Heart of Glass

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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

Even Dwarfs Started Small

Even Dwarfs Started Small (1970)

Dir. Werner Herzog

Written by: Werner Herzog

Starring: Helmut Döring

 

Well this was certainly an interesting first-time watching experience for me. Even Dwarfs Started Small, Herzog’s second feature, was included in the Herzog box set that I purchased a few years ago, and it was one of the films of his that I hadn’t seen that I was keen to eventually get around to watching. As it turns out, I wouldn’t find myself making the time until this project started so I waited until getting to its turn in the alphabetical lineup of my discs to finally check this movie out. I was only familiar with the film’s plot and its use of a cast made up entirely of little people, so I didn’t go in with any real expectations about the movie. I’m not sure that I enjoyed the film, overall, but it was an interesting watch, and I did notice a strong affinity to some directorial traits that would appear later in Herzog’s filmography, as well as elements that have clearly been influential on later filmmakers. It’s always interesting to me to go back and watch early entries into the bodies of work of acclaimed filmmakers and see where they got their start.

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Even Dwarfs Started Small is a satire set in a far-away country where all of the inhabitants are little people. The film opens with Hombre (Döring) being booked by police and questioned about his role in an uprising at a remote institution. In flashbacks, the audience becomes witness to the uprising and the chaos that ensues when the wards of the institution rebel against their instructors. The uprising begins at a fevered pitch, with the inmates of the institution having forced their instructor to barricade himself within the institution with a hostage, Pepe (Gerd Gickel), who is also a ward of the institution. The rebellion quickly descends into total chaos as the inmates set fires, kill one of the pigs that lives on the institution, and generally run roughshod over the grounds of the institution. In the end, the inmates seem to have accomplished very little through their uprising, as it is quashed by the police, but they did get to spend one afternoon living in absolute freedom, for better or for worse, and made quite a mockery of several societal institutions in the process.

I would be hard pressed to say that I actually liked Even Dwarfs Started Small, but it was certainly an interesting viewing experience, and one that I won’t soon forget. The film is incredibly simple, with Herzog simply documenting his cast running amok under his direction. Narratively, the rebellion is given little political or social context, although there is a general sense of a desired egalitarianism among the wards of the institution. They seem to desire the same freedoms as the guards and the instructors, however, their sense of social justice seems to be limited to their own group, as the would-be revolutionaries seem quick to harass and belittle a couple of blind wards who are kept separate from the general population of the institution. Herzog seems to be making the point that all political revolutions are ultimately facile, and that given enough power or enough freedom, any revolutionary group will eventually descend into a brutal form of anarchy. While I disagree with this sentiment, and I think that it’s an overly pessimistic view of society and of then-recent revolutions around the world, I applaud Herzog’s artful attempt to portray his viewpoint. Despite its raucous subject matter, Herzog’s film unravels poetically, and he captures some distinctive and memorable images in service of his overall thesis.

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Even Dwarfs Started Small feels something like a fever dream, with strange images surfacing in front of the camera, and brief narrative asides that explore some minutiae that is only tangentially related to the overall plot. Halfway through the film, one of the wards opens up a small box that she has kept close to her person for the entire film to reveal it to be full of insects that she has dressed up in formal wear. She pulls each tiny creature from the box, showing off their dresses, coats, and top hats, while the other wards look on in curious fascination. Later in the film, the wards steal the institution’s truck, ostensibly to go into town, but they only get so far as the institution’s central courtyard where they leave the truck running in lazy circles while they chase one another around the courtyard, trying to avoid being struck down. Several times, Herzog cuts to the curiously circling car, seeming to provide a visual representation of the pointless chaos that is unraveling at the institution. Shortly before the film’s end, the wards capture a monkey and parade around the institution with it tied to a cross in a scathing mockery of religious ritual and iconography. All of these instances of strange, unmotivated behavior help lend the film its dreamlike qualities, and also add to its satirical impact. Throughout the film, Herzog is sending up society and its hypocrisies, using the little people in his cast in a pseudo-allegorical role to prove a point about the devolution of society in pursuit of total freedom. While I think that his overall premise is somewhat flawed and his casting of little people could be considered pejorative, because using people with a disability in an allegorical/symbolic role essentially denies them of their personhood, there’s no denying that the film has some powerful and memorable imagery.

