The screen collaborations between director Werner Herzog and late actor Klaus Kinski are legendary. Herzog detailed their volatile yet tender relationship in his own documentary a few years back, My Best Fiend. And long before then, Kinski had a well-earned reputation as being, while certainly a compelling actor, quite the lunatic as well.
But there is another partnership between Herzog and his lead actor I’ve become fascinated by. Bruno S was a street musician when Herzog first discovered him. Born the illegitimate son of a prostitute, he was often beaten as a child, and at three he was mistakenly sent to an institute for mentally-retarded children. Battling schizophrenia, he spent most of his first twenty-five years in various institutions and prisons. (Incidentally, I have no idea what the ‘S’ stands for.)
When they met in 1973, Herzog was having difficulty finding a lead actor for his film, The Enigma of Kaspar Hauser. The movie is based on a real-life story in 1820s Germany in which a man is found in a village square who can only speak one sentence. Kaspar Hauser carries only an anonymous note explaining he was raised in a barn without any real human contact. Over the course of the film, the townspeople essentially adopt Kaspar and succeed in teaching him to speak and write. But while initially elated to immerse himself in society and knowledge, he ultimately is overcome with sadness about the world he lives in. In the end, Kaspar liked it better in the barn.
Obviously The Enigma of Kaspar Hauser isn’t the first film to be made about a “wild child”, raised without human contact. In fact, the great Francois Truffaut did a film by that very name, The Wild Child, a few years earlier. But nevertheless, the performance of Bruno S in Kaspar Hauser had me almost instantly riveted.
Part of what makes his performance compelling is that Bruno is hardly acting at all. In both this film and Stroszek, many details of his own life were incorporated into his characters. Having been through a very trying array of experiences throughout his life, Bruno—on screen at least, and I suspect offscreen as well—was completely without guile or affectation. He’s not stupid; in fact he seems in many ways ultimately quite cultivated. He’s a deep thinker. But the Bruno persona is ultimately one of great vulnerability, although this contrasted with a terrible temper. He is who he is.
Bruno S also pre-figures the current fervor for reality-based programming. Like the people appearing on Survivor or Big Brother or whatever show is popular these days (I tune all of them out), Bruno is in one sense playing a role, but at base still still being himself. The big difference is that Bruno was working with a great filmmaker, Werner Herzog, not some TV hacks.
Stroszek is also appealing for its deconstruction of the American dream. At the film’s outset, Bruno’s title character is being released from a Berlin mental hospital. Nearly as soon as he returns home, two pimps begin harassing and beating him. An elderly neighbor is about to move to Wisconsin to be with his relatives, so Bruno and a prostitute come along. Before you can say “cheese”, they’re living in on a farm in their new trailer. But while Bruno isn’t being beat up anymore, the United States brings its own set of problems.
Ultimately the screen career of Bruno S never panned out. After working on these two films with Herzog, he never acted again. And I’ve been able to discern very little about what became of him. But I cherish these two films that Bruno collaborated on with Herzog. Over the past several years I’ve watched one Herzog film after another with consistent amazement: Fitzcarraldo, Aguirre: The Wrath of God, Little Dieter Needs to Fly. Each one is the story of a man both burdened and blessed by his dreams—a transcendent theme if there ever was one.