Jeder für sich und Gott gegen alle (The Enigma of Kaspar Hauser) is, in more ways than one, a truly beautiful film. This is clear from the strange opening, which makes little sense until the film’s second half. We see hazy pastoral images, and a woman peering through reeds, followed by a shot of startling clarity: reeds being buffeted back and forth by strong winds, accompanied by Pachelbel’s ‘Canon’. Simple images, yet incredibly powerful ones, similar to what Terrence Malick would do in Days of Heaven four years later.
A two-sentence, spoiler-laden synopsis of the film: Kaspar Hauser, having never encountered society until his teens, is mysteriously released by his imprisoner and abandoned in a Nuremberg square, with a Bible and an enigmatic note. The friendly people of Nuremberg adopt him, try to culture him, and even exhibit him in a circus show so that he can ‘earn his keep’; Kaspar is pliant, and learns how to walk and speak, but ultimately retains his integral oddness until he is murdered by his original captor.
The opening of the film is certainly worthy of discussion and dissection. There are several reasons why a lingering shot of buffeted reeds should open, and be a sort of overture for, the rest of the film. It sets up the bucolic element effectively, and it at once shows the turbulence and fortitude of nature (the wind and the reeds respectively). It’s also vaguely foreboding. Most of all, though, Herzog probably used it because it’s an unforgettable shot in its power and its beauty. Adding to its power is a mysterious, unsettling intertitle: “Don’t you hear that horrible screaming all around you? That screaming men call silence?”. What does this mean? Given its accompanying image, we might find that the reeds are symbolic of men, or humanity: constantly buffeted about by greater powers, suffering, yet ultimately resilient.
Kaspar Hauser, whom we encounter after the opening images, tethered by a chain in a dingy cellar like a docile animal, seems, prima facie, mentally retarded. He looks like an adult, yet can neither walk nor talk. We come to discover that the description of ‘suffering yet resilient’ suits him well. He is actually incredibly intelligent, and his stunted development is due to his having been incarcerated in the cellar for almost his entire life. Naturally, we could read into this: could this be an allegory of religion and wilful obscurantism? Of attempted suppression of the id? Of a desperate, naïve desire to maintain innocence?
Kaspar is far too compelling, well-drawn and well-observed a character to be a mere symbolic cipher, or a pawn in an allegory. One of Herzog’s salient strengths as a director is his profound respect for his characters; even madmen like Aguirre (Aguirre, Der Zorn Gottes, 1972) are chronicled tenderly, almost lovingly, with palpable fascination on Herzog’s part. In Jeder für sich, this respect is shared by the lead actor, the late Bruno S. (real name Bruno Schleinstein), who essays the eponymous character such that the acting seems to transcend ‘acting’ and become being. Schleinstein reportedly remained in costume for the whole shoot, including in his spare time; one anecdote finds Herzog entering Schleinstein’s hotel room, to find the latter sleeping on the floor in full costume. Since the actor was, before the film, a Berlin street musician with no real acting experience and a history of mental illness, one gets the impression that Schleinstein engaged in a less ‘actorly’ form of Method acting than other such actors, such as Day-Lewis or De Niro. Reflecting on the film afterwards, it is almost like Schleinstein and Kaspar – both enigmas – share a profound spiritual connection. I know I certainly want to find out more about Bruno Schleinstein, so compelling and real is his performance.
Is the strange Kaspar an anomaly, or is he the ne plus ultra of “l’homme sauvage”? If the latter, Herzog’s view of essential humanity in the film is beautifully optimistic. The beauty lies in the understatement of the optimism. Kaspar is not some sort of saint; he does not seem to judge others, but, despite his air of perpetual bemusement, has a shrewd understanding of things. In one hilarious scene, he exasperates a supercilious logician with his own twisted yet irrefutable logic; in another more poignant one, he refuses to be ‘civilised’ on anyone else’s terms, least of all on those of polite, patronising Anglo-German high society. He is an original character, but if he has a precedent, it is probably Camus’s Meursault. Like Fitzcarraldo (Fitzcarraldo, 1982) and Aguirre, he has ambitions, but his are modest ones, such as being able to play the piano (which he manages to do well, if a little clunkily). He is sweet, and relatively pliant.
