Nuremberg, 1828. Into the main square a young man suddenly appears, seemingly unable to walk, staggering instead, and being barely able to speak, making strange guttural sounds. He carries a note, which gives strange details about his life, and saying his name is Kasper Hauser. Hopeless and clearly unable to care for himself, he is taken in by the kindly Professor Daumer, who sees him as a possible study subject as well as being a humanitarian gesture. Taking him into his home, the Professor gradually manages to teach this stranger how to speak, although he actually seems to be quite intelligent, and when able explains that he had been held captive in a dungeon or cell of some sort for as much of his entire life that he could remember, and only recently was he released, for reasons unknown, being unable to identify his captors or where he had been held. Daumer attempts to integrate him into society, with unexpected and intriguing results, Kasper showing a surprising grasp of logic, confounding an expert who tries to confuse him with riddles, and seemingly becoming a relatively ‘normal’, if eccentric, citizen, until one day when an unexpected visit from another stranger brings the enigma of his entire existence to a sudden, inexplicable end.
One of Werner Herzog’s earlier features, The Enigma Of Kasper Hauser seems absolutely ideal material for the extraordinary director, dealing as it does with a true story, or at least the basis of it, the discovery of a young man in Nuremberg in 1828, disoriented, confused and with a story of being imprisoned for his entire life, and released for reasons he could not explain, he was taken in by a benefactor, and gently reintroduced into society until another brutal, unexplained twist in his tale which eventually took his life. Dealing with one of Herzog’s favourite and recurring themes, the isolated and the eccentric, and society’s reactions to them, and vice versa, Herzog made one of his most extraordinary casting decisions, with singer and musician Bruno Schleinstein, who was always billed as ‘Bruno S.’, a genuine eccentric with an early life with some uncomfortable parallels to his Hauser character, a non-professional actor who Herzog later admitted was extremely hard to work with because of his mood swings and occasional outbursts, but his strange, detached performance is so totally convincing because the character and his isolation so uncannily mirrored Schleinstein’s own. Indeed Herzog also used him for his only other film appearance, as another eccentric, who joins two others in leaving Germany for the US, hoping to find acceptance but finding they are as shunned across the Atlantic as they are at home, in Herzog’s 1977 film Stroszek. Hauser’s function in Herzog’s film is that of the ‘holy innocent’, who shuns convention and both fascinates and alarms those he has to deal with, and tellingly his being taken-in by Professor Daumer (veteran Walter Ladengast, whose final film role would be as Van Helsing in Herzog’s extraordinary Nosferatu The Vampyre in 1980), is not entirely altruistic and charitable, the doctor observing Kasper as he starts to deal with those in the town, and of course he proves very much to be more than the naive fool. The film walks an awkward and sometimes unsettling line between being dryly funny and slightly disturbing, and Bruno S is an uncomfortable screen presence, rather than actor, but Herzog was already showing the style and choice and handling of material which would more fully develop in later films. The fact that one bit part is billed as ‘Bavarian Chicken Hypnotizer’ is somehow so perfectly apt.