Herz aus Glas
West Germany, 1976
Review by Leo Goldsmith
Posted on 14 December 2004
Source Anchor Bay Entertainment DVD
Features: Directors: Werner Herzog
Continuing in his project of capturing the extreme and bizarre on film, Werner Herzog filmed his 1976 film Heart of Glass with an almost entirely hypnotized cast. As with the cast of Even Dwarfs Started Small, this method would seem at first to be merely an empty gimmick or stunt, but the ostensibly exploitative nature of the film is belied by the essentially documentary mode of Herzog’s filmmaking. The camera’s attention to the idiosyncrasies of the actor’s performances reveals the filmmaker’s genuine fascination with the nature of what he is filming.
Like The Enigma of Kaspar Hauser and Nosferatu, Heart of Glass evokes a pastoral vision of Germany’s past, with a pre-industrial (and pre-Nazi) landscape that suggests the Bavaria of Herzog’s own childhood. The film depicts a small mountain village that is economically (and seemingly spiritually) dependent on the production of a particular ruby glass. When the secret of this ruby glass is lost, the townspeople (led by the fey, deranged glassworks owner) descend into desperation and insanity.
The hypnotizing of the actors produces a range of peculiar effects—hysterical laughing or crying, uniformly vacant gazes, and the occasional twitch or inexplicable gesture—and these indicate the obsessive, delusional state of the characters. The only character who does not succumb to this delusion is the shepherd Hias (who is played by one of the few actors not hypnotized in the making of the film).
Hias can see the future, and it is his prophecy that provides the film with its allegorical model: “Then the little one starts a war and the big one across the ocean extinguishes it… Then a strict master comes who takes people’s shirts and their skins with them.” This prediction of the Germany of the twentieth century and beyond—including the two world wars and other events of an apocalyptic time to come—gives the film an air of fatalism, suggesting humanity’s susceptibility to mass-delusion and the inevitable deterioration that results. But as in Kaspar Hauser, it is the possession of a unique vision—however, obscure or incommunicable—that provides some glint of hope for a dissipating humanity.