the enigma of kaspar hauser (1974)
The Enigma of Kaspar Hauser, like all of Herzog's best films, functions like a journey into a deep jungle of human reality rather than a narrative or fictional representation. Much like Aguirre just two years earlier, we descend into a thick, mysterious and overgrown landscape, only this time we descend into the mind of a man. It is Herzog's best film because it works as a companion piece to Aguirre and completes Herzog's statements he began there by showing us the other side of the coin. The spark of the story element leaves us in fertile ground to explore humanity and human society from the outside looking in. All forms of human knowledge are questioned for their validity, one scene in particular sees Kaspar solve a riddle to which his instructor replies "that is not mathematical logic". Herzog's films represent a leaving from mundane and familiar surroundings to travel into the unknown and as his narratives progress, we meditate deeper and deeper until a transcendent final moment. He is the antithesis to formula, for with each passing moment in his films he sheds pretense and sheds expectation as he marches toward his ultimate, root element. The mark of quality in a Herzog film is that they depart from their opening frame, never to return.
The film departs directly from the mind of Hauser, calming and serene, a boat on a lake somewhere deep in his subconscious, into the reality he cannot grasp. As the film progresses, he makes greater and greater sense of what is around him, and his astute, simplistic observations lead us to believe he may be a genius, albeit uneducated. Herzog's poetry has always been the poetry of the obvious. I don't mean that to sound deriding, it's the highest compliment (as Emerson put it "In every work of genius we recognize our own rejected thoughts"), Herzog is able to take that which is plain and obvious to us and film it in such a way that we see it as with new eyes, and so there is no better palette for a Herzog film than the character of Hauser. We see that he is a man completely removed from the world, out of step and on his own. We feel remorse for our own opinion of him stemming from how he's treated by his peers, as a viewer we're caught in the same groupthink that Hauser has no concept of. First he may be harmful, soon he is welcomed with love by the people, then placed as a spectacle, he rejects this to live once again in a loving and even more intellectually stimulating environment, but when he takes the next step up on the "ladder" of society he realizes that he is once again being made a spectacle of and flat out rejects it. This is the tipping point for the character through which he comes to find the obvious truth: when the norms of the society, be they customs, gender roles, etc., were in his favor and on his side, they were to be embraced. The inverse is also true. The rewarding elements of fulfilling societal roles led Kaspar to enter the halls of polite society, only to be cast out as he is not nearly the sensational savant they were hoping to find. The reality of his situation, that though from a background that meant he stood apart from all and was not prey to the usual conditioning, he is still a man among men. The expectation that he may be an anomaly to be studied, that we as common people may gain some insight into humanity by examining him is beautifully approached and just as elegantly retreated from. This, of course does not stop the academic minds of his observers from continuing to place him under a microscope, even after death. Human fascination with the unknown extends into human fascination with those who do not fit with the ideal representation of man in the world, hence the extreme lure of carnival sideshow anomalies that he is at one point placed among. As an unvarnished human being, he is regarded as an animal until soon he is able to express himself. After this point he is held to the same criteria. Herzog crafts a beautiful moment whereby his habit of placing his thumb and forefinger together when making a statement is scrutinized for its correctness in polite conversation. All of this is, of course, punctuated by glimpses into his inner being, visions of places he imagines but has never seen, filmed with a flicker effect on low grade film stock, hazy and erratic, we see that his mind is restless. Perhaps this is the crux of all Herzog, the restless mind, the wandering mind.
Individuals who stand apart, whether by choice or having it thrust upon them, is at the core of much of the director's fascinations. His life is truly an enigma, though not one that Herzog is interested in solving, rather we witness only what is in front of us. In its refusal to dig in deeper, The Enigma of Kaspar Hauser is cinema of the most honest sort. In life, we will only ever see that which is shown to us, though we attempt to delve deeper all the time, we will never see that which does not wish to be shown. Hauser, like the flowers he tends to, opens and closes to us. It is fitting that the one who released him from his captivity should be the one who releases him from his secondary cage of society, all things being trapped either by themselves, another or perhaps both. The mystery at the heart of the film is one that has no solution and so none are attempted. A rejection that we should even look. For brief instances we can see beauty, we can grasp the feeling of understanding, only to once again realize that we simply do not.