Werner Herzog’s Heart of Glass (1976) is among the more bizarre and challenging works by one of cinema’s most consistently adventurous, truly experimental filmmakers. Its pace is deliberate and dreamlike; its affect (famously reinforced by the hypnotic trance under which the majority of the cast was placed during shooting) is singularly strange and estranging. Yet for those willing to ascend its dizzying heights, there are great rewards in it.
The story, based on a 1975 novel by Herzog’s contemporary Hubert Achternbusch (credited as co-screenwriter), is set in late 18th-century Bavaria, in a village whose local industry is a glassworks specializing in the ruby-colored. The master glassmaker has just died, and apparently taken the secret of the ruby glass with him, which has the owner of the factory (played by a wonderfully haughty-looking Stefan Güttler) searching anxiously for the recipe, and slowly driven to distraction and desperate acts by the threat of the factory’s demise and the town’s financial ruin. But first he sends for a clairvoyant cowherd named Hias (played with a robust unease by the fine German actor Josef Bierbichler), hoping he can sniff-out telepathically the lost formula. For his part, Hias, who is based on (and speaks many lines of) a real-life Bavarian Nostradamus of this period, sees only the apocalyptic future of humanity. Meanwhile, the villagers, agitated by all the goings on and by the dark prophesies of Hias, nevertheless go about their usual lives, working, getting drunk and playing cards. At last, the crazed factory owner’s desperation mounts to the point of murder and the torching of the glassworks, at which point the story veers off into an unexpected coda.
The film has a prelude too. After opening shots of the lone visionary, Hias, tending his cows in a foggy field, we get a montage of landscapes, stunning vistas that include a rolling time-lapse river of fog and a vertiginous shot over the top of a magnificent waterfall. The montage comes underscored by ethereal Alpine yodeling (Herzog favorite Popol Vuh, the German electronic band, also contributes to the transporting soundtrack) and quietly delivered prophetic lines from Hias, visions of the end of the world.
At last we see Hias confront a small contingent of villagers who have come to him for help. Their aspect is dramatically odd: The actors are in fact delivering their lines under hypnosis (a specialist was brought into the process to perform this service, though Herzog himself soon took over the relatively straightforward task of placing the actors in a hypnotic state). Trembling and wide-eyed with fear, and speaking in an elongated way indicative of the trance state, and wonderfully bizarre to behold, the men tell Hias that one of their fellow villagers has seen a giant who will come to destroy them. Hias assures them that what the villager saw was only the long late-afternoon shadow of a dwarf. The villagers relax and smile with relief.
“If nothing changes,” responds Hias with sad disgust, “you think that’s a blessing.”
Appropriately enough, Bierbichler is one of the only actors who are not hypnotized in Heart of Glass. As the visionary, he alone escapes the trance, the fog, in which the villagers go about their lives—seeing figments of giants but never sensing the catastrophe on the path before them. At the same time, Bierbichler maintains his own particular gaze throughout the film, but rather than the glassy eyes of a sleepwalker he displays the far-off look of a man fixated by what he sees in the greater distance.
If the idea of placing your cast into a hypnotic trance sounds like the epitome of directorial control, it actually proves very much the opposite here. As Herzog has explained many times, the metaphorical notion of lives lived as if in sleep brought him to the idea of actually working with actors (voluntarily of course) under hypnosis—which proved not only doable but also generative, since even nonprofessional actors (who make up most of the cast) prove exceptionally focused and creative in such a state. Significant portions of dialogue, and even physical gestures, comes from the actors’ own improvisations from the director’s prompts. At the same time, the hypnotic state expands to embrace the viewer as well, as through the ecstatic imagery and music, estranging style and setting, the audience is brought into rhythm with the film.
Herzog has always rebuffed claims that his films follow in the German Romantic tradition. It is worth taking him at his word, since there is much in Herzog’s work (indeed all of New German Cinema of the 1960s–1980s, a movement in which Herzog also abjures membership incidentally) that represents a decisive break with tradition. At the same time, there are frank allusions to Romantic visions in Heart of Glass. In particular, more than one mountaintop scene recalls landscape painter Caspar David Friedrich’s iconic Wanderer above the Sea of Fog. In a magnificent shot near the end of the film, for instance, the camera (circling in a helicopter) captures a solitary figure, atop the jagged cliffs of a lonely island, gazing out over the forbidding sea.
Friedrich’s painting is an apt reference, since the film’s story echoes precisely its idea of the solitary visionary—represented not only by the character of Hias but, indeed, by the filmmaker himself—alone able to grasp something of the reality eluding his fellow human beings, who for their part seem hopelessly mired in the heavy fog far below, unaware of what lies ahead of them.
At the same time, the landscape in Heart of Glass is very much a figure in its own right. The gorgeous vistas with which the film opens (in fact a montage of images from Bavaria, Alaska, and Yellowstone, among other places) are much more than the material setting for the action about to unfold. They connote a psychical, mythical terrain as well, a deeply inward expanse from which our dreams, ancient intelligences, and prophetic forebodings emerge.