The Enigma of Kaspar Hauser

Last night I watched my first ever Werner Herzog film. And what a wondrous experience it was. At times humorous, at times heartbreaking 1975’s The Enigma of Kaspar Hauser is perhaps the best example of German – or West German as it were then – film-making I have had the pleasure of enjoying (at the time of writing the only other high quality German film that springs to mind is the more recent The Lives of Others).

Herzog’s storytelling contains, and perhaps even relies upon, a significant amount of pathos on the audience’s part but when the film teeters on the precipice of over-sentimentality it reels itself back in. For example the early links with small children in the film could have been overplayed and used to collect a more significant emotional reaction amongst audiences but Herzog keeps them as metaphors for and yardsticks of Kaspar’s advancement.

Metaphors are something Herzog uses to full effect throughout the film. The strange little fellow who takes down notes acts as a foreseeable future for Kaspar. They are both afflicted with strange appearances – Kaspar is somewhat feral whereas the strange fellow is not too dissimilar to the dwarf used in David Lynch’s Twin Peaks Season 2 – and, it could be argued, physical and mental deformities. The story of the blind man in the desert that Kaspar tries so earnestly to learn and tell too carries the metaphor of his social climb – whilst he may be reaching for the mountains by learning Mozart etc that is not his place as confirmed in the scene with the overly camp English royal.

A factor to applaud Herzog on is his handling of the film as not only a mythical fairy tale or a piece of social commentary but as a period drama. He captures the essence of 19th Century Bavarian Germany quite stunningly and yet this is just a backdrop to the film and is of little significance – perhaps only there to keep true to the myth – but it speaks volumes of Herzog’s meticulous style that he pays so much attention to something that in plot terms at least is but a minor detail.

And all of this brilliance and much more I could talk about (the underplayed score, the mystery of the cloaked man, the Lynchian aspects, the use of the sepia tone footage reminiscent of old Super 8’s etc etc) is available to watch on BBC iplayer up until the 30th of May and I heartily recommend that you take advantage of watching this or one of the two other films – Gilliam’s Brazil or In Which We Serve – that are currently on offer. The BBC have really outdone themselves with such a selection.

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