Cinema director as stage-hypnotist
Werner Herzog's "Heart of Glass"
What is it that makes each of Herzog's films an individual work of art? It must be something to do with his ability to engage with those seemingly unimportant events and minor struggles in life and then pan out to encompass the wider issues of human existence. Herzog seems to understand how the trivial relates to the profound. He shows us little people and their minor sufferings in order to move us towards greater insights: man's endless search for meaning, his obsession with the sequence of time and the fear of annihilation.
The actors in this film shiver as though they are freezing cold; they stare distractedly beyond their fellow actors, beyond the frame of the screen, beyond present reality into a landscape of dreams, sometimes smiling with faint pleasure or cringing in fear at images only they are able to witness.
Werner Herzog decided to hypnotise all but one of the cast for this film. They were placed under hypnosis before the filming of each scene. Herzog wanted to create a sense of mounting hysteria and dislocation and to contrast the superstition and fatalism of a group of 19th century villagers with the powerful presence of a clairvoyant, Hias, the one character who was not hypnotised.
In the field of experimental film, "Heart of Glass" ploughs its own furrow. Herzog in fact planned to hypnotise not only the cast but also the audience by appearing in the opening sequences to draw susceptible viewers into a trance. In an interview, he describes how he gave up the idea after considering the risks to film-goers exiting the cinema still under hypnosis. I am tempted to wish that he had ignored his scruples and gone ahead with his plans. Surely it would have become a cult classic - a 'view-at-your-own-risk' experience.
As it is, the first ten to fifteen minutes of the film are curiously mesmerising. We see the herdsman/clairvoyant, Hias, seated with his back to the camera, his features concealed, the only sound being the tinkling of cow bells. This is followed by a sequence of images: speeded-up footage of clouds lifting across a valley and a thundering waterfall with a weird psychedelic soundtrack.
The storyline is deceptively simple: the master-glassmaker in a factory in 19th century Bavaria dies, taking to his grave the secret formula of the town's renowned ruby glass, the source of the factory's wealth and the main employment of the villagers. The owner of the factory searches for the secret formula to no avail and it is this increasingly hopeless search which drives the plot forwards. The story unfolds through the eyes of Hias to whom the factory-owner turns in his desperation. Hias, however, cannot help the factory-owner; he can only foretell the doom of enterprise and try to warn those who will suffer in a sinister plot-twist.
The dialogue is partly unscripted, the characters responding to ideas and scenarios the director has suggested to them in their hypnotic condition. One of the most arresting and charming sequences features a young girl, a maid-servant, as she examines a cabinet of exquisite ruby glass, imagining that she is looking at a town made of glass in which she can see inside the buildings. Herzog tells in an interview how this whole scene emerged, unscripted, from the subject's own mind.
Then there is a scene in a beer cellar in which a brawl inexplicably develops and a woman dances naked on a table with a Muscovy duck. Why this happens we don't know but there is never a sense that these scenes have been staged, rather each scene has an air of realism whose outcome is impossible to predict. Herzog consciously rejects the clichéd, over-worked images of the Hollywood film industry. He throws out banal and obvious plot resolutions in favour of an evolving story and characters who seem in the very act of creating themselves. The final product may be fixed in celluloid but there is more than enough here to keep us speculating about the meaning of the film.
The film develops from being a relatively conventional narrative into something more like a meditation on the meaning of life. Increasingly, as the film progresses, the village scenes are inter-cut with footage of bizarre landscapes: bubbling pools of sulphur, arid mountain screes and ethereal seascapes. The further we travel into the film, the more disjointed it becomes. The affairs of the village recede until all human endeavour seems vain when set against the immensity of the natural world. Herzog presents a blend of fantasy and realism with a cinematic style which defies the idea of the viewer as a passive consumer and demands our willingness to interpret events and make our own deductions - to accept a tumbling sequence of apparently unrelated images as part of the film's aesthetic intention and to stick with the film right up to the closing credits.
"Heart of Glass" concludes in true Herzog style by seeming to go off at a tangent: a group of people set out to sea in a small boat from a deserted rocky island. The last image is of seagulls swooping around the tiny boat as it breasts the waves. What do this island and these people have to do with the village which has lost the secret of the ruby glass? What indeed? Herzog refuses to provide explanations or connections; that would spoil the ending. It would be like trying to answer the riddle of life itself. The director merely presents us with his unique vision and leaves us with an uncertain horizon, the faint tonal contrast between sea and sky, between past, present and future existence.