Neil Young’s Film Lounge – Heart of Glass



Herz aus Glas : (West) Germany 1976 : Werner Herzog : 94 mins

Combining aspects of gothic horror movie, weird fairytale and crazy comedy, Heart of Glass is a way-out bit of seventies experimental cinema thats also a wildly over-ambitious chronicle of a nations history, art and philosophy nothing less than an attempt to analyse the essence of Germanys tortured soul. Its also one of the most aggressively soporific films ever made.

Moments of magic along the way aren’t enough for some viewers the rare public screenings are renowned for walk-outs and, perhaps even worse, noddings-off. Although its barely an hour and a half long, it can often feel like an endurance test. But it is worth it. There are some staggering things here, and in retrospect the memory of tedium fades – you realise the scale of Herzogs intentions, and the surprising degree to which the finished product measures up.

If nothing else, he’s crafted a terrific, original story on which to hang his metaphysical musings. Its the early days of the industrial revolution in a small, isolated German town where the only large-scale employer is a glassware business owned by a decadent family of local aristocrats. The firm and thus the town are plunged into crisis when glass expert Muhlbeck dies, taking with him the secret of the firms renowned ruby glass. The impact upon bosses and workers alike is a mood of desolate, terminal, dejection. The only person immune from this cloud of depression is a bear-like shepherd, Hias (Joseph Bierbichler), who happens to be gifted with second sight. As the general mood darkens to a more violent hysteria, Hiass visions gallop forward in time, through the bloody events of the 20th century, and beyond

Heart of Glass (nothing to do with the legendary Blondie song of the same name) is best known these days for Herzog having supposedly hypnotised the entire cast, with the presumable exception of Bierbichler, in order to convey the world-out-of-joint impact of the ruby-glass crisis, and also recapture the pace of an era completely removed from our own. But even if we accept that such a thing as hypnotism exists (most psychologists dont), the briefest glance through Herzogs life and work should warn us how dangerous it is to accept anything he does or says at face value. He isn’t in any way malevolent as with Lars Von Trier, its more a manifestation of a very individual sense of prankish humour, and a general way of looking at the world, and its partly what makes both men such fascinating film-makers.

And whether Herzog actually hypnotised the cast, or merely directed them to give hypnosis-type performances or even if he sedated them by chemical means – doesn’t ultimately matter. Whatever the process, the results are often agonisingly protracted, with heavy-lidded rustics intoning their lines in a robotic monotone. The effect extends to the viewer, and we may find ourselved being sucked into this sleepy world of nightmarish stasis. Its the horror, ultimately, of failed progress as the world teeters on the cusp of a brave new industrial era, the crisis in the glassworks (a spectacular instance of trouble at tmill indeed) opens the possibility that the whole of humanity may actually be poised on the precipice of a terrible abyss. Partly thanks to the questionings of Martin Luther, man has moved slowly away from a reliance upon God and now finds himself stranded in a cold, lonely universe of imminent bloodshed, apocalypse, holocaust

But this presents a misleadingly depressing picture of what Heart of Glass is about. While its a long way from being light-hearted, there’s a surprising amount of humour in the movie, both specific (the servant who keeps dropping glasses; the senile father looking for his shoes; a cardplayer holding his hand rigid as a lynchmob jostles him around an empty beer-hall) and general – the way everything is taken to ludicrous extremes.

And while Herzog points towards the horrors lying in wait for Germany just around the next corner, he indicates that Hias represents another way forward, in stark contrast to the other principal character, the unnamed heir (Stefan Guttler) to the glass business. While Hias recalls the sturdy-yeoman character played by Gerard Depardieu in Bertoluccis roughly-contemporary 1900 (Novecento), the heir combines aspects of two of that movies representatives of the ruling class: Robert De Niros torpid young aristo, and Donald Sutherlands vampiric Nazi. When he heir stumbles across what may or may not be the ruby secret it involves murder, his Lestat-pale skin finally splashed with deep red blood.

A Byronic, tall figure with flowing black locks and prominent cheekbones, the heir may not be superficially repellent, but he’s at least as sinister as anything in Herzogs later Nosferatu. He plays most of his early scenes against gnome-like retainer Adalbert (Clemens Scheitz), appearing commandingly tall. But when we see him the the same room as Hias, he’s dwarfed by the psychic shepherd. Later, when both are placed in the same prison cell the heir attempts to establish common ground (You are like me, you have a heart of glass) but Herzog again undermines him by emphasising their differences: the heir slumps, resigned in his chains, while Hias rages, desperate for a view of his beloved countryside, just like Lecter in Silence of the Lambs.

The cell is one of the films numerous cavernous, candle-lit spaces, its two windows eerily resembling a pair of eyes, too deep set to afford more than token blocks of sky. Herzog often has large sections of the screen in shadow, precisely regulating how much light is allowed to enter the shot. There are some remarkable sequences in the glass factory – onlookers fade into the darkness the further away they are from the orange-hot glow of the molten glase, the artisans blowing it into bulbous vase-shapes or, in one remarkable sequence, teasing out a horse from the treacly gloop as we watch.

But in the end these interior sequences pale alongside the staggering visions of the countryside (even if Popul Vuhs prog-classical accompaniment ties them rather too closely with their actual mid-1970s origin), with one amazing use of time-lapse very early on showing clouds rushing over a subfusc forestscape. The debt to 19th-century German artists is evident, with Caspar David Friedrich prominent among the influences (various shots recreate his famous Wanderer Over a Sea of Fog, and Chalk Cliffs on Rugen, among others.)

Herzogs treatment of the natural world has a specific goal like Hias, were never too comfortable inside. And while the gloomy prison cell is the last we see of the heir, Hias is soon returned to his proper habitat, wrestling an invisible bear out of its cave in a snowy forest. The film ends with us finally being allowed to share one of his premonitions: Hias (visionary) and Herzog (artist) merge into one voice, telling a fable of an island community who, suspecting the world may not be flat, send out a search party to discover the truth.

Being right, of course, won’t save the mission from probable madness, starvation, and death, but that isn’t the point. As long as there are individuals like these, like Hias and, of course, Herzog there’s always hope, even if its just a sign of hope, to quote from the epilogue title-card: a poetic, ambiguous shaft of inspiration that’s enough to reward the viewers sorely-tested patience. While Heart of Glass clearly isn’t like anything else, that’s not necessarily a good thing. But it is recommended – and so is drinking some black coffee beforehand.

17th August, 2001
(seen National Film Theatre, London, Aug-8-01)

by Neil Young