Bright Lights Film Journal

Baden Boy: Peter Sehr’s Kaspar Hauser

Poor boy, long way from home

Attempts to determine the cause of the Holocaust usually go back only as far as the aftermath of World War I, with Germany’s dissatisfaction with the terms of its surrender and its subsequent economic decline gradually paving the way for the emergence of Hitler. In Kaspar Hauser, writer-director Peter Sehr goes back another 100 years for an explanation rooted in the intrigues of the German aristocracy. In a 1996 interview, Sehr made the connection explicit. Talking about the brutal opening scene of Kaspar Hauser, in which a newborn baby is fatally beaten as part of a conspiracy to gain the throne of the German duchy of Baden, he said, “That was my Auschwitz… What you see is a child sacrificed for political ambition. A methodical, state-sanctioned form of murder. The parallels between that act and the Third Reich are obvious.”

The Nazi subtext is evident in several such brutal scenes, but it is ultimately only one of many elements in this rich, unsettling film. Kaspar Hauser also works as a political thriller, a tale of class decadence a la Visconti, a bildungsroman, a riches-to-rags melodrama, a detective story, and even a gay romance.

The film is based on a still-unresolved true-life tale. In 1828, a 16-year-old youth was found on the streets of Nuremberg, unable to walk or speak. A note found on him advised that if no one could be found to care for him, he might just be “hanged from the chimney.” Adopted by a professor, Kaspar learned to speak and write and eventually contributed much of the information that became part of the legend of Kaspar Hauser as a prince — switched at birth with a dying child and hidden in a castle dungeon.

Sehr’s version of Kaspar’s life imaginatively fleshes out the story — a necessity, since the still-extant House of Baden has kept all information about the case under lock and key since the early 1800s.

The film begins in 1812 with Kasper’s birth. In the opening scene, the ruthless Countess Hochberg (Katharina Thalbach), an ambitious relative of the ruling family, exchanges the prince with one of her servant’s sickly infants in order to assure her own sons’ place on the throne. The sick child dies after being viciously beaten, and the true prince — Kaspar Hauser — is eventually taken to Hungary, where he is chained in a dungeon for the next 12 years.

Meanwhile, the Court intrigues escalate, with scenes of poisoning, blackmail, illicit sex, and family warfare ending with control of Baden shifting to Countess Hochberg. The lost prince becomes an increasingly popular topic as rumors of his existence leak out. A rival duchy, the House of Bavaria, schemes to use him against the House of Baden to gain possession of the treasured “Baden palatinate.”

With Kaspar’s rescue — engineered for its own purposes by the House of Bavaria — the film shifts temporarily from royal treacheries to Kaspar’s slow, methodical progress. He goes from being able only to mutter “horse, horse” after a toy he had in his dungeon, to speaking both German and English and working as a scribe. He continues to have seizures but discovers the sexual and romantic aspects of his personality when the refined Lord Stanhope, a rich, aging dilettante who frequently visits the German courts, falls in love with him. Kaspar’s 12 years in the dungeon apparently encouraged an indiscriminating sexuality; he responds with warmth and gratitude to Stanhope’s frequent, lingering kisses — much to the horror of his tutor. He also becomes a pathetic figure of fun as he mimics Stanhope’s pompous airs and classism and mindlessly marches up and down the garden dressed as a fop.

The film’s pitiless view of Kaspar as a helpless repository of others’ cruelties and ambitions is borne out when he’s double-crossed or deserted by one “interested party” after another. His mother abandons him because she thinks making contact will result in his death. Lord Stanhope — who encouraged Kaspar to call him “father” — ignores all of Kaspar’s desperate “137 letters.” The one man working selflessly to help him establish his true identity is murdered.

While all the actors are worthy, with one exception they are less interesting than the dire plot machinations and historical sweep of the film. André Eisermann perfectly captures the pathos of the title character in a portrayal that recalls silent comedians like Buster Keaton or Harry Langdon. The actor’s movements are disarmingly simple and childlike, and his sweet, tabula rasa face is an ideal map for the conflicted emotions of a young man at once too vital and too vulnerable to the horrors of the world around him.