atmosphere, and even normal domestic scenes are airless and oppressive. The estrangement is poignant. Herzog's images look off-balance, crooked, as if the cameraman were wincing; there are distances, large vistas, but the perspectives aren't inviting. The universe is enclosed in an invisible hand. Caught in that grip, nobody seems warmblooded; everyone is alone, immobilized, slightly stiff. Herzog holds shots for a second or two longer than one is used to, so that a character is left with a reaction on his face when what he's reacting to is gone. You're aware of every shot, because each one suggests a visual or emotional displacement. Even the children, who are Kaspar's first teachers, are unnaturally lacklustre. You're looking at a drained, dissociated world—a godforsaken world. The hand that holds it belongs to that black figure with the truncheon. (pp. 142-43)

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Kaspar seems conceived sculpturally—man being formed out of clay. Rooting in the muck in his dungeon, he shows no fear of his guardian, and he doesn't suffer any visible pain when he's beaten: he doesn't cower, he doesn't cry out. It's not until he walks upright and has experienced the freedom of mingling with flowers and birds that he learns to suffer…. Kaspar is the only one who hasn't lost his innocent responses to the world about him, who hasn't been blighted by society. He's still got his soul. The film becomes "The Passion of Kaspar Hauser." (pp. 143-44)

Herzog says that society puts you through the pain in order to deform you, and he makes it absolutely impossible for you to identify with anyone but Kaspar.

Incidents are devised to show how society attempts to degrade him…. Kaspar is a holy innocent whose wisdom stumps [society's] dummies. (Throughout, Herzog's assumption is that philosophers don't raise the questions that Kaspar does, though they are precisely the questions that philosophers have worried over endlessly.) Typically, Herzog sets up what might be a dramatic situation and then just lets it sit there, flat on; and it can be effective in its formality. He's worst when his purposes are clearly decipherable (as with [a] logician, or in an even more specious scene involving Kaspar's belief that apples have feelings), because then he's pointing up the idiocy of those who can't understand Kaspar. (pp. 144, 147)

Personalizing the unknown in the form of [a] black-caped murderer, Herzog creates a fable of a demonic universe—"Every Man for Himself and God Against All"—which is just the reverse of the faith that the churchmen want Kaspar to accept. It's Christianity turned upside down, and given a bitter, malignant tinge, but Herzog has found in Kaspar Hauser a new, uncorrupted Christ figure. And then had him martyred all over again…. [If this film] succeeds at all with audiences the reason will be, I think, that it presents a sentimental view of man's natural state. One of the oldest audience-pleasing gimmicks in mass culture is to show the simpleton outwitting the learned. Herzog has given this gimmick a metaphysical framework that could make it appeal to present-day moviegoers who want to believe that the spacy innocents have the answers.

There's something of a contradiction involved in using modern film technology to argue against learning in favor of an innocent response to nature; a filmmaker is not exactly a hewer of wood. Werner Herzog comes as close as he can, though…. His technique owes little to previous commercial films; it doesn't owe very much to previous films of any sort. And there are penalties for working as a self-conscious artist in movies, as there are in the theatre…. A movie or a play has a duration, and a director who has never served a commercial apprenticeship may rhythm his work in ways that seem punishing to an audience. Herzog's pacing may be masterly in terms of his cool, objective, controlled style, but the hour and fifty minutes of this film is a trial for anyone of a restless disposition or an agnostic temperament. You fight to keep your eyes open. Buñuel's best work draws upon irrational sources of humor; Herzog is anti-rational, in an almost self-satisfied way. In Buñuel's world, everyone is alive; there's a raucous, lewd energy in the characters. Herzog's people are unanimated; life is dormant in them. And though one could not fault this in a painter's vision, in a filmmaker's it is numbing to an audience.

A pretty fair case can be made for the idea that a little corruption is good for the soul: it humanizes you. Werner Herzog is an artist before he's a human being, and we may experience his dedication to art as a form of priggishness. Bergman may be obsessive, he may be frightfully high-toned, but he's a man of the theatre…. Herzog has just about everything to be a great film artist but this alchemical element: there's no theatre in his soul. As with Robert Bresson, we can admire Herzog's work abstractly, intellectually, but we may find it perversely academic…. [In] Herzog's dedication to film art he denies us the simple pleasures of story involvement, of suspense, of interest in the people on the screen, of sexuality. His goodness saps our strength. (pp. 147-49)

Pauline Kael, "Metaphysical Tarzan," in The New Yorker (© 1975 by The New Yorker Magazine, Inc.), Vol. LI, No. 35, October 20, 1975, pp. 142-44, 147-49.

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