The chief glassmaker in a small Bavarian village his died, and the secret of his famed ruby glass has died with him. The ruby glass was the village's primary source of income – without it, they are nothing but ordinary glassmakers, and they will soon be reduced to poverty. The glass factory owner (Steffan Gutler) is desperate to find the secret, and begins to descend into a sort of madness as he searches for it. Eventually, the entire town begins to go mad.
That's the story being told in Werner Herzog's Heart of Glass, but that isn't really an accurate description of what the film is about. That's the plot, yes, but Heart of Glass is about capturing a particular mood, not telling a particular story. It's one of the director's darkest and most challenging films, but also one of his most strangely fascinating efforts: the director peers into the abyss and returns with a series of sounds, images and fragmented fables. You get closer to understanding Herzog's intent by soaking in the atmosphere he creates than by attempting to interpret the words the characters offer.
The film is best-known as “the movie where Werner Herzog hypnotized everyone,” which is basically accurate. Herzog did indeed hypnotize almost all of the actors in the movie, and then would feed them their dialogue in each scene. The end result of this method is a movie filled with strange, almost zombie-like behavior: there's an eerie, wooden deadness to the performances which proves immensely unsettling. It's as if loss of the ruby glass has robbed the village of its soul, and now the villagers go through the motions of daily life without actually understanding why they do anything they do. Zombies have a clearer sense of motivation.
The only member of the cast who wasn't hypnotized (aside from a few extras assigned to handle complicated glass-blowing duties) is Josef Bierbichler (The White Ribbon), who plays the mysterious seer Hias. The film opens with a doomsday prophecy from Hias, and his words about the world's impending destruction are accompanied by a series of indistinct nature shots. We get a vague sense of what we're seeing, but Herzog uses a strange filter of sorts to distort our view – it looks as if he's put a light layer of gauze over the camera lens. Hias continues to speak of the apocalypse throughout the film, his words giving much of what happens a sense of inevitability. The fact that Bierbichler was not hypnotized makes him the film's most recognizably human figure. He's the only who seems to see the world with true clarity, and his dark visions seem all the more persuasive as a result.
The music of Popol Vuh plays a key role in establishing the tone of the film, shifting back and forth between celestial wonder and expansive folk-rock. Much of the music feels anachronistic, yes, but it also feels just right. No other composer or band has captured the feeling of Herzog's films quite so effectively. The mundane sights of the humble village are contrasted with stunning nature footage – the village seems so small, and the world seems so large. Using a strangely compelling combination of music, landscapes, apocalyptic visions and deliberately stilted dialogue, Herzog draws you into a sort of trance. I don't suppose it's possible for a film to hypnotize its audience, but Herzog seems to be making an effort.
I can't really explain Heart of Glass, but I can't shake it, either. Pieces of it crawl into the corners of your mind and linger there, daring you to confront them. It's the empty, soulless eyes that get to me the most. In almost every other film, you can look into the eyes of another human being and see at least some trace of their humanity. Here, you often see nothing, and the people of the village suddenly seem more like beasts than human beings. We feel as if we are seeing humanity through the eyes of an alien surveying a menagerie, or perhaps through the eyes of a cold, distant god who has grown weary of his creation. The elusive ruby glass is everything: a source of income, yes, but also that intangible thing that gives life purpose, meaning and beauty... whatever that thing is.
Heart of Glass
Rating: ★★★★ (out of four)
MPAA Rating: Not Rated
Running Time: 94 minutes
Release Year: 1976