Last month saw the death at 78 of Bruno Schleinstein, a.k.a. Bruno S., a.k.a. Der Bruno, outsider artist, outsider musician, outsider actor—outsider everything. The obituaries told the hard facts of his life’s story well enough. Born and raised in an environment of extreme poverty and abuse, throughout most of his early life Bruno was the subject of a succession of the characteristic total institutions of industrial modernity: the children’s home, the asylum, the prison, the factory. Yet the damaged and medically-defined personality (he had been diagnosed as suffering from several mental disabilities and illnesses, including schizophrenia) which these environments had apparently manufactured fascinated a series of film-makers and writers in Germany. They publicized Bruno’s singular creativity in painting, music, and ultimately as an actor, most famously for Werner Herzog in The Enigma of Kaspar Hauser (1974) and Stroszek (1977). Much comment on Bruno and on these films follows a predictable and seemingly immutable mythic parabola: he was the wild child, pure Other, creative martyr, discovered from darkest obscurity, romanticized, lionized, and then forgotten by both the movies and the masses to live in a second obscurity, a second wild childhood. Even more sceptical or cautious accounts of his life posit him as anchored to authenticity, via their knowledge of the real difficulties of his life. We seem compelled to various forms of primitivism, a rhetoric of discovery and fantasies of redemptive or fatal alterity, in recalling and talking about him or those in similar positions.
Last year, at a session of the Abstract (the postgraduate seminar group in the English department here at King’s), we discussed the historical figure that lies behind this interpretative habit, the wild child or enfant-loup. A series of literary and medical or quasi-medical accounts in the late-eighteenth and early-nineteenth centuries sought to test the claims of Rousseauian natural man against young men or women discovered (possibly having been abandoned as a result of learning difficulty or other congenital disability) in the rapidly diminishing wild areas of Europe. The two most famous examples of this were Kaspar Hauser himself, and Victor of Aveyron (also the subject of a marvellous film, by François Truffaut). My interest in the discourse surrounding the wild child emerged out of my main doctoral research on the construction of an analogous figure, the Romantic madman. What did it mean, I wondered, in the era of the dual revolution of industrial and political modernity, to embody cultural fantasies of purity, innocence, natural creativity, and absolute individuality, within figures who were increasingly subject to forms of knowledge which surveyed, ordered, and disciplined them, medically, institutionally, and otherwise?
This Romantic paradox is sharply felt and critiqued, I believe, with Bruno S., in his performance as Kaspar Hauser (originally titled Jeder für sich und Gott gegen alle), which has long been one of my favourite films. The straightforward reading of this extraordinary film takes the position, as a poster on IMDb comments, that “Kaspar [and by implication also Bruno] is not mentally impaired at all. He’s unsocialized and unformed by society’s conventions, norms, taboos, language, beliefs, theories, etc. He’s the pure example of the natural man and it is society that is deformed, not Kaspar”. This is a reading that Herzog himself sometimes endorses (see the comments in the Faber Herzog on Herzog). And certainly Kaspar/Bruno is seen confounding the expectations, conventions, and logic with which the good burghers of Nürnberg try to manage and socialize him. But the total effect of the film is more disquieting and unstable than this. The awkward intensity Bruno brings to the role is manifestly not ‘unformed’ or ‘natural’ but intrudes from his own damaged life experience, quite irrecoverable and beyond the film’s frame, and is foregrounded as not quite able to be quite captured, managed, or socialized by its conventions and manners. The formal tools of the New German Cinema—uncomfortably elongated scenes and shots, abrupt transitions, dream sequences edited in from another project—are used to accentuate this, as is Herzog’s decision to have Bruno speak in a language that was almost foreign to him, an archaic, formal hochdeutsch. We never hear his real voice; perhaps, the film suggests, there is none, and not just for Bruno. Anything that is positive in Herzog’s world is usually a result of hard-fought civilization and socialization; there is no redemptive nature out there (this is a position consonant with Timothy Morton’s recent polemics on ‘dark ecology’, I think). It is in the negotiation of movement between a series of learned and imposed social and personal roles, a journey we’re not quite sure has even begun, let alone ended, and which we are never outside of, that Herzog suggests Bruno’s “radical dignity” can be found. For those of us who write about cultural representations of illness, especially mental illness, and the fantasies about difference and distinction that these sometimes encode, his performance is compelling reminder of a human identity which cannot be not defined in any absolute terms, but which is always in a process of transition and adaptation from its ‘raw’ (brut) materials. Herzog has said, “I invite any sort of myths because I like the stooges and doppelgangers and doubles out there. I feel protected behind all these things. Let them blossom!”