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It’s not surprising that this film has proven to be influential, not just on Herzog’s later career, but for many other outsider artists and filmmakers. Harmony Korine, perhaps the modern standard bearer for earlier enfants terrible such as Herzog and Lars von Trier, cites Even Dwarfs Started Small as a major touchstone for his own films. Herzog himself has often visually referenced the film, particularly the motif of the car circling out of control which he returns to in Stroszek, and the tension between the individual’s desire for freedom and society’s need for structure and stricture has been a guiding theme throughout his filmography. Despite understanding the importance of the movie to a subset of filmmakers and, likely, audiences, I just didn’t really enjoy Even Dwarfs Started Small. It’s a fine movie, but it almost seems to be provocation for the sake of being provocative, and I find its central theoretical assumptions about society to be facile and fundamentally incorrect. It’s an interesting thought experiment, but I found myself very bored by the film’s midway point. Despite all of the apparent upheaval that takes place in the film, nothing much really happens in Even Dwarfs Started Small. I won’t soon forget the film’s brief moments of visual clarity, particularly the procession with the crucified monkey, as they do form the basis of an intriguing experimental film critique of society, but the overall film left me pretty cold. It’s disappointing, because this is a movie that I had long looked forward to watching, and perhaps in the context of more early Herzog films that I’ll be screening soon for this project, I’ll gain a better appreciation for Even Dwarfs Started Small. As it stands now, the movie seems mostly important to me as a foundational text from which Herzog clearly draws later, but it’s not a movie that I feel compelled to revisit soon.

The Enigma of Kaspar Hauser

The Enigma of Kaspar Hauser (1974)

Dir. Werner Herzog

Written by: Werner Herzog

Starring: Bruno S., Walter Ladengast, Brigitte Mira

 

I first encountered this strange film during my sophomore year of college when I was taking a class on New German Cinema. This was an important course in my development as it was my first introduction to the films of Werner Herzog, as well as Rainer Werner Fassbender and Wim Wenders, plus many other great German directors of the late 20th century. It opened my eyes to so many great films: Ali: Fear Eats the Soul, The American Friend, The Tin Drum, and The Marriage of Maria Braun, classics all of them, but the film that most intrigued me was Herzog’s Stroszek. I was fascinated by the strange mannerisms of Bruno S., and ended up seeking out his and Herzog’s first collaboration, The Enigma of Kaspar Hauser on my own. Though Stroszek was a truly strange and beautiful film, it didn’t prepare me for the baroque fairy tale that is The Enigma of Kaspar Hauser, and to be honest, I didn’t really like the latter film at the time. It ended up in my collection because I purchased a cheap box set of early Herzog films a few years back in order to rewatch Stroszek, although I hadn’t gotten around to checking out this film again until watching it for this project. It was as deeply strange an experience as it was when I first watched the film at 20, but I think I may have found somewhat more of an appreciation for it.

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The film is based on the true story of Kaspar Hauser (Bruno S), a foundling child who arrived in Nuremburg in 1828 possessing very few verbal skills and no societal upbringing whatsoever. In the film, we see the early portion of Hauser’s life in which he lived chained to the floor of a basement, with only a toy horse for amusement, and an anonymous caretaker who feeds him only bread and water. One day, this man takes Hauser from his cell, teaches him to walk and a few phrases of speech, and then leaves him in Nuremburg at the break of dawn, with only a letter in his hand explaining his appearance and requesting an audience with a military officer in the town. The townsfolk attempt to socialize Hauser, teaching him some words and some basic manners, but ultimately decide that it would be best to profit off of his curious nature by putting him in a circus show. Hauser is rescued from the circus by Professor Daumer (Ladengast) who invites him to live in his home, and who, along with his maid Kathy (Mira), shows Hauser kindness and furthers his socialization. Far from being an idiot, Hauser shows a great capacity for understanding and learning, although he takes circuitous approaches towards the knowledge that is presented to him. Hauser seems to progress in his pursuit of knowledge, but the traumas of his upbringing are always present, and though he makes great strides towards normalcy, his mimicry of societal manners is always somewhat off. One day, Hauser is brutally attacked at random, and while on his deathbed he tells a strange tale of having visions of nomads travelling across the desert.

