Heart of Glass (1976)
Dir. Werner Herzog
Written by: Werner Herzog
Starring: Josef Bierbichler, Stefan Güttler, Sonja Skiba
Heart of Glass is the fourth Werner Herzog-directed film that I’ve written about for this project, and it’s one of the ones included in the Herzog box set that I own that I actually hadn’t watched before. As is typical with my first experience with a Herzog film, I was left with a curiosity, a sense of wonder, and a desire to watch the movie again almost immediately. The film isn’t likely a great introduction to the work of Herzog, but it is typically Herzog-ian in its themes, its presentation, and its formal and narrative strangeness. The film is somewhat famous as one in which Herzog hypnotized nearly his entire cast, and had them perform their scenes while in a trance state, but, to my knowledge, it’s not nearly as widely seen as many of his other films. I can see why the film’s somnambulant tone and pacing, plus its highly esoteric subject matter, might turn off casual viewers, but fans of Herzog shouldn’t miss this hidden gem. It seems to have missed out on classic status, but it provides a richly rewarding cinematic experience, and it’s a movie that I will certainly be thinking about for many days to come.
Heart of Glass is set in a pre-industrial Bavarian village, whose citizens’ livelihood depends on the highly valued “Ruby glass” that is produced in their factory. At the film’s outset, it is discovered that the foreman of the factory has passed away without bestowing on any of the villagers the secret of making the beautiful rose-colored glass. The factory’s owner (Güttler) tries in vain to find someone in the village who can recreate the Ruby glass, but as it becomes more and more apparent that there is no replacement for the deceased foreman, the villagers become increasingly depressed and erratic. All the while, the village’s seer, Hias (Bierbichler) is prophesying doom and destruction, perhaps not only for this village and its people, but for all mankind.
This is an exceedingly simple plot synopsis, but aside from a few highly impressionistic passages, and a visual coda at the film’s end that could serve as a sort of allegory for the preceding narrative, it’s accurate. Heart of Glass is a simple film, but it’s certainly not direct, and, as always, the real value of a story lies in the telling. Though it isn’t as decidedly abstract as Fata Morgana, this film finds Herzog operating a similar mode, privileging feeling and mood over narrative clarity. Though I think that the events of the film are meant to be taken at face value, they also operate just as well on an allegorical level. The fate of the villagers can stand in for the fate of humanity over the ensuing centuries, as humans’ worth became more and more closely tied to their ability to produce goods through heavy industry. Hias’s visions are specific to the village, its inhabitants, and its treasured factory, but his dark proclamations seem to ring with resonance for the modern world, as well. The hypnotized actors are stand-ins for modern workers, and the secret of the glass is the only thing that gives their labor some small purpose. Without that drive and purpose, the villagers have lost all will to live. This fable breaks down a very modern conundrum to its core essences, and presents many of the problems of a modern industrial society with such shocking frankness that they’re rendered almost unrecognizable.
At the heart of the film’s inherent strangeness are the haunting, affected performances of the hypnotized actors. Through the hypnosis, Herzog gets pure performances, stripped of any artifice or emotionality. It’s a daring directorial choice, and it leads to some highly uncomfortable moments throughout the film, but it also leads to a uniformity of performance and mood throughout the film that is enveloping. The actors register less as characters, or even as people, than as types, vessels through which Herzog can articulate his philosophies on the nature of man and work and life. Some directors would seek to explore these themes emotionally, through heightened character/audience identification, but Herzog breaks in the other direction, seeking to get to philosophical truth through a stripping away of comfort and identification, and the extreme use of cinematic devices aimed towards a particular sort of distancing effect. I’m sure that the style isn’t for everyone, and this performance decision might be why Heart of Glass is less seen than other Herzog films of the period, but, for me, the dreamlike acting style was perfect. I won’t forget the hollow eyes and disimpassioned line delivery of these actors any time soon.
Despite being a rather pessimistic and dour film, Heart of Glass contains several moments of absolute sublime beauty. As in Fata Morgana, Herzog captures scenes of immense natural beauty, and, in so doing, creates a deep sense of awe and wonder, and causes the audience to question the role of man and society within nature. The drab village, and its strong association with ideas of society and industry, is the purview of man. As we see in Heart of Glass, lacking for purpose, man becomes his own worst enemy and society cannot thrive. The woods around the village, which Hias calls home, and the other natural locations that Herzog highlights are associated with magic, visions, and spirituality. Through his association with nature and his visions, Hias is freer than the villagers, and more in tune to the natural rhythms of the world. It is important to note, also, that Hias’s visions are not associated with any religious belief. Natural mysticism is given priority, and though the film doesn’t make any explicit claims about organized religion, there are several telling symbols that pop up on the fringes of scenes which give clues as to Herzog’s position on religion’s role in spoiling the decency of a pure and natural society. The film’s coda could potentially throw into question the primacy of nature, but I think that it even more underscores the point that man must seek to find himself within nature, rather than attempt to bend the natural world to his will.
I wish that more people, particularly more people who are somewhat familiar with Herzog’s work, would see Heart of Glass, but it’s also a difficult film for me to recommend unequivocally. Though I think that it is a film approaching masterpiece territory, it’s also a dense, meditative, and difficult film, and one that isn’t likely to appeal to most, or many, viewers. It is a film that is designed to make the audience uncomfortable, to jar them out of a sense of complacency and understanding, and awaken within them a desire to receive a particular message. Herzog’s delivery method is unique, but the themes that he is exploring appear time and time again in his body of work. For Herzog fans, Heart of Glass is richly rewarding, and not to be missed. For fans of experimental or art cinema, it’s a challenging film worth exploring. I know that I’m anticipating my next opportunity to submit to this film’s particular brand of hypnosis. I don’t think that I totally understand everything that I saw and experienced while watching Heart of Glass, and I know that I’ve done a poor job in adequately discussing the film, but it’s a movie that crawled under my skin and it will take a long time before I’ve shaken it.