However, as well as all this, the film has two particularly interesting theses – that is, if we view Kaspar as a prototype of innocent, untouched Man. Firstly, it represents l’homme sauvage as essentially pacifist. The only physical violence in the whole film is perpetrated by someone who is ostensibly civilised; perhaps, the film seems to suggest, violence arose as a by-product of ‘civilisation’. Kaspar does not feel animosity towards anyone or anything; neither does he lust after money, material wealth, or conventional forms of success. Indeed, a very funny scene in which he tries to guide a cat on its two hind legs demonstrates a bond with animals, and even an uneasy mastery of them, as does his professed desire to become an equestrian. Secondly, the film sees prelapsarian Man as inherently philosophical. Kaspar takes nothing for granted, and makes few assumptions; he flummoxes the logician and courtly society with his questioning of the status quo, and the more he learns, the more he questions. In one great scene, Kaspar gazes, troubled, into a barrel full of water; he perturbs it, creating small waves that ripple across the surface and distort the reflection of his face. Gradually, the water stills, with Kaspar’s face as troubled as before. It’s a wonderful, expressive image; it seems to symbolise his curiosity, and his reluctance to leave things untouched and unquestioned.
Of course, although an interpretation that makes Kaspar symbolic of prelapsarian humanity might enrich the film, it is not a necessary one. Kaspar is a richly real character on his own. If he is a mere anomaly, an oddity of society and even of science, the film can be seen as a beautiful, poignant character study.
And poignant it certainly is. At several points in the film, Kaspar weeps. Sometimes, this is a result of his having committed some infantile error, such as putting his hand in fire; at other times, it is because of some deeper, unspoken pain that he feels but cannot express. According to Jonathan Romney, Kaspar is “a visionary, an inspired poet in the properly Romantic sense”. He is indeed a Romantic figure, although his poetry goes unarticulated, except perhaps in his heartfelt piano-playing, and in the form of dreams that we see as the same hazy imagery present in the film’s odd prologue. These dreams, in their mythic aspect, lend credence to the idea of Kaspar as visionary: one describes a journey of penitents up a rocky mountain, at the summit of which is Death, while another – related on Kaspar’s deathbed – is of a caravan led by a blind man through an African desert. Both are thoroughly pessimistic and existentially acute, and are further evidence that Kaspar is more perspicacious than the rest of ‘civilised’ society.
Typical Herzogian themes are at work in the film. Total innocence, of a far purer sort than in his other films – indeed, than in most other films in history – struggles with external forces in the film, and in the case of this film, whether or not Kaspar’s innocence is preserved is ambiguous. In a general sense, his ‘innocence’ is lost when he encounters civilised society, or perhaps when he is exhibited in a freakshow, or even as late as when he is beaten by a mysterious assailant (his original imprisoner). However, despite his spirit disintegrating due to the deep, growing sorrow within him, he retains his dignity, his passion, and his soul. His personal innocence is intact by the end, and although he experiences a journey of the intellect, he is the same lovable character he was at the beginning, when he was playing with a rocking horse while imprisoned in a cellar. He is perfect; and, if we again take Kaspar to represent Man, the film is the work of Herzog the humanist, who believes in the perfectibility of man.
Jeder für sich und Gott gegen alle is a sublime work of cinema. Herzog’s familiar themes of social misfits, integrity, nature, innocence and corrupting forces are explored more compassionately than in most of his other great films. The cinematography, by Jörg Schmidt-Reitwein, is unforgettable, and Pachelbel’s ‘Canon’ is used to great effect. The film – similar in several ways to Hal Ashby’s Being There, which came five years later – is funny without being a comedy, quasi-factual without being a documentary, dramatic without being a drama. The social satire, too, is peerless. I have discussed scenes in which courtly society is made to seem ridiculous and inauthentic, a counterpoint to l’homme sauvage; the satire of the final sequence, in which a bureaucratic busybody notes excitedly that Kaspar’s oddness was due to cranial quirks and an enlarged liver, again pokes fun at Enlightened society, and we are left in no doubt that Kaspar’s uniqueness cannot be explained away. It is spiritual. Kaspar is a thoroughly Romantic figure, and Herzog’s wonderful film is a thoroughly Romantic work of art.