Kaspar Hauser

Matthew A. Stern

An intriguing drama that creates a complex world of scandal so atmospheric that you hardly realize how truly discomfiting and bizarre the imagery is until you've emerged from it.

Kaspar Hauser

Director: Peter Sehr
Cast: André Eisermann, Jeremy Clyde, Katharina Thalbach
Distributor: Kino
MPAA rating: Unrated
First date: 1993
US DVD Release Date: 2007-12-08

Among casual fans of foreign film and art-house aficionados alike, the name Kaspar Hauser brings to mind two men, neither of whom are Kaspar Hauser. The first is Werner Herzog, director most famous cinematic adaptation of the legendary feral child's tale. The other is the film's star, Bruno S., a real-life outsider with no acting experience, whose debut role was as the titular Teuton in Herzog's The Enigma of Kaspar Hauser. The film known in the original German by a more philosophical, distinctly Herzogian title, Jeder für sich und Gott gegen alle (Every Man for Himself and God Against Them All) uses the story of Hauser to explore Herzog's thematic obsessions.

The real-life tale of Kaspar Hauser is so shrouded in strangeness that it's no shock it became the subject of a conspiracy theory that persists to this day. A foundling child, Hauser mysteriously appeared on the street of Nuremburg in Germany in 1828, repetitively muttering cryptic statements, clutching one anonymous letter, and another purportedly from his mother, but written in the same hand as the first. Hauser revealed that he had been raised in complete isolation, kept by an unknown captor in a tiny cell with minimal human contact.

Rumors of Hauser's royal heritage spread and persisted and just as mysteriously as he appeared, he was stabbed to death by an unknown assailant. The strange story of Kaspar Hauser acts as perfect raw material for Herzog. The Enigma of Kaspar Hauser paints the historical character as one of Herzog's many solitary, visionary underdogs. Beginning as a blank slate, Bruno S.'s character grows to question the provincial presuppositions of the everymen who surround him, his bizarre origins giving him a more profound understanding of the world.

Unlike Herzog's film, Peter Sehr's Kaspar Hauser explores the mythology, rather than interpreting the reality. The 1993 film, now available on DVD in the US, fleshes out the Hauser legend with a healthy dose of highly dramatic historical fiction. Kaspar Hauser depicts a switched-at-birth scenario in which the heir to the throne of Baden is kidnapped at the behest of Countess Hochberg (Katharina Thalbach). The baby that would have been Hauser is murdered, while the real heir is locked up in Hungary.

Peter Sehr has been quoted as drawing parallels between the ruthless murder of the baby for political expediency and the regime of Nazi Germany, but as the sexually-charged intrigues and brutal machinations of the aristocracy in the House of Baden unfolds, the world of Kaspar Hauser is more reminiscent of The Roman Empire, as depicted in I, Claudius, than the Third Reich.

Convoluted and wholly Julio-Claudian plots of competing deceit unfold in the House of Baden as a backdrop to the parallel narrative of Kaspar's imprisonment. In a series of uncomfortably claustrophobic scenes, we see a young Kaspar scraping the ground with his fingers and repeating the mantras he compulsively speaks when he is finally released onto the streets of Nuremburg.

Andre Eisermann portrays a full grown Kaspar, one whose mannerisms, tics, and reactions are just slightly over-the-top, adding to the vague, dark surrealism of Sehr's storytelling. When Kaspar grows frustrated, his eyes bug out of his head and turn a frightening bright red. When he gets frightened, he runs off, cartoon-like, in no apparent direction. His reactions to the world are as vaguely surreal as the world in which he's situated, and highlight both Eisermann's ability to portray a range of bizarre, childlike emotions, and Sehr's talent for unflinchingly depicting a world tinged with pervasive strangeness.

The wide-eyed, innocent Kaspar finds himself at the mercy of his surroundings as he tries to understand the world around him. First the subject of strange medical tests by his guardian, he is told of his purported royal heritage by fey British aristocrat Lord Stanhope (Jeremy Clyde), he becomes enraptured with Stanhope's unegalitarian values and begins parading around like an aristocratic parody, as well as embroiled in a short-lived homosexual love affair with Stanhope (the stimulation resulting in a tragicomic shot of the confused Kaspar’s erection). Meanwhile, behind the scenes, various forces work to figure out exactly who and where Kaspar Hauser is, and how the status of the displaced heir to the throne of Baden can best be used.

Sehr's darkly sensationalistic and unapologetically perverse telling of the story of Kaspar Hauser as it may have happened doesn't carry the philosophical heft of its Herzog-directed predecessor. It is, however, an intriguing drama that creates a complex world of scandal so atmospheric that you hardly realize how truly discomfiting and bizarre the imagery is until you've emerged from it.


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