Director Werner Herzog plucked street performer Bruno S. out of obscurity and made him an international film star. But what happened when the cameras stopped rolling?
In 1970, Herzog was casting about for a lead actor for his planned film about Kaspar Hauser, the enigmatic historical figure who emerged seemingly from nowhere on the streets of Nuremberg in 1828 carrying a letter saying he wished to be a cavalryman. The 17-year-old Hauser claimed not to know his parents or any other relatives and claimed to have been raised in a tiny dungeon, his only human contact being a mysterious man who never showed his face. Hauser became a novelty for the aristocracy before he left the world as strangely as he’d entered it, dying of a stab wound that may or may not have been self-inflicted.
Herzog was watching a documentary about street musicians when he realized he’d discovered his Kaspar Hauser in the form of Bruno S.
Born in 1932 as Bruno Schleinstein, Bruno S. had allegedly been abused by his prostitute mother and was abandoned to an orphanage at age 3. Growing up during the war, he’d been subject to Nazi medical experiments and spent most of his youth in mental institutions before becoming a street performer in Berlin, playing 18th and 19th century ballads on glockenspiel, accordion and handbells.
Bruno S. was 41 years old and had zero acting experience when Herzog cast him as the enigmatic Hauser. During filming, Bruno refused to take his costume off for the entire shoot and would sleep on the floor of his hotel room. The film won three awards at the Cannes Film Festival and catapulted him to an uncomfortable fame. Herzog would again feature in Bruno S. in 1977’s Stroszek, a film written specifically with the actor in mind. Roger Ebert named it among the top 100 films of all time, while also calling it “one of the oddest films ever made.”
Never intending to be a movie star, Bruno S. soon faded back to the obscurity from which he had emerged. “When you don’t need people anymore,” he told a documentary crew from VBS.tv, “they become a disposable piece of garbage. Sometimes (Bruno) feels like a discarded Christmas tree stripped bare of its ornaments. Away with it. That’s how it works. End of song.”
Bruno S. lived out the rest of his life alone in a cluttered three room flat situated on a rundown street of Berlin frequented by street prostitutes. There he painted works sometimes exhibited at galleries and wrote an autobiography titled Estrangement is Death. He participated in a 2002 documentary with the same title and continued performing on the streets until his death on August 11th at the age of 78.