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MOVIE REVIEW

Sehr's 'Kaspar Hauser': An Astonishing, Captivating Story

September 06, 1996|KEVIN THOMAS | TIMES STAFF WRITER

In "The Mystery of Kaspar Hauser" (1974), Werner Herzog found in the legend of the young man who turned up in a Nuremburg square in 1828--barely able to speak or walk--a parable of natural innocence and social corruption that resulted in one of his finest films. It is a characteristic Herzog expression of individual human experience as ultimately enigmatic.

With his "Kaspar Hauser," writer-director Peter Sehr affirms Herzog's point of view yet also persuasively solves the mystery of Hauser's identity in telling a tale of multiple royal homicides that foreshadows the coming of a brutal fascism. Realizing the innate power of this astonishing, captivating story, requiring much research, he creates a sturdy screen narrative in a classically simple style, bringing to bear upon it an acute perception and bitter sense of irony. It unfolds with splendid performances amid equally splendid authentic settings.

It is Sehr's contention that Kaspar Hauser was born no less than the crown prince of the duchy of Baden, who shortly after his birth was exchanged with the sickly, savagely beaten, soon-to-die baby of a servant of the Countess Hochberg (Katharina Thalbach). The countess is Kaspar's step-grandmother, and his removal is part of her elaborate and deadly scheme to make sure that her own son would eventually end up on the throne.

For his first four years tow-headed Kaspar--moved to a derelict but sunny palace in southern Baden--would know the mother love of the countess' servant. But after a spat with the stingy countess, the servant turns him over to a Bavarian baron, his duchy long covetous of a portion of Baden territory. The Bavarians promptly chain Kaspar for the next 12 years in a dungeon until it becomes politically propitious to dump him in that Nuremberg square.

In Greek and Shakespearean tragedy--as well in the incredible, brutal 20th century saga of Pu-yi, China's last emperor, who died only in 1967--we're able to see writ in large the extremes of human experience and the workings of fate carried to the level of horrifying absurdity.

Young Kaspar (Andre Eisermann) has the good fortune to win the concern of the kindly, enlightened president of the court of Nuremburg (Hermann Beyer), who places him in the care of a dedicated professor (Udo Samel) who finds the youth amazingly bright, despite his neglect and deprivation, and who barrages him with a steady dose of rapidly advancing education.

The professor hides his profound care for Kaspar behind a demanding, puritanical demeanor, which makes this swiftly learned but childlike innocent vulnerable to Lord Stanhope (Jeremy Clyde). A worldly, cynical adventurer-spy who spends much of his life in the courts of Europe, Stanhope is attracted to the clean-cut Kaspar but even more to exploiting his true identity. Stanhope gives the countess a run for her money when it comes to pure, limitless, unapologetic evil. It is Kaspar's cruel fate ever to be a political pawn.

There is something richly Dickensian to these people, with the court president's nobility of character and Kaspar's blazing innocence presenting such a vivid contrast to the unyielding malevolence of the countess and the English lord--not to mention many other nasty types.

Beyer and Samel make you wish fervently that the good men they portray so well were lots less innocent themselves while both Thalbach and Clyde make their deepest-dye villains fascinating in their repellence. But it's Eisermann, who went on to star in Sehr's equally impressive "Brother of Sleep," who illuminates the pain, confusion and fleeting joy of Kaspar, who at one point exclaims, "If this is life, I'd rather die!" It's no wonder that two years ago "Kaspar Hauser" won German Film Prizes, the equivalent of the Oscar, for best actor, director and picture.

(BEGIN TEXT OF INFOBOX / INFOGRAPHIC)

* Unrated. Times guidelines: The film depicts in sober manner considerable violence--even toward a baby--and cruelty and is both too complicated and inappropriate for children.

'Kaspar Hauser'

Andre Eisermann: Kaspar Hauser

Katharina Thalbach: Countess Hochberg

Udo Samel: Professor Daumer

Jeremy Clyde: Lord Stanhope

Hermann Beyer: Anselm Ritter von Feurbach

A Leisure Time Features release a Multimedia Munich production for Bayerischer Rundfunk in cooperation with WDR, ORF, SVT, ARTE & TELEPOOL. Writer-director Peter Sehr. Producer Andreas Meyer. Cinematographer Gernot Roll. Editor Susanne Hartmann. Costumes Dietmut Remy. . Music Nikos Mamangakis. Art directors O. Jochen Schmidt & Karel Vacek. Running time: 2 hours, 7 minutes.

* Exclusively at the Music Hall, 9036 Wilshire Blvd., Beverly Hills, (310) 274-6869.

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