It’s impossible to imagine this film without its peculiar lead, Bruno S. Bruno was a street musician in Berlin who Herzog discovered and was immediately intrigued by. Though he had no formal training as an actor, Herzog cast Bruno S. as the lead in The Enigma of Kaspar Hauser, and in the process found out that the actor’s upbringing actually had some similarity to the character’s history of abuse and neglect. Though the actual Kaspar Hauser was only 17 when he arrived in Nuremburg, and Bruno was 41 when the film was made, he brings a childlike quality to the role. This bait and switch shouldn’t work, but for some reason it does. Bruno’s wild appearance and idiosyncratic mannerisms are those of a child who has been abandoned and allowed to grow up feral. The performance that Bruno gives here is highly affected, his speech patterns stilted and his physical movements highly stylized and mechanical, sometimes almost appearing painful. Bruno plays the young Hauser as if his mental illness and stunted social and emotional development are physical maladies, outwardly expressing their symptoms through his odd performance. I have to imagine that he leaned heavily on his experience being institutionalized throughout his life when crafting this character, if he even considered the performance to be acting at all. There are times in the film when it would seem that Bruno is actually channeling the historical Hauser, receiving strange signals through the ether that inform his impersonation. It’s a performance that can’t really be accurately described without someone seeing the film, because it is simply too strange and doesn’t have many precedents in film, to my knowledge. Again, the casting of a grown man with a history of serious mental illness and no acting experience to play the role of a feral teen shouldn’t work, but somehow, not only does it work, I can’t conceive of another way Herzog could have brought this character to the screen.

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The Enigma of Kaspar Hauser fits in well with Herzog’s other early films. It furthers his cinematic obsession with idiosyncratic characters, many of which are driven to madness. Like Bruno, Herzog has always been something of an outsider artist, and I think that he, too, must have felt some affinity with the strange tale of Kaspar Hauser. Though it’s a simple and direct tale, Herzog presents his film with great style, giving this enigmatic fairy tale an air of import and profundity. The film is presented elliptically, and I’m not really sure how much time is meant to pass between Hauser’s arrival in Nuremberg and his sudden, shocking death, but it is a period of some years although it often seems like little time is elapsing at all. Herzog presents the film as a series of vignettes that show Hauser’s progress towards societal normalcy, but they often seem to have little causal relation to one another. Things seem to happen in the film at random, as there is no explanation given for a scene in which we see Bruno and the other circus performers fleeing from the townsfolk and hiding in trees, nor is there any reason given for Bruno’s attack at the hands of his neglectful caretaker late in the film or for the subsequent attack on him that ends in the stabbing that kills him. These events are simply presented, out of narrative context, as are a series of impressionistic sequences that depict seemingly faraway landscapes. These interstitial scenes are given a dreamlike quality through Herzog’s use of a Super8 camera, and the grainy, blurred images stand out in sharp contrast from the realist style of the rest of the film. Herzog never shies away from making unusual directorial choices and this particular film is clearly no exception.

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I’m not sure if I can say that I really liked The Enigma of Kaspar Hauser very much, but I did find it a more intriguing film now than I did when I first watched in 12 years ago. I had forgotten some of the film’s peculiarities, and it has certainly remained in my thoughts more after this second viewing than it did initially. Bruno’s performance is one of a kind, but I think that his acting is much better in the later Stroszek as he taps into an emotionality that isn’t present at all in this film. Still though, I won’t be forgetting his mechanical, rigid performance anytime soon. The Super8 scenes are equally memorable to me, providing the film with a haunted quality. It would seem that I’m in the minority from looking at the incredibly positive critical response to the film both at its release and into the 21st century, but to me The Enigma of Kaspar Hauser feels like a somewhat lesser entry in the incredibly prolific Herzog’s broad filmography. I don’t mean that it’s a bad film at all, and in fact I think that it’s a very good film, it just doesn’t connect with me on a meaningful level. It’s an interesting movie for me to think about for a bit, but overall I doubt that I’ll be revisiting it many more times.