Last weekend, Deutschland Radio Kultur broadcast a documentary about a man named Rainer Herpel called The Explorer of Bad Ems. The webpage is here (German). I’ll translate the first few lines for English-speaking readers:
At the beginning of the 1970s, Rainer Herpel stopped talking. He was 21. He dropped out and turned inwards. He withdrew from the world, and moved silently about his parent’s home and the small town he lived in. It was a time in which radical groups were the talk of the nation, alternative dreams bloomed, and drugs became respectable.
He remained mute for 30 years. That fact and his extraordinary lifestyle — he wore earmuffs, military clothes, and a chinese parasol — hit the small town of Bad Ems like an explosion. What makes this outsider tick? What drove the "General of Ems" into silence? Two years ago, Herpel resumed talking, displayed his hand-painted oil paintings, and says "Silence is peace for the soul."
The maker of the documentary, Eva Lauterbach, interviews Herpel and his family members, as well as many people from Bad Ems. We never find out exactly what "objective" factor drove Herpel to stop speaking. Herpel became a minor celebrity in 2004, after a television documentary was made about him in which he delivered his opinions on art, fame, and Luderkram (literally, "bimbo-stuff"!). Then, most news stories ascribed Herpel’s silence to conflict between Herpel and his father, who prevented him from going to art school.
But The Explorer of Bad Ems is an hour-long radio documentary, and isn’t going to be satisfied with pat answers like this. Perhaps it was that he had nothing more to say to his father; but there were also rumors of drugs. The last theory was apparently the town’s favorite; parents in Bad Ems always pointed to the parasol-wielding weirdo as a cautionary tale of what can go wrong when you experiment with drugs.
Herpel himself speaks in a halting monotone, and is described as looking 20 years younger than he actually is (photo from an earlier TV documentary here. His appearance is probably due to extremely healthy eating habits and no stress). Herpel comes across as an odd, thoughtful person, as you might expect. He’s also egocentric; he thinks he has enormous talent that nobody recognized, and needed to take drastic steps to allow the talent to bloom. But he is not obviously mentally ill.
He says he stopped speaking because he noticed that his mother was constantly talking and saying nothing, and that all his caustic, demanding father (a former SS officer) seemed to be able to do was scream. So he shut up. Noise began to bother him, so he started wearing earmuffs. The sun irritated him, so be locked himself away in the dark and never went out without his parasol. Instead of creating a normal life, Herpel developed his drawing and painting talents.
He lived silently with his parents. At first there were a few months of desperation, and some attempts to get him into therapy, without success. Herpel has an IQ of 140, was not a danger to himself or others, and had no mental illness the doctors knew how to treat. The parents gave up, and accepted their son. He wasn’t hurting anybody, after all. At first, he was a figure of scorn and fear in Bad Ems. He was considered to be a confirmed drug abuser, and potential child molester. Whenever he showed up, the children would say "es herpelt" — "it’s Herpeling."
However, even the town grew to tolerate the silent figure, whose collar was always pulled up high and face smeared with sunscreen. Herpel floated into stores, silently pointed at things he wanted, and silently paid for them. He checked out lots of books from the local library, submitting written requests when necessary. The librarians noted his intelligence and curiosity. Gradually, the outside world began to take note of his paintings; they now sell for a few thousand Euro apiece. After his father died, he began speaking again. He just showed up at the breakfast table and said "Good morning."
Lauterbach’s feature was in the grand tradition of probing, thoughtful, understated German documentaries. There’s no finger-wagging, no sly jokes, no attempts to explain it all. If there is a nation on the face of the earth that does this particular kind of documentary better, I’m not aware of it. Everyon interviewed for the feature was allowed to speak at length, unedited, without intrusive commentary. Herpel’s decision not to speak was treated not as a wacky peccadillo, but as a weighty decision which just might have been right for him, somehow. How much more peaceful and sane the world would be, I caught myself thinking, if more people would just shut up.
Except me, of course. For now, at least…