Wednesday, May 14, 2008

Jeder für sich und Gott gegen alle

"Don't you hear that screaming all around you? The screaming men call silence."

Nearly a quarter of a century after its first release, Werner Herzog's masterpiece 'Every Man for Himself and God Against All', better known to some as 'The Enigma of Kaspar Hauser', the title adopted for the film's American release, remains one of the most poignant, thought-provoking and haunting examinations of the human condition on film. The film 'Kaspar Hauser' is based on the true story of a mysterious foundling (Kaspar Hauser) abandoned and discovered in the town square of Nuremberg in the 19th century, with a letter stating that he desired to be a cavalryman. Kaspar Hauser spoke merely a single sentence, and it was later discovered that he was raised in a dungeon with scanty light for seventeen years, and no knowledge of the outside world -- he had never seen a house, a tree, or even another human being (though he was left bread and water at night by a mysteriously cloaked gentleman). To this day, the reasons as to why he was kept in a dungeon, then abandoned in a town square and eventually murdered remain an enigma, though curious theories and speculation about his origins and tragic fate abound.

However, perhaps what is most intriguing is the hold the story of Kaspar Hauser has had on the human imagination for years to follow, and the way it has catalyzed social and anthropological debate as well as some of the most thought-provoking creative responses in the form of books, film, music and art. Werner Herzog's film is concerned with depicting the interaction between Kaspar Hauser, a man he portrays as being close to 'nature', (i.e. someone as yet untouched by the manacles of society, someone whose actions are governed by instinct as opposed to the dictates of norm and expectation), who confronts a culture at once appalled and deeply fascinated by the aberration that he represents, and which seeks to to bring him back into its fold by introducing him to language, reasoned thought, and the rules of etiquette and art. Yet through his sympathetic depiction of Kaspar's struggle and his resistance to being moulded by society, Herzog questions the very foundations of society, as well as the supposed moral and intellectual superiority of those who consider themselves to be the guardians of civilization and hence, truth. One cannot help but wonder if the people who try to reform Kaspar are not, after all, the ones who are in some way deformed and in need of reform; whether somehow in his innocence - or what may equally be termed his ignorance of the world - Kaspar does not give expression to the true, untarnished nature of human existence, and therefore, if he might not have some greater access to the truth. The death of Kaspar Hausar at the end of the film as well the concomitant dissection of his body in order to determine the physiological cause of his deviance, suggests not only the ultimate and tragic triumph of society over both the individual and nature, but also equally the need for society to classify 'difference' as somehow 'disorder'. For the medicalization of Kaspar's 'difference' at the end through the the employment of the empirical method and the language of reason not only renders society's 'neutral' judgment on him as somehow immune to questioning, but exemplifies its ultimate control over him even in death.

However, it is interesting to note that Kaspar Hauser himself does not question the very society that seeks to control him and eventually causes his demise, rather it is ironically the way Werner Herzog (a product of civilization himself) documents the conflict between Kaspar Hauser and society that makes us question the latter. And this begs the question as to how possible it is to question a system whose internal logic you are not grounded in or somehow understand? Must reason alone be employed to counter the arguments put forth by reason?

Yet I think what is most remarkable about this film is its belief that through the examination of an anomaly in Kaspar Hauser, i.e. an outsider, we begin to approach the truth of our own humanity and society, the truth of our origins and state of being. For are prophets not often the outcastes who sit at the margins of society, holding a mirror that force us to look at ourselves, at a vision at once awe-inspiring and terrible. For in that moment of recognition, as in the moment when one might first encounter God, is there not an equal amount of fear and joy, might we not wonder if in fact that screaming all around us is not what men call silence...

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