Monday, 5 July 2010

Heart of Glass (1976)


Herz Aus Glas

Heart of Glass is a challenging and demanding film, but almost certainly the clearest statement made by Herzog about the insanity and visionary nature of a fever dream. This time Herzog is concerned with collective hysteria as he charts the gradual breakdown and dissolution of a small community in late 18th century Bavaria. The centrepiece of the village is a factory that produces ruby coloured glass, but when the man entrusted with the secret of the ruby glass dies, taking the secret with him to the grave, the village is plunged into an apocalyptic anarchy that ends with madness and destruction. Herzog opens the film with a beautifully composed shot of a herdsman with his back to camera. An ethereal mist hangs in the cold air, which gives the image an unsettling and disturbing resonance. The sound of Swiss yodellers on the soundtrack only adds to the odd sense of eerie timelessness which opens the film. The herdsmen is Hias (Josef Bierbichler), a man who also possesses the gift of prophecy. What follows is a prophecy of destruction and rebirth, and Herzog fills the screen with one haunting image after another. The clouds resemble rivers in the sky, a waterfall becomes a hypnotic conduit to another plane of existence, and a pool seethes and bubbles as though eager to eject life into a newly formed world. All the while the hypnotic tones of Hias speak a litany of grave pronouncements amid an ever increasing culture of impending doom. There is something revelatory in this imagery, and although it is shot through with destructive pessimisms the music of Popol Vuh creates an uplifting counterpoint to the catastrophe that Hias foresees. There is an odd contradiction here, one which doesn’t resolve itself at all in the film, and makes Heart of Glass a very unsafe viewing experience.

Heart of Glass is also an incredibly slow film, which is a storytelling strategy totally in keeping with the sight of a village sleepwalking into certain annihilation. A number of scenes last far beyond their narrative justification, and some scenes seem to have no justification whatsoever - aside from highlighting the eccentricity and abnormality of this rustic community. The film caused something of a stir at the time because of Herzog’s approach to the acting performance. With the exception of Josef Bierbichler all of the cast were placed under a hypnotic trance. Herzog has resisted allegations that this was an attempt to control his actors, and in his defence he does achieve a very strange and otherworldly quality through the somnambulism on display. This is perhaps the most bizarrely stylised of all Herzog films and at times it does enhance the mystical atmosphere on display. A side effect of this technique however is a series of performances that are very obtrusive. It becomes a major distraction, and I personally found it difficult to marry the visionary and metaphysical nature of the film with performances that snapped me out of the carefully constructed film world.

As a story Heart of Glass doesn’t quite gel. Herzog’s camera is more intent on picking out strange little episodes such as Hias fighting an imaginary bear in the snowy woodlands, or two men in a dimly lit tavern having an incredibly well mannered fight that ends in death for one of them. Almost all of the characters are mad, and those that aren’t perish, or in the case of Hias are left as alienated loners on the periphery of civilisation. The glass itself acts as a metaphor for the fragility of human existence, and the destruction of the village as a prophetic heralding of the industrial revolution that was just around the corner. Other prophecies such as World War One and the rise of Hitler seem an unnecessary attempt to add allegory in a film that is already highly allegorical. For example the fascistic tendencies of the owner of the glass factory offers a foreshadow to future events. The events are so firmly rooted in Bavarian folklore that at times it has the feel of a fable or a fairytale. A narrative passed down from generation to generation in order to avoid the pitfalls of putting all your eggs into one basket. Bavaria is brought to life with some beautiful locations, and the world of prophecy created from location shoots in Alaska, Switzerland, Wyoming, and Ireland. The final sequence shot on the Skellig Rocks off the coast of Ireland doesn’t sit well the rest of the film, but concludes Heart of Glass in the beautifully inscrutable fashion that the film deserves. Despite a myriad of weaknesses Heart of Glass is my favourite Herzog film, a genuine and palpable atmosphere of insanity and implosion is conjured up the like of which has not been created anywhere else in cinema.

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