The Screaming Men Call Silence

On Werner Herzog’s “The Enigma of Kaspar Hauser” (1974)

We see Kaspar trying to teach a cat to walk on its hind legs, presumably thinking that if he could be taught to walk that way, so could the cat. We see him plant Kaspar using cress seeds in the garden only to weep when he finds that someone has stepped on his name, for Kaspar’s is an untrammeled soul. We see him rocking a crying baby in its cradle, and when the mother rushes in we expect her to chastise him; instead she offers Kaspar the baby to hold, and as he does so we see him spontaneously in tears saying, “I am so far away from everything.”

Kaspar embodies the deep solitude that is often seen in Herzog’s characters: he is distant from the civilized world, but in his interactions with children, animals, and nature, he is genuine. Kaspar is, as Herzog has described himself, “clinically sane.” He is not the eccentric — the bourgeois society in which he finds himself is demented and out of balance.

There is a scene in which a child holds a mirror to Kaspar, who seems merely confused at seeing his reflection for the first time. There is no rage of Caliban here, only observation and shock. Kaspar Hauser is the mirror into which we must gaze, the glass in which we see our cage: he forces us to reexamine the banalities of our lives. Like Timothy Treadwell, the subject of Herzog’s Grizzly Man, Kaspar is a figure so divorced from the norms of society that his existence tells us more about ourselves than it does about him.

Herzog has a way of making us look at something for an uncomfortably long time: in the opening there is a shot of rye fields undulating in the wind that is held for so long that it begins to look like a scene from the deep sea or an alien planet. Herzog has said that he wants the audience to see these images with fresh eyes, the way Kaspar would have seen them in his newly awakened state. Words appear, from Georg Büchner’s Lenz, which contain the pith of the film: “Don’t you hear that horrible screaming around you, the screaming men call silence?”

There is a disconcerting scene, excruciatingly held, in which the cloaked man teaches Kaspar how to walk. It is easy to look away here but we must contend with the fact that, however cruel it may seem, he is civilizing Kaspar to some extent. Is it an evil impulse to want to civilize our young? That is the easy answer, but I must point out that a world full of Kaspar Hausers is a world incapable of producing the technology needed to create The Enigma of Kaspar Hauser. Such is the inescapable tragedy of our fate.

Much has already been written about the marvelous performance by Bruno S. His eyes manipulate the camera in captivating ways, and at times it seems as if his attention is orthogonal to the scene’s tension. One gets the sense that if one points at an object, Bruno will simply look at the pointing finger rather than the object. Bruno S. and Kaspar are both fundamentally detached: the former from the film and the latter from society. Herzog’s casting made the reviewer John Simon criticize the film’s historical accuracy because the forty-year-old Bruno S. played the supposed sixteen-year-old Kaspar Hauser. Herzog responded: “Watch the film and witness genuine human suffering, not theatrical melodrama. Anyway, who cares about the man’s age? I’m a filmmaker, a storyteller, not an accountant of history. Whether Bruno was forty or seventy or fifteen years old isn’t important. Criticism like this comes from the knowledge that audiences bring with them, and has nothing to do with the film per se.”

Kaspar Hauser contains many such Flaubertian exhortations against determined philistines, peddlers of human suffering, pedantic academics, and compulsive note-takers. The scene in which Kaspar is shown as a circus specimen is dripping with reflexive disdain for the circus director; the priests’ efforts are met with charming dismissal from Kaspar — the original German title translates as Every Man for Himself and God Against All; the professor of logic uses logic that is so contrived when contrasted with Kaspar’s elegant simplicity that it brings up questions about the genuine intelligence of illiterates against the domain-specific idiocy of academics; there is a scribe, played for comedy, who obsessively jots down inane details while completely missing the poetry which announces itself in every scene.

We are all scribes. Don’t you hear that horrible screaming around you, the screaming men call silence?

Music, though it is a civilized art, brings out Kaspar’s genuine nature. When he hears the blind pianist Florian Fricke play he says to the professor who has adopted him, “The music feels strongly in my heart. I feel so unexpectedly old.” and asks, “Why can’t I play the piano like I breathe?” That simple question contains the tenderness and tragedy of Kaspar Hauser.

As Kaspar lies dying, he is surrounded by civilized adults analyzing him or trying to save his soul. Once again, Kaspar seems to be clinically sane even as everybody around him — except Florian Fricke — treats him like an oddity. The scene is beautifully composed, with Florian Fricke sitting apart, facing blindly away, humming softly the very same tune which had so deeply moved Kaspar. What is it about music that makes men into children and children into men?

At Kaspar’s autopsy the townspeople examine his cadaver with barely contained glee, for they can finally conduct their science experiment in full and in peace. They find that he has an enlarged liver and a malformed brain. “What a wonderful, what a precise report this will make!”, says the scribe, “Deformities discovered in Kaspar Hauser’s brain and liver! Finally we have got an explanation for this strange man…” He walks jauntily down the street, happily missing the point.

There have been hundreds if not thousands of articles, books, and documentaries written and produced about Kaspar Hauser. They focus largely on his mysterious origins, the criminal case of his murder, and other quotidian matters. Among the scribes and the John Simons of this world, Werner Herzog and Bruno S. stand tall, daring to look deeply into the soul of a poet without once attempting to explain it.

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Flutist & cohost of the Impolite to Listen podcast

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