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The Enigma of Kaspar Hauser (Werner Herzog) 1974   

    A direct translation of the German title of Werner Herzog’s The Enigma of Kaspar Hauser would be Every Man for Himself and God Against All, but I don’t think that verbose title’s cynicism encapsulates the breadth of the film’s subject matter. This stunning work takes Herzog’s most commonly used theme, which basically suggests society and its trappings corrupt man’s true nature, and uses it to tell this affecting tale of a man who has been raised in a basement for the first eighteen years of his life. The power of the performance by Bruno S., an ex-schizophrenic that Herzog cast as Kaspar, cannot be underestimated here. His flat affect and emotional simplicity are stunning because they represent what’s probably the purest individual on screen outside of Dreyer’s Joan of Arc. There seems to be no illusion in the performance, even though there surely is a good deal of it. Because of his sheer lack of perspective, Kaspar is in a unique position to truly reject science, religion, philosophy, and logic. Because of that, the decency that emerges from him feels like proof of man’s propensity toward goodness. His eventual defeat becomes profoundly moving because of society’s failure to recognize him as the testament that he is.   

    The most startling thing about Herzog’s vision here is that Kaspar never feels the least bit Gump-ish. Herzog never attempts to force us to feel sorry for his protagonist. His struggles to integrate are presented as problems with our society instead of problems with this individual. Things become archly comic as we are made to laugh at our human foibles. How else can we react but by laughing when we are faced with such huge deficiencies within ourselves? Herzog doesn’t seem to be damning us throughout, exactly, but his criticisms are that much more biting because they can be made frankly with a lack of spite. Herzog’s biggest directorial imposition here is that he uses skewed camera angles and an ever-present fog to represent Kaspar’s state of confusion. As the parade of so-called experts attempts to assess Kaspar and pigeonhole his state into something classifiable, the very notion that any of our accumulated knowledge means anything begins to crack. That’s no small feat for a mere film to accomplish, and that Herzog comes awfully close here is an astonishing achievement. The Enigma of Kaspar Hauser achieves timelessness through its satire and its sensibilities seem less stodgy than in most period films. Herzog seems to be snickering at everyone on screen from just outside the frame.

* * * * 


Jeremy Heilman