Tuesday, September 07, 2010

Heart of Glass

Posted as part of Operation 101010
Category: Werner Herzog / In category: 7 of 10 / Overall: 71 of 100

‘Heart of Glass’ (a.k.a. The One Where Herzog Hypnotized His Cast) is a strange, dreamlike fable that makes an interesting companion piece to Herzog’s earlier ‘The Enigma of Kaspar Hauser’. But whereas ‘Kaspar Hauser’ has an enigma (the eponymous man-child) under scrutiny by rationality, science and social mores, ‘Heart of Glass’ depicts a community spiralling somnolently into irrationality until enigma is all that remains.

Mühlbeck, foreman at a glass factory upon which the town’s economy is dependent, dies and takes to his grave the secret of the factory’s prized “ruby glass”. Production ceases. The workers stand around idle. The factory owner and the town elders fret. A mystic, Hias (Josef Bierbichler), descends from the mountains and prophesizes disaster. The torpor that besets the town drains its inhabitants of their humanity.

‘Heart of Glass’ opens with a series of landscape shots, mist drifting across the countryside. Not a word is spoken until about six minutes in, when a quasi-philosophical voiceover murmuringly accompanies the eerily beautiful shots of the natural world. It sets the tone. The dialogue in ‘Heart of Glass’ is deliberately artificial, like listening to a poem being recited over the images.

The images, pace anything Herzog puts his hand to, are often extraordinary. An early scene has Hias crouched in front of a mountain pass, portentously delivering his first prediction. Behind him, shrouded in mist, two bridges precariously span the ravine. Two people will cross, he tells his glassy-eyed audience, one on each bridge; one will be a liar, the other a thief. The camera drifts upwards. Two indistinct figures ghost across the bridges. No further clue is given to their identity.

The first time I saw ‘Heart of Glass’, it frustrated the hell out of me. Paced slower than an arthritic snail on mogadon, elusive and inconclusive in equal measures, I tried to hard to find meaning in the film, searching each frame for clues, symbols, recurrent imagery. The ending fucked with my head as well. A sort-of denouement at around the one hour ten minute mark is abandoned almost as soon as it’s introduced; Hias is made a pariah; retreating back into the mountains, he narrates a story about a forgotten society on a barren island who believe the world is flat until one of their number, having spent decades staring out to sea, begins to doubt. Their story is left as open to interpretation as that of the glass factory and the community it supported. The film ends.

Subsequent viewings have led to me to hazard a guess that ‘Heart of Glass’ is actually a film about the loss of meaning; about ennui, both social and spiritual. Either that, or it’s a zombie film without flesh-munching, action scenes or a Tom Savini cameo. Your guess is as good as mine.

Asked by Paul Cronin in his book Herzog on Herzog whether the whole hypnosis angle was a gimmick, Herzog had this to say:

“Everyone but the lead character – the only clairvoyant one amongst them – was hypnotized before playing their scenes. I stress that the hypnosis was for reasons of stylization and not manipulation. I certainly did not want a bunch of performing puppets for the film. For years people have accused me of wanting to have more control over actors in my films. In the context of what we were doing in ‘Heart of Glass’, I assure you that as a director I would have been much better off having actors who were not in a trance.”

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