Werner Herzog is one of the most daring and original figures in the world of film, always willing to take risks and explore the extremal regions of both human experience and film expression. Not all of his wagers would turn a profit, though; but even when they didn’t, there was usually something interesting on offer. In Heart of Glass (Herz aus Glas, 1976), which gained some notoriety from Herzog’s reported use of hypnotism on his actors, we see one of those ventures in which Herzog was not entirely successful. Although made only six years after shooting the primitive Fata Morgana, Herzog was now in the full flower of his skills, and he had already made the brilliant Even Dwarfs Started Small (1970), Land of Silence and Darkness (1971), Aguirre: The Wrath of God (1972), The Great Ecstasy of Woodcarver Steiner (1974), and The Mystery of Kaspar Hauser (1974).
The film is based on The Hour of Death, a novel by Herbert Achtenbusch, which, itself, was based on Bavarian folklore. The story concerns an 18th century Bavarian village whose glass blowing factory is in crisis. The foreman of the factory has just died two weeks earlier, and he took with him to his grave the crucial secret of how to make the factory’s famous “ruby glass”. Without this secret, the remaining people in the village are in panic concerning how to survive, and they rapidly sink into chaos and madness. The action in the film, such as it is, revolves around two main characters: Hüttenbesitzer (which apparently means “owner of the huts”), who is the wealthy town master and owner of the factory, and Hias, who is a rustic cowherd from the hills. Hüttenbesitzer frantically tries one harebrained and destructive measure after another in a deranged attempt to recover the glassblowing secret. Hias, who is gifted with the power of prophecy, acts as something of Greek chorus, uttering mysterious oracular pronouncements to noone in particular about impending doom. So the sequencing of the plot alternates between a seemingly random series of set pieces depicting the progressively more absurd activities by the townspeople and the apocalyptic prophecies of Hias.
The problem with Heart of Glass is that it seems to be more conceptual and schematic than a really meaningful narrative. The fault for this is at least partially due to Herzog’s experiment with hypnotism. It has been reported that in order to choose his cast from a group of mostly non-professionals. Herzog first had them hypnotised and then showed them (or should I say, subjected them to) his film Fata Morgana. Apparently those who reacted in the most extravagant ways were selected. Then, during each day of the actual shooting, all the actors, except Josef Bierbichler in the role of Hias, were hypnotised by Herzog’s on-the-set psychiatrist. Herzog said, “I wanted this air of the floating, fluid movements, the rigidity of a culture caught in decline and superstition, the atmosphere of prophecy.” Yes, but what you see on the film is a group of people in a collective stupor who appear to be sleepwalking. There is very little interaction among the characters, who each seem to be mesmerised and off in their own little worlds. This process, rather than serving the narrative, defeats it. For us to understand and appreciate a narrative, we need to see or sense the physical and social context, along with the individual motivations of the characters as they interact within that context. In Heart of Glass, the mental contexts and motivations of the characters are absent. The characters do no not have meaningful interactions. All we can see is that they are all “mad”. That kind of thing doesn’t wear well.
Fortunately, there are a couple of things that alleviate these soporific goings-on. The character of Hias is drawn from an allegedly real Bavarian prophet, Johann Mühlhiasl, who lived from 1753 to 1805. He is probably unknown to English-speaking audiences, but may be more familiar to the German-speaking community. His prophecies and visions are characteristically vague and symbol-laden, so that they are open to a variety of interpretations. But they have been interpreted to suggest that he predicted the two world wars, extreme environmental destruction and climate change, the poor revolting and overthrowing the rule of the rich, and military threats from the air. As far as I can tell, many of Mühlhiasl’s prophecies are quoted more or less precisely in the film. So if they seem to be the ravings of a lunatic, they at least carry an air of authenticity.
The cinematography is lush and evocative, with breathtaking panoramas of mountainous landscapes, evoking the German Romantics, along with sepia-tinted interiors of the glass factory workings, evoking the 16h century Flemish paintings of Peter Bruegel. The glass factory scenes are particularly interesting, because they suggest to us some of the unique handcraft skills that have been gradually lost since the coming of the Industrial Revolution.
The overall perspective of Heart of Glass reflects Herzog’s grim vision of hopelessness. Man’s efforts to understand the universe and build a humane civilisation are doomed to failure in the face of his own depravity and the incomprehensibly vastness of great Nature. The universe is infinite and brutal, unmindful and unaffected by our puny efforts to find truth and beauty. Our so-called civilisation has tried to tame nature, but it is based on reductionist mechanism and increasingly drives us further away from any chance of harmony within it. Thus the title character in Aguirre, The Wrath of God was overcome with dreams of greatness, while his demented actions were only destructive of those around him. Here in Heart of Glass, too, Hüttenbesitzer, in the final stages of madness, murders his faithful maid, Ludmilla, in order to see if her blood can be used to recreate the ruby glass.
At the end of the film, Hias recites a further parable about people who lived on two small islands at the end of the earth. These primitive people still believe that the earth is flat and that there are monsters at the edges. Some bold visionaries among them eventually are overcome with curiosity about what is actually out there at the edges, and they set out in a small, pitifully inadequate boat to see what’s there. Seagulls follow the boat as it maneuvers out to sea, and Hias closes the film by saying, “it may have seemed like a sign of hope that the birds followed them out on into the vastness of the sea.” But, of course, it’s not a sign of hope; it’s merely some random action of brute nature that is misunderstood by the adventurers, who are full of hubris and misguided hope.
It’s interesting to reflect on some affinities between Herzog and Robert Bresson, a filmmaker whose “spirituality” would not seem to be comparable to Herzog’s nihilism. Both Herzog and Bresson used non-professional actors. Both directors covered some violent events, but they take place off camera. For example in Heart of Glass, the death of the two peasants, the murder of Ludmilla, and the burning of the factory are covered, but the actual violent acts are not shown. The guarded optimism about humankind that Bresson presented in some of his early films, Les Dames du Bois de Boulogne, Diary of a Country Priest, and A Man Escaped, turns more pessimistic his later works. Both men, it seems, wished for a kinder world that they regrettably could not find. Bresson, however, seems to have occasionally felt that even in their defeat, humans can achieve a kind of grace – not so, with Herzog.
But Herzog’s personal journey is like the journey of those island people at the end of Heart of Glass. His films, both documentary and dramatic, represent an extended, fascinating personal narrative to travel to the “edge of the earth” and find out what it means for human existence.