William Mager: Billy 2.0 – The Enigma of Kaspar Hauser

Posted on December 21, 2012


Kaspar Hauser was a mysterious teenage boy who appeared in the streets of Nuremberg in 1828, with limited vocabulary and understanding of the world. He claimed that he’d been imprisoned in a cellar most of his life with nothing but a wooden horse to play with. History has revealed he was probably a fantasist, but his mystery has never been solved.

I first learned of Hauser from watching Werner Herzog’s unsettling and affecting portrait of his short and troubled life starring an actor called Bruno S, who wasn’t the most ordinary person himself.

The first time I watched The Enigma of Kaspar Hauser, I was completely creeped out by Bruno S’ portrayal of a full-grown adult with the mind of a child, learning the names of things for the first time, trying to use a knife and fork, and reacting in a completely childlike, unaffected way to his surroundings.

I feel like Kaspar Hauser. The world I knew for 30 plus years feels slightly alien and new to me. I feel like I did when I was a child, and all of a sudden I’m unsure again how I’m supposed to behave, how I should respond to ordinary things.

I went to the hospital for a tune up a week after my first switch on, and they gave me so much more volume and clarity. As soon as the audiologist activated my new settings and started speaking, I realised words sounded different for the first time. I could hear the beginning, middle and end of words. They had a shape and a texture. Before I’d only ever heard the rhythm of speech. The vowels and nothing more.

Before I left, the audiologist told me something I won’t forget for a while. “We don’t like implanting people like you. It doesn’t usually turn out well. But our assessments showed that you were someone who might have a better quality of life if we gave you this technology. We think you’ll make the most of it.”

They prefer to give cochlear implants to people who’ve been deafened for two or three years, maybe ten or twenty at a stretch, whose brains have the memory of sound and speech. Someone like me, born deaf and never having actually understood what sound is, has a much lower chance of succeeding.

Case in point – before I left, she played me two sounds, and asked me to identify which was the low frequency, and which was the high frequency. I could immediately hear the two sounds were different. The higher frequency sound was obvious to me too – it was the more high pitched sound obviously.

WRONG. I got them completely the wrong way round. The sounds that I thought were low, were high, and the sounds I thought were high, were low. I could differentiate them, but not describe them in a way that she understood or that correlated with the ‘correct’ understanding of sound.

Next, I went to see the Listening Therapist. She took me into the kitchen on my own, and turned on the taps, boiled the kettle, turned on the microwave, opened drawers – and I could hear them all, and they all sounded different to one another. Then she decided to test me on my comprehension of speech.

She asked me to look at a list of words – a short version and a longer version. For example:


She’d say the words 12 times in total, and she wanted me to repeat the word I thought she was saying, without lipreading.

We went through about 12 pairs of words, my heart sinking with each pair, thinking I couldn’t hear the difference at all and she’d be so disappointed in me.

At the end, when she turned her paper over and showed me rows and rows of ticks for all the correct answers I’d given, I felt lightheaded.

Four days later, and I’ve heard lots of new things. Champagne glasses clinking as we celebrate my wife’s new job. My son’s breath as he sleeps in my arms. The rattle of a supermarket trolley. The tannoy on a commuter train. The clacking of the keyboard as I type this. Most amazingly of all, my son’s crying now feels like an actual physical pain every time I hear it.

I spent a day at my parents’ flat this week, a day when I was supposed to be writing a script and creating a risk assessment for filming. Instead I sat at the table in front of the laptop, and listened. I could hear hammering and drilling in the flat below me, a motorbike passing by outside, the sound my own breath made over my teeth when I inhaled sharply, the creaking of the chair as I shifted my bodyweight, the clink every time I set my glass down on the table. Everything I did made a unique and interesting sound.

I started listening at 11.30am. By the time my parents came home, it was 2pm, I was still listening and no work was done.

At the same time my brain learns to accept all these new inputs and frequencies, it’s increasing its own tolerance, and everything is becoming quieter again. I’m itching for a re-up already.

It’s nice to have a sense of everyday wonder and discovery about the world – like I did as a child – but it’s tiring too. I can’t filter out sound. Sound is different now. It’s in my actual head and it makes me flinch, wince and jump when I’m least expecting it. At the end of each day I just want to crawl back into my cave and sleep for a long time.

On balance, it’s awesome.

Further Watching:
The Enigma of Kaspar Hauser (full length, subtitled)

First published on William Mager’s blog: http://wlmager.com/blog/

William Mager is an award-winning director for film and TV, who made his first film aged 14 when he “set fire to a model Audi Quattro and was subsequently banned from the school film club for excessive pyromania.” He’s made short films, dramas and mini-series, and works for the BBC. Find out all about his work at his personal website – and if you’re on Twitter, follow him here.

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