Yesterday we went around to a friend's apartment to watch a film written, directed and produced by the esteemed German Regisseur Werner Herzog: Herz aus Glas or Heart of Glass (1976). I have only ever seen his film 'Grizzly Man' before, which is itself either an amazing subversion of the documentary genre or one big practical joke on the audience, so I didn't know what to expect. But Mark Kermode is always recommending people see Herzog's work in his podcast so that is good enough for me.
We watched the film in a typical 19th C. apartment room in Friedrichshain, deep in former East Berlin, that had high ceilings and a large ceramic stove in the corner. The film had been downloaded to a laptop and was projected onto the wall. Imax it wasn't, but this intimate screening amongst friends and with a couple of beers was perfect for the strange film we experienced.
'Heart of Glass' is set in a small, remote, Bavarian town in a time that was on the cusp between German feudalism and the Age of Enlightenment. The protagonist is a herder from the mountains named Hias, who apparently has the gift of prophecy. The town seems to depend on the skills of their glass blowers, and in particular on the ruby red glassware that they produce. So when the master glass-maker dies without revealing the secret of how to make the red coloured glass, the whole town is thrown into despair.
The tone is set at the beginning by Hias. Looking like Sam Gamgee (LOTR), he addresses the fears of a small group of townspeople huddled at the bottom of a dark, narrow ravine crossed high overhead by two mediaeval looking bridges. There was a rumour that a giant had been seen, and they were fantasising about the return of the age of giants who would ravish their crops and lay the land desolate. Hias suggests that what had actually been witnessed was the long shadow of a dwarf seen at sunset, much to the relief of the townspeople. Hias observes that what makes them most happy is that things will remain as they were.
But with the death of the master glass maker, things cannot remain as they were.
Alongside the seer Hias, the other central character is the Master of the glass factory. He is a rather effete nobleman with a touch of the Rocky Horror about him (he even has a Riff Raff type butler). He lives alone except for his servants and a senile father (with the maddest laugh in film history) in a large house, and it seems that it is his obsession with the ruby glass that is infecting his employees. He is a melancholic figure, Faustian in his quest for acquiring 'the secret' by poring through musty tomes of alchemy. Not finding his answer in science, or by turning the deceased glass maker's house upside down in case the secret had been written down, he summons Hias to use his clairvoyant talent to get the secret from beyond the grave.
The Master IS the 'heart of glass' that beats at the centre of the film and directs the actions of the townspeople. He verges on the vampiric, and tells Hias that he needs the ruby glass to hold his blood, and that the sun hurts him. It is a compelling image; a heart made of ruby red glass, and given the Master's obvious fascination with his servant girl Ludmilla ('Ludmilla may wear her hair down today'), there is an obvious analogy in that Ludmilla keeps breaking glasses.
That the Master's obsession with the ruby glass is influencing the mood of the glass-workers is vividly set into contrast with a scene of almost documentary quality; they are shown enthusiastically going about their glass-blowing with clock-work team-work and skill. One worker, for example, is shown skilfully conjuring a horse from a globule of glass. In fact they are making everything but ruby glass, and loving it. Apart from this one scene, the workers are otherwise shown in a state of torpor and despondency, the furnaces flaring but nothing being created. They seem frozen in the past, unable to move on to the next frame. One chap stares at an unplayed hand of cards, even when the rest of the tavern decide enough is enough and go to burn down the factory and the Master's house.
Ah, but I am in danger of spoiling the plot. Except, that the plot is the least important element of this film.What you have instead is a series of fragments, with dreamlike scenes cut off from the narrative flow, and actors ad-libbing their lines spontaneously. Supposedly Herzog had all the actors hypnotised, and they certainly seem to be under the influence of something. Laudanum perhaps. In fact it is almost as if Herzog wanted to lull the audience into slumber, to suddenly jerk awake and wonder if they had dreamed the last segment or really seen it; to invent the film themselves from their individual dreamscapes.
Hias's prophecies start out pretty specific to the near future, but eventually become Nostradamic in their scope, apparently predicting the world wars of the twentieth century and in particular the rise of a Great Master who would ruin them all. He ends up babbling the prophecies out in a stream of consciousness, and up until then you would have thought he was the sanest character in the film. Some of his pronouncements are actually very similar to a historically real-life seer, der Mühlhiasl, who lived in Bavaria in the 18th Century. Oh, by the way, did I mention that Heart of Glass was set and mostly filmed near Herzog's childhood home in Bavaria? (I can't find an English page about Mühlhiasl, but here he is on the German Wikipedia. He was sort of like the Bavarian equivalent of Yorkshire's Mother Shipton).
As things get out of hand and lead to murder and arson, the townspeople begin to wonder if Hias's predictions are coming true because he really has clairvoyance, or because they were unconsciously acting out his suggestions and making them come true. The hypnotism metaphor again. Is Hias in fact just as guilty as the Master of controlling the townspeople's destinies and bringing about all this misery? And by analogy with the prophecies of the rise of Herr H., did Europe sleep-walk into madness, destruction and murder in the 20th C because of the hypnotic power of a Great Master, and to fulfil the claimed destiny of the German race?
All powerful and thought-provoking stuff. If there is an overall plot arc though, it is about never fearing the future but to move on regardless. The characters in the film who couldn't accept change - and in one remarkable scene a man actually dances with the corpse of his dead friend - all fare badly. The message is summed up with another parable at the end of the film, magnificently shot on the Irish islands of Skellig. A group of people who lived there were so cut off that they thought the world was flat. To sail off to the West would mean falling off the edge into the abyss, so they believed. And yet they set forth on the journey anyway, just to see what was really there. And of course, the world is in fact spherical, so everything turned out marvellously. What then if the end of life isn't falling into an abyss? Are we trapped in fear of going forward into death by our ignorance of reality? Is Death a terrible giant's shadow cast by a puny dwarf?
Or something like that.
The beauty of this film is how personally you interpret it; you bring to it as much or as little as you want to read into it. It is all wonderfully German in the Romantik tradition, and indeed the film opens with Hias sitting high in the mountains above a beautifully shot sea of flowing mist, very much like the quintessentially German Romantik painting Der Wanderer über dem Nebelmeer by Caspar David Friedrich. Add to this the haunting soundtrack of Popul Vuh and the result is a very strange and strangely haunting film that I think I will remember for a long time to come. Especially when I am just nodding off.
Summary: turn off your mind, relax and float downstream. It is not dying. It is not dying.