Feature by: Rumsey Taylor
Posted on: 17 July 2004
Reviews: The Enigma of Kaspar Hauser
On the set of his 1977 remake of Nosferatu, director Werner Herzog instructs several crewmembers — on board a boat — to arrange the ship’s heavy stock although the camera is not rolling. Shortly after, unbeknownst to much of his crew, Herzog silently gestures “Action.” When asked about this directorial practice, Herzog comments: “Extras always look like extras, but this way they look like people who work.”
Such a philosophy is infused within every minute of Herzog’s catalogue – from the tremendous opening shot of Aguirre, the Wrath of God, in which a vast Spanish army descends down a Peruvian cliff, to Fitzcarraldo, a film that captures the transport of a steam boat over a steep, two-mile long Amazonian isthmus. Nowhere in his work, however, is this trait more apparent than in his joint ventures with Bruno S.: The Enigma of Kaspar Hauser and Stroszek.
It is undoubtedly one of most peculiar examples of casting in the history of cinema. Bruno S. was born the illegitimate son of a prostitute, beaten, and sent to an institution for retarded children (he was not) when he was three. He spent the next twenty-three years in various institutions and prisons. At twenty-six, Bruno was a certified schizophrenic, had no education, and virtually no upbringing.
In 1976 Herzog had finished the screenplay to Kaspar Hauser and cast all but the title character, fearing an actor would lack the cementing authenticity the role demanded. Herzog caught sight of Bruno in a student documentary on street musicians. The director was immediately convinced he had found his actor, and cast him in the title role (after much convincing of his financiers).
Bruno S. forced Herzog — a legend of the German New Wave — to conform to respect his abilities as an actor. Bruno would engage in rants on set, announcing his strife to anyone, these often lasting hours. Herzog would allow his actor to speak and listen, and demanded that his crew do the same (an impatient sound mixer was chastised for thumbing through a magazine during one such fit on Stroszek). It is speculatively evident that Bruno was, in result, comfortable in front of the lens; his presence marks a rare sustained character reality. Additionally, Bruno rarely needed more than one take.
The pair’s brief filmography together is a bountiful study of sociology — the difficulty of individuality in a world that breeds conformity. Moreover, Kaspar Hauser and Stroszek, as seen within the work of Herzog, are two very sympathetic films, each lacking the prideful ambition that distinguishes the subjects of much of Herzog’s catalogue.