The Enigma of Kaspar Hauser (1974)

I’m blown away by this film. It is the best Herzog film I’ve seen yet. The pace is perfect. The story is profound. The characters are well presented.

What struck me as I was watching this film was Antonio Gramsci’s concept of the organic intellectual. (I’ve noted this also in my post on Slumdog Millionnaire) This comes out most profoundly in the scene when Kaspar is sitting down with the Professor and the maid and the Professor asks him the most ridiculous Logic question of all time: the one about if you’re approaching a crossroads and to the left is the Village of Liars, and to the right is the Village of Truth-Tellers, and a person approaches you, what question do you ask him/her in order to determine which Village he/she comes from because your ultimate goal is to get to the Village of Truth-Tellers.  Personally, like the maid in the film, I could not answer this question of “Logic.”  And she does well to defend Kaspar’s unreadiness to answer such a question, and she even admits that she could not answer it.  The Professor’s answer still doesn’t make sense to me and it probably never will. In fact, I’ve forgotten the answer but it involved a double negative.  And, anytime a Professor shows up in a film like this, it’s obvious the critique is on academia (sorry my academic readers…which is all of you! ) This sentiment is also resonated in places like The Simpsons: have you ever noticed how many times they make fun of graduate students?!)  Kaspar said he had another answer, and that was to ask the traveler whether he/she was a tree frog.  If the person was from the Village of Liars, the traveler would answer “yes” and if the traveler was from the Village of Truth-Tellers, the answer would be “no.”  Then it would be obvious which was from the Village of Truth-Tellers. This makes absolute sense, and based on the progression of Kaspar’s “intellect” from the beginning up until this point in the film, it shows an amazing capacity for organic logic.  But, of course, the Professor said he couldn’t accept that answer because it was all description and no logic.  Of course, neither Kaspar nor the maid could say much in retaliation so they both just sat there.  How often do we just sit there in the face of blatant closedmindedness?

The point is that one need not an academic background to be intelligent or intellectual or logical. Hence, Gramsci’s organic intellectual.  But the irony there is that an academic formulated this theory. So does that automatically invalidate the existence of the organic intellectual? What would Benjamin say?

Herzog presents such an amazing perspective on family and culture in this film. Every time you turn around, he is presenting a critique of some aspect of life. The most blatant is the (un)education and treatment of children by their parents. There are other true stories in history of “wild” children who were kept locked up or out with the dogs for their entire lives. I’ve seen TV specials on this, and films like Slingblade at least fictionally document the ramifications of such treatment. And in the news within the past year there was the report of the Australian (or was it Austrian?)  father who kept his 40-yr old daughter in the basement where he forced her to live and bear his incestuous children.  We do the most awful things to ourselves. It’s very much like Ursula LeGuin’s short story, “The Ones Who Walk Away From Omelas” about a Utopian town that hides a dirty secret: they’re imprisoning a child in a dirty cellar to take the allegorical brunt of their happiness.  This short story is a perfect parallel for The Enigma of Kaspar Hauser.

The saddest part, of course, is that this is based on a true story. But that’s what Herzog does best: take the real and add elements of fiction to make it sublime.  Herzog has taken the legend and history of Kaspar Hauser and added elements that make it not just a presentation of Kaspar’s story, but also a presentation of society’s ills. Though, in defense of the town and those who took over Kaspar’s care, a great deal of effort and help was given to him (in the film), which reflects very positively on the “it takes a village” theory.

No one knows why Kaspar’s original caretaker (presumably his father???) kept him locked up but it is nonetheless profound that Herzog has this same “father” come back and kill Kaspar in the end. What is Herzog telling us with this?  The Village is there to support; the father is there to subvert? 

I think he’s telling us that people do beastly and ghastly things to their children, and sometimes they try to wipe them off the face of the earth in order to assuage their own guilt.   Oooh. Powerful stuff. Of course, it’s not just about that.

But more than just a presentation of parenting-gone-wrong, Herzog is clearly showing us the perversity behind our own understandings of culture, class, spectacle, intellect, and human relations. The scenes where the Side Show has Kaspar as one of the 4 Riddles, and where the British Lord is parading Kaspar around for his aristocratic guests,  are both meant to be disgustingly perverse in an Elephant Man sort of way.  Though I did love the British Lord’s character: high & tight pants showing off his accouterments, overly effeminate, and a bit Ichabod Crane in figure.  Classic! 

Then again, he is presenting the Village’s helpfulness as something in opposition to the parental role.

I liked that Herzog presented Kaspar as someone who was pure. Pure like an infant who knows absolutely nothing about the world. The scene in which Kaspar writes a letter to the Count about how he cried for a long time after he had sowed his name in seeds and then someone had trampled it, was touching and pure.  Kaspar was also presented as someone who was naturally inquisitive and logical. The scene in which he tried to convey his understanding of outside from inside when he was taken to the town’s prison tower that he had been in for 2 months, showed Kaspar’s own budding capacity for perspective and logic: he tried to explain how from the inside when he looked left and right and front and back he saw the brick of the cell, but when he was outside he looked back and saw the brick, but when he looked left right and forward he saw the town…this was something he had realized on his own, and it’s something we all take for granted as an everyday thing, and not as a victory of intellect like it was for Kaspar. 

But what sort of victory is accomplished with the death of Kaspar Hauser?  Are we extinguishing our guilt? Are we reinforcing our closedness to organic logic, or our adherence to notes of cultural respectability? Are we choosing to manipulate the spectacular and pervert the innocent for our own guilty pleasures? Are we extinguishing the other so we won’t be revealed as frauds? Yes, all this and more.

I have defended the Village a little in this but I’d like to end with a major critique.  The final scene of the film is of Kaspar’s autopsy. They take out his brain, examine it, and cut it apart. As the ironically deformed clerk is walking away after documenting the notes of the autopsy, he skips away down the street saying they’ve figured out what was wrong with Kaspar: deformities of the liver and brain.

This brings to mind Francis Bacon’s 4 Idols (all 4: the Marketplace, Theatre, Village and Cave idols would all work in various ways with this situation) or the logical fallacy of cause and effect. Kaspar wasn’t who he was because of deformities of the liver and brain; he was who he was because of NURTURE, or lack thereof.  Herzog ending this way really drives the message home that society overlooks the obvious in order to prove its ridiculous theories about things. We look for false causes for the effects we see. We try to prove theories by shoving things together that we know will prove them, rather than looking objectively at the facts to “see” if they will prove the theory.  Herzog’s Professor of “logic” is a testament to this.  Bacon’s Idols of the Tribe attest to the sometimes ridiculousness of collective thinking, and that is what Herzog gives us at the end of this film.  He also reminds us of how much dirt we’ve swept under the rug so that we can live in denial of the ugly truth that we live in a dirty house.

This film gets better and better the more I think (and write) about it.

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