Sunday, 4 November 2007

Every Man For Himself and God Against All

Without doubt, my favourite director is Werner Herzog. One of my pet hates in any artistic form is people trying to be weird - being deliberately eccentric - which is why I appreciate a true original like Herzog: a mad, weird visionary who never appears to be doing anything less than what he considers he should be doing. There's no artifice in the strangeness of his films - you never get the impression he's being arch or overblown. He's just quite clearly very odd.

My favourite film by him is
Jeder für sich und Gott gegen alle - in English, "Every Man For Himself and God Against All" - otherwise known as The Enigma of Kasper Hauser. It tells the story of a man - Kasper Hauser - who has lived all his life in a tiny cave somewhere in the countryside, without any human contact except for a mysterious masked man who appears from time to time to give him food. Aside from that, his only company is a rocking-horse.

One day in 1828, the masked man appears and takes Kasper to the middle of Nuremburg and leaves him there, holding a letter of introduction asking for him to be inducted into a certain cavalry regiment. Kasper can barely speak - his vocabulary consists of only three phrases: "Horse!", "Don't know!" and "I want to be a knight, as my father was." He is taken in by kindly members of the local aristocracy, and the film charts the attempts made to integrate him into society. But Kasper, who eventually learns to speak, read and write in a rudimentary way, keeps asking uncomfortable questions - he can't understand the basic underpinnings of human relationships - and finally he ends up in a kind of limbo, outside of society and unable to comprehend it, yet reliant on others' charity to survive.

I first watched the film not because I had any particular interest, but because a girl I liked wanted to see it - I'm sure most men reading this entry will understand that motivation. So I had no preconceptions or knowledge about Kasper Hauser, and indeed had no idea that the film is actually based on a true story.

Kasper was a foundling - a boy of around 17 who was found in the centre of Nuremburg in 1828 bearing a letter of introduction, as detailed in the film, and who was cared for and 'civilised' by various notaries in the city. (When first found, he had the mental and physical development of a small child; he could barely walk or use his fingers.) Eventually he became able to tell his story - about being locked in a cell for the first 16 years of his life, with space to move little greater than the size of a bed, and with only a rough toy horse to play with. He would be visited occasionally by a man who never revealed his face and who would leave bread and milk - sometimes drugged so that Kasper would fall asleep and his room could be cleaned.

Nobody knows who Kasper Hauser was, although a common theory is that he had some sort of ties to the Royal House of Baden. Some also suspect that he was kept at Pilsach Castle in his childhood, where in 1924 a secret room was discovered containing old rags and a toy horse. But his sudden appearance, and where he came from, remain essentially a mystery.

Odder still is how he ended up: in 1833 he was brutally attacked and killed by a masked stranger in Ansbach, apparently lured there after being deliberately targetted. His murderer was never found.


mattiecore said...

I actually read about this a few weeks ago. I forget where I heard about it, though...

zero_zero_one said...

Truth is stranger than fiction, even when Werner Herzog is somehow involved...

Remind me to bring the last issue of Empire with me next time I come over, there was an interesting feature on the truth behind some of the stories about Werner Herzog.