Heart of Glass Dir: Werner Herzog (1977)

Heart of Glass    Heart of Glass Film Poster

Release Date: December 17th, 1976

Duration: 94 mins.

Director: Werner Herzog

Writer: Herbert Achternbusch (Script/Scenario),

Starring: Josef Bierbichler (Hias), Stefan Guttler (Huttenbesitzer), Clemens Scheitz (Adalbert), Volker Prechtel (Wudy), Sonja Skiba (Ludmilla), Brunhilde Kickner (Paulin)


“A prophet is rarely welcome in their homeland” is a line from the Bible that can be applied here as a lonely cowherd predicts an apocalypse for his hometown.

Werner Herzog’s period drama Heart of Glass was one of two films he made that called back into the rich realm of German history (the other being The Enigma of Kaspar Hauser in 1974) at a time when he was busy making documentaries.

Set in the 18th Century, it tells the story of a town nestled somewhere in the rocky escarpments of Bavaria. The town, though rural, has a glassblowing factory and that provides income because this is a time when wealthy families across Europe collected the most lavishly decorated ceramics and glassware available, be it the high-quality but expensive pieces from China and Japan or the many factories in Europe that sprang up to imitate superior Asian works.

The unique selling point of this particular glassworks is its ruby red pieces that shine with a rich colour that mesmerises all who behold it. However, when we enter the town, it is at a time of crisis as the master glassblower has died and taken the secret of making ruby glass with him to his grave. The glasswork’s owner, an aristocrat named Huttenbesitzer (Stefan Guttler), a predatory fop who looks like he could hang out with Tom Cruise and Brad Pitt in Interview with the Vampire (1994), becomes obsessed with finding the formula and his obsession turns into madness that infects other townspeople.

Enter our prophet, Hias, a cowherd who inhabits the forested hills with his cows.

Heart of Glass Film Image 2

Hias (Josef Bierbichler) is an observer, a loner. He is a man of nature and is first seen staring into the distant landscape as he offers ominous pronouncements of the future dressed in poetic language. The despair he rakes up is something which seems to have driven him to isolation. The aristocrat asks him for help finding the secret of the ruby glass but all Hias predicts is that the glass factory will be destroyed in a fire. Despite this danger of destruction, Hias descends from the mountains to the town and is on the ground as madness sweeps over the citizens and they descend into abasement and violence as they seek the secret of how to make ruby glass to save their town.

The craziness that afflicts the townspeople is quite serene as they wander somnambulant around locations. This affect was quite famously created by Herzog by having all of his actors, save Josef Bierbichler, hypnotised so the behaviour of the rest of the cast is uniform in how zombified they seem. Their line delivery  is stilted, eye-lines off, and their physical behaviour seemingly comes from a stupor. It gives a physical expression to the idea of a collective madness that has overtaken the group. Bierbichler’s more lively character of Hias alone is the only one cognisant of the prevailing sentiment but he cannot break through, he can only offer more prophecies. Some of the pronouncements are clearly about World War II, many suggest the madness of civilisation leading to destruction while others pertain directly to the story and only make sense on a second viewing of the film.

And it is worth watching this film multiple times because it is beautiful.

As befits the time period, Herzog offers painterly landscapes reminiscent of the Romantic period of art. Landscapes are of gigantic jutting rocks tearing out of vast grasslands under huge overcast skies with roiling clouds that swirl over immense mountain ranges. The sights of these immense forms of nature enhance the feeling of the sublime, the immutable power of nature and man’s insignificance in it, and some scenes also hark back to the Romantic era of painting with Caspar David Friedrich’s ‘Wanderer Over a Sea of Fog’ being a reference that came to mind.

Heart of Glass Landscape

The interior shots are like still life and portrait paintings where viewers can luxuriate in details in costumes and set decorations with atmospheric lighting provided by kilns, candles and shafts of sunlight that spill in through windows and shine on scenes that are carefully composed tableaux close to what you would see on the canvass of a work by Vermeer. If these shots were hung up in a gallery, you would stop and examine them, the lumpen faces of the peasant class and the smooth face of the aristocrat, the simple wooden furniture of an alehouse and the more ornate rococo trinkets and gorgeous ruby glass object d’art that line shelves. All of the costumes and set decoration feel authentic. Just as beautiful is the process of glass-making which is shown in full and it looks like magic as we see a horse emerge from molten material.

The process of glass-making reminds one that from basic elements of nature can comes a new form and nature look so powerful here as to exude a sense of the eternal and so, even if this man-made village perishes, something new will come about.

While the film opens with menacing pronouncements of destruction and we see images of the immutable might of nature, Herzog also allows us to see a glimpse of the bravery of the human spirit to exist in the character of Hias. A languid apocalypse unfolds and yet there is no sense that one must give up. Does the title Heart of Glass refer to Hias and his habit of self-isolation? Yes, but his bravery in going into the town at its greatest point of crisis even though he will be hurt is admirable and it is comforting to know the world will carry on. As ominous as everything seems, his and nature’s insistence in moving forward and existing offers hope.

Heart of Glass Josef Bierbichler (Hias) looks at the Horizon

This is a beautiful work that came between other major titles like Aguirre, the Wrath of God (1972) and Nosferatu, the Vampyre (1979).

Images from here

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