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The Enigma of Kaspar Hauser




The Enigma of Kaspar Hauser, 1974

Sometimes I really don't know how to feel about a film, and it often comes down to not totally knowing how to take in or interpret a certain element of it.

This movie is based on a true story of a young man who one day appeared on the streets of Neuremberg, bearing a strange letter and speaking one a handful of sentences. He later told a story of having been raised in a cellar all alone except for a mysterious man who brought him food and water. Kaspar is passed from one home/patron to another--spending time in a circus, with a composer, and so on.

My issue with the film mostly came down to my difficulty reading the lead performance by Bruno S. As I watched I asked myself: "Am I looking at someone with developmental delays?"; "Am I looking at someone who is trying to act like someone with developmental delays?"; "Am I looking at an actor who is doing a good job of looking like someone who is pretending to have developmental delays?"; and so on.

In reading about the real case on Wikipedia, it seems as if there was a lot of evidence that Kaspar was, to some extent, a fake. That he was frequently caught in lies and that there were parts of his story that just didn't add up (for example, letters supposedly written by someone else but in Kaspar's hand, or his physical wellbeing not matching a story of having been confined to a cellar for two decades). But the film seems to take Kaspar's story at face value. It was hard to watch the film, because I kept waiting for characters to question his version of events, or for the film to show some of those inconsistencies.

The part of the film that I did strongly connect with was the implicit critique of the way that people who are disabled or have other developmental/physical differences can become this weird mix of charity cases and "freak shows". There's an unabashedness to the way that people want to gawp at Kaspar and put him on display. The lack of genuine care for his wellbeing is a pointed critique--he is clearly someone who needs a lot of help.

Because I struggled so much with the lead performance, I had a hard time connecting to this film. I often felt indifferent to what was happening on screen. I've had this one on my watchlist for a long, long time, and I was a bit underwhelmed with it. I'd be interested if other people had a more positive reaction to it.