History, like memory, becomes perverted in the retelling as one moves further and further away from the recollected event. For instance, Wyatt Earp metamorphosed from a violent lawman into a pacifist and then into an action hero with not just a little help from cinematic recreations of the famous gunfight at the O.K. Corral. American history and its cinema are intrinsically tied together, with the cinema updating and reshaping history to best suite the contemporary mood. Consider how depictions of Abraham Lincoln have changed from Henry Fonda’s soft-spoken idealist to Daniel Day-Lewis’ bipolar sage. It’s a symptom of our ever-shrinking world, induced by the mass media that history is forever changing in the minds of the populace. This goes not only for the United States, but also for every country. Consider then the ramifications of a historic event whose legendary retelling is as speculative as the historical facts from which it has sprung.
The German story of Kaspar Hauser and the facts on which it was based exemplify the relationship between legend and history, and its two most famous cinematic retellings are illustrative off the cinema’s relationship to both. Werner Herzog’s rendering of the legend is the first, The Enigma Of Kaspar Hauser (1974). And, like most of Herzog’s narrative films, is reductive of the tropes that define the genre of cinematic period pieces, opting for a hyperrealism of diminished spectacles as opposed to the audience’s expectations of prefabricated spectacle. Herzog endeavors to construct his narrative with a remove from cinematic history and national history, presenting the subject of Kaspar Hauser in a cinematic vernacular that is entirely removed from tradition.
Werner Herzog’s realigns the spectator’s relationship to film through his denial of cinematic tradition. Yet, the story of Kaspar Hauser is in itself a German tradition. Therefore Herzog’s The Enigma Of Kaspar Hauser is a presentation of a traditional German legend through the lens of fresh, unadulterated eyes, the eyes of Werner Herzog. Interestingly, by presenting the story of Kaspar Hauser in this way Herzog transforms the legend into a parable of sorts. Much like the people of West Germany belonging to Herzog’s generation, Kaspar Hauser must not only learn to define himself in a world that has abandoned him, but must also learn to define his relationship to that world.
Peter Sehr’s Kaspar Hauser (1993) differs in many respects from the Herzog retelling. Sehr’s film addresses many of the facts Herzog’s narrative overlooks, while also conforming to the tradition of filmmaking Herzog is railing against. Sehr’s Kaspar Hauser is more of a political thriller cast as a satire, retelling Hauser’s story as part of the history of the Duchy Of Baden. In Sehr’s film, Hauser is the heir to the Duchy, but who is plotted against as a baby and removed to a dungeon. When Hauser is released, it is as a pawn in a power struggle, and Sehr’s film will then chronicle how Hauser’s innocence is corrupted as he is manipulated and finally murdered by the aristocracy to whom he rightly belongs. In this way Kaspar Hauser is about the class struggle, government corruption, and a lampooning of aristocratic indulgence.
It is because Sehr is so concerned that his film present as many facts of the Kaspar Hauser story as possible, though there is some speculation on his part, that his retelling is more easily read as a traditional historic drama. One must also consider the mode by which Sehr’s film operates. It adheres vehemently to a clear three act structure, has its heroes and villains, and employs a montage style derivative of Griffith and Eisenstein but whose modernisms is wholly indebted to contemporary Hollywood. Thus Sehr’s Kaspar Hauser is a film that adheres to the traditions of the cinema, representing its narrative as a cinematic reality, conforming to the expectations of the spectator.
Herzog’s The Enigma Of Kaspar Hauser is a film of a legend. Herzog’s editing of the Hauser story removes elements that could have otherwise ground it in Germany’s linear history. Likewise, Herzog’s account on film is non-traditionalist, presenting a reality that does not conform, but rather redefines an audience’s cinematic expectation. This is what has always made Herzog’s films more difficult than some. Of the two Kaspar Hauser films, Peter Sehr’s rendition is entirely more accessible, though less incredible than Werner Herzog’s.
But it’s been twenty-one years since Sehr’s film was released, and forty since Herzog’s. Looking back at the moment each film was made it is far easier to contextualize Herzog’s film because of how infamous the New German Cinema movement has become in film history. Where Peter Sehr’s film was made after the fall of the Berlin Wall. His film’s historical context in terms of its production year is elusive at best to an American audience, and the satirization of his government within his film Kaspar Hauser could go largely ignored. Like all talented filmmakers Sehr’s film reflects its moment of production. The very act of situating Kaspar Hauser’s narrative in (the still speculative connection to) the Duchy of Baden signifies a need by the filmmaker to address the ruling class. And it is in the wake of German reunification that Sehr made his film, a scathing analysis of government corruption that mirrored the new government of Germany.
The history of Kaspar Hauser demonstrates the cinema’s need, for it is first the need of the audience, to retell and reconstruct histories to illuminate the present.