I’ve long been a fan of Werner Herzog’s The Enigma of Kaspar Hauser. I have it on DVD, and it’s part of a boxed set that I’m proud to own. If you don’t own the set, I recommend picking it up. Herzog is one of the most fascinating and unique directors out there as far as I’m concerned, but the reason I’m talking about any of this is because I recently watched a film that brought up similar themes to Kasper Hauser. Bad Boy Bubby, a 1993 Australian film by Rolf de Heer (I’ve never heard of him or anything else he’s done), is a depraved, twisted tale, but that depravity ultimately keeps it from bettering or even equaling what Herzog does with Kaspar Hauser. It’s almost like the two directors received the same general premise but each turned the story into something completely different than the other.
The similarities between the two films are obvious: They’re each about a human being held in captivity from birth to adulthood, finally released into the world on their own. In Kaspar Hauser, it’s never expressly revealed why he was held captive his whole life. However, if you’ve looked into what’s known about the true events, it was likely that he was the illegitimate son of some nobleman or something, and said nobleman didn’t want the news to get out. What’s the best way to stifle those kinds of rumors? Why, imprisoning an innocent child in a basement for 16 years without teaching him any form of language or even how to stand up and walk! Whoever thought that one up was pretty clever; I would have done the same thing had I ever romanced myself into a medieval tryst.
It becomes apparent pretty quickly that he’s not mentally challenged whatsoever. Some people mistake him for a man with limited faculties, but – and this is my favorite aspect of the film – Hauser has quite the aptitude for learning. There’s a particular scene involving a logician that gives me warm and fuzzy feelings inside every time I see it. The logician wants to see if Hauser is an idiot or not, so he poses a logical puzzle which goes something like this: There are two villages, and in one village, the people there only tell the truth. In the other village, they all tell lies. You’re standing at the crossroads, and you need to know which village is which. You get one question, and one question only to solve the riddle logically. So, when someone comes along, what do you ask?
The logician waxes philosophical about the different questions one could wrongly ask before settling on, “If you came from the other village, would you answer ‘no’ if I were to ask you whether you came from the liars’ village?” Basically, that would force the liar to tell the truth about where he came from. That’s fine, but Hauser has his own question, and it’s a lot better than that one. I’ll let you find out his question on your own. I just love watching Hauser’s simple-yet-true logic royally piss off the guy who thinks his brain is bigger than everyone else’s.
Whether he’s screwing over formally educated douchebags or just playing the piano by the fireplace, Hauser’s learning is central to the humanity of the film, and it’s what makes it damn-near perfect for me. Through unbelievable adversity, a person is able to overcome obstacles and prove that anything is possible given the right conditions. Now, that determination is put to the test, and even though Hauser feels desperation at times, he’s still living proof of the human spirit. I was having a discussion the other day about how films can still be excellent absent a strong narrative to propel them, and Kasper Hauser exemplifies that notion. The plot is extremely simple, and not a hell of a lot really happens along the way. The joys come from watching a man literally build a personality in front of your eyes, and Bruno S. (a total non-actor) plays the role better than probably anyone else ever could.
In contrast, Bad Boy Bubby seems more concerned with showing a journey through the eyes of a man who can never really understand why he’s on it, let alone the destination. I guess that’s what bugs me the most about it; I really did enjoy watching it, but something didn’t feel right when it was all over. I would say it has more of a narrative than Kaspar Hauser, but it ultimately led to no better understanding of what made Bubby tick.
The film is about Bubby, a grown man with (seeming) mental deficiencies who is forced to live with his mother in near-squalor. She’s a disgusting person, both physically and mentally. She has sex with Bubby when it pleases her; abuses him in every way possible; and won’t allow him to leave their apartment. She even puts on a gas mask every time she leaves and tells him he will choke to death if he ever goes outside. Fantastic.
Of the two characters, I would say Bubby is the more handicapped. There’s some kind of autism or something going on there, but I can’t tell you what, exactly. Most of his interactions with people involve him repeating things he’d heard before in loosely similar contexts, but he never demonstrates any willingness or aptitude for real learning. In that sense, it’s interesting to watch him talk to different people if only to see their reactions to him. But where Kaspar Hauser has something to say about the human condition, Bad Boy Bubby really only concerns itself with the unchanging, deeply flawed perspective of a mentally-challenged individual. With that in mind, I just can’t put it on the same level as Kaspar Hauser. There’s also the ending, which, if I were to guess, is supposed to tell us that anybody can be happy, but it feels false and entirely tacked-on. I don’t really need a “happy” ending to a film like Bad Boy Bubby, and if you’re going to give me one, it had better feel authentic. Alas, it didn’t, and the film suffers for it.
There are certainly other things to talk about with both films, but for this post, I’m mainly concerned with the differences in the protagonists and why those differences make or break the productions surrounding them. The Enigma of Kaspar Hauser touches on the humanist core inside of me, while Bad Boy Bubby is content with somewhat-superficially shocking me. Both have their place, I suppose, but Herzog’s exploration earns its place on my DVD shelf.