Herzog’s Cave of Forgotten Dreams: 1

The first Werner Herzog film I ever watched was Jeder für sich und Gott gegen alle or The Enigma of Kaspar Hauser (1974).  Perhaps partly for nostalgic reasons, it remains my favorite of the prolific cineaste’s many, many productions.  The story is as follows: Having grown up in a cellar, never having seen the light of day and having only a toy horse with which to interact, Kaspar Hauser is brought by his keeper to Nuremberg.  Left in the town square with a letter of introduction, the boy is discovered, interrogated, put to work in a freak show, and finally taken in by a kindly professor who teaches him to read and write and play the piano. Priests and philosophers subsequently torture the foundling with their attempts to teach him their dogmas.  Bored aristocrats torture him with their empty curiosity.  Kaspar comes to lament the day he was discovered as a terrible “fall.”  (It seems to me that the hoary vertical metaphor of Judeo-Christian theology does not suffice to describe what has happened to him (and by extension, what has happened to everyone else as well).  It seems rather more accurate to describe what befell him as a process of stratification. But more of this later.)  In any case, one day Hauser is sitting in a jakes, sucking on an egg, when the same man who brought him to Nuremberg suddenly attacks him.  Hauser survives the attack, but then a short time later is mysteriously stabbed (we do not see by whom) and shortly thereafter dies of his wounds.  The resolution of the film creates a tableau much like Rembrandt’s famous painting The Anatomy Lesson of Dr. Nicolaes Tulp (see below)The autopsy of Hauser’s corpse reveals some oddities with his liver and his brain.  The tiny comical town Scribe leaves the autopsy with his recorded “protocol,” satisfied that the autopsy results sufficiently explained Hauser’s strangeness.  Everyone can at last move on.

Of course, this is not the larger conclusion that the film draws. Indeed The Enigma of Kaspar Hauser is dominated by a well spelled-out theme: the limitations if not impossibility of (gaining) knowledge.  The man who has imprisoned Hauser, who brings him to Nuremberg, who attacks him, and who also possibly fatally stabs him, is dressed always in black (black hat, black cloak), as if to signify the viewer’s own benightedness with regard to the foundling’s origins, history and death.  The townsfolk know next to nothing, the viewer knows next to nothing.  In addition, Hauser himself knows next to nothing: nothing about his origins and history and nothing about the civilized world into which he has unfortunately come.  He knows nothing else about the story he has been struggling to tell except for the very beginning.  All of the explanations proffered by the participants in the event of the foundling’s appearance are absurdly impoverished.  The remains (liver, cerebellum) reveal nothing outside of themselves.  They stand in for the real knowledge or truth of the event, which have fled with the caravan in Kaspar’s story to the city in the north.  In short, there is nothing empirical with which the curious can grapple.  And yet the sense remains that there is a sense: that the sense, the truth of Kaspar Hauser exists. It just lies “behind” or “beyond” empirical reality.  Hence even if for us gaining knowledge is impossible, it is not absolutely impossible.  A god could gain it.  A god could find epistemological satisfaction for a god could penetrate the empirical to the transcendental realm where sense resides.  And perhaps, if the dead are gathered into the bosom of a god, the dead, too, could likewise finally know.  The place of truth can be called the transcendental realm, but the transcendental realm is in some sense equivalent with the past.  The empirical becomes transcendental when it passes into the past.  So the abode of knowledge lies in the past, and the past is where the dead abide.  But the living are separated from the past, the most proximate and the most distant of its parts, by an infinitely wide abyss or an infinitely unscaleable wall.  This is the burden of the living: to suffer endlessly the frustration of the larger part of our desire to know.

Thirty-seven years divide the past of The Enigma of Kaspar Hauser from the present of Herzog’s highly enjoyable new documentary Cave of Forgotten Dreams.  But it is clear that the notion of humanity’s extreme epistemological limitations is still on Herzog’s nimble mind…


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