DVD Review Of Heart Of Glass
Copyright © by Dan Schneider, 9/26/07
German filmmaker Werner Herzog is not an artist to be underestimated, even in his lesser films, like 1976’s Heart Of Glass (Herz Aus Glaus) because his films tend to have a cumulative power, in that they get better with each successive viewing. Ok, technically, the films are the same, but because they are so dense, layered, and multifarious, an appreciation and understanding of them is almost inevitable with a second or third viewing- one of the benefits that foreign films, and films with DVD commentaries afford and reward viewers with. The film in the Herzog canon this most reminds me of is his Even Dwarfs Started Small, another film that is so ‘out there’ it holds a fascination over the viewer, even if it fails to achieve greatness, or even coherence.
Heart Of Glass combines the quirkiness of Even Dwarfs Started Small with the somnambulism of Night Of The Living Dead, the landscapes of the fictive Lord Of The Rings trilogy (albeit without the benefit of any special effects), and the period eye level realism of Herzog’s own The Enigma Of Kaspar Hauser. The oft-repeated legend behind the film, propagated relentlessly by the notoriously tall tale telling Herzog, is that he personally hypnotized the whole cast, and one can almost believe it, given the leaden, faraway way the actors recite their lines. Yet, the film veers between this living cross between a marionette show and Noh theater and stunning musical interludes featuring the gorgeous landscapes (mountains, clouds, and waterfalls) of Bavaria and Alaska, often shot through gauzey filters that render the natural imagery as almost moving paintings upon a canvas; one designed to likewise lull the viewer into a mesmerized state. It is also like crossing mime with MTV music videos, only without having to laugh.
This essential quality of the film renders the rather small tale of a real but legendary 18th century cowherd prophet named Hias (Josef Bierbichler)- who looks disturbingly like chubby actor Sean Astin, from the Lord Of The Rings films, as somewhat of an afterthought, or almost like sidebar comments on a visual poem. Basically, the story is that a local town’s top glassblower of Ruby Glass dies, and the owner and Master (Stefan Güttler) of the factory he worked at hysterically tries to find his secret formula so that the town will remain prosperous, but to no avail, which dooms the somnambulist town of superstitious nuts and grotesques (that evoke the most outrageous characters of a Fellini film) to their own demise, as foretold by Hias. His Nostradamus-like predictions seem to conjure up images of the two World Wars that would engulf Germany just a couple of centuries later, yet little is made of that in the body of the film. Yet, Heart Of Glass is woven, in its loose narrative way, not even as a jigsaw puzzle, but like jagged shards of a piece of pottery that can never be remade precisely the same, but glued back together nonetheless, in as best a fashion as could be ascertained. It is a bit of semi-ordered chaos- or as Herzog prefers, ‘ecstasy,’ which somehow intrigues a viewer, despite its flaws. The symbolism, such as it is- lost secret vital to a group of people, is never opaque, but never too obscure, and always redolent of something. Each viewer will likely choose what that is, and this is the film’s greatest flaw, that it is too many things to too many viewers, thereby rendering it something of unfulfilled promise to most.
The film ends with Hias being turned on by the villagers, sent to prison- along with the Master, who murdered his ugly maid Ludmilla (Sonja Skiba), to see if blood was the secret ingredient of Ruby Glass, and then either Hias escaping, being set free to wander the Bavarian winterlands, and going insane, and killing an imaginary bear he earlier prophesied of. The final scene ends with a tale or vision told by Hias of doomed men taking off from a remote jagged island- one Herzog claims was inhabited by Irish monks until Viking raiders rousted them off in the year 1000 AD, into the endless sea to see if the world really did end at sea’s edge, or if it was round. The ending seems to have no causal connection to the film (although it does have a mythic one), and can be many things- uninspired is not one of them, as it leaves the filmgoer with both a sense of doom and expectation.
The DVD of the film is put out by Anchor Bay, and part of its Werner Herzog collection. It is shown in a 1.66:1 theatrical aspect ratio and looks fantastic. It lacks an English dubbing, for the film was low budget, unlike some of Herzog’s other bigger budgeted dubbed classics- Aguirre: The Wrath Of God and Fitzcarraldo, but this is one of the rare foreign language film where the subtitles matter not that much because the dialogue consists of mostly dreamy apothegms laced with non sequiturs- as well as some odd monologues, and there is not much dialogue in the film. The subtitles are also in a muted gold, so that they stand out well against the color film background. As for any other bonus features, there is a terrific audio commentary by Herzog and Anchor Bay’s Norman Hill. Most Herzog commentaries are dynamite for he is laden with anecdotes and always has an incisive opinion or twenty to share. In this commentary he describes the background of the legendary Hias, as well as taking his typically deadly accurate potshots at Hollywood schlock films, such as ripping storyboarding of films as creative laziness and cowardice, part of the ‘disease’ of Hollywood’s style of filmmaking. Herzog also mentions that this film is the most well received of his films in Scandinavia, and this is no surprise, since it is probably the most Bergmanian film of Herzog’s I’ve yet watched. He also denies that he is a Romantic of the Caspar David Fredrich sort, even if many of the images are almost direct steals- right down to the gauzey canvas-like look of some ethereal nature shots. Another point is that he claims that he is a Bavarian, not a German, the way an Irishman or Scotchman is not a Briton. There is also a long theatrical trailer, in German and undubbed, which does little to sell the film, as well as production notes and a Herzog bio- standard fare from Anchor Bay.
As usual, the music in the film, from the opening yodeling, to what seems to be monastic chanting, to the playing of a hurdy-gurdy, is excellent, and arranged by Popol Vuh’s Florian Fricke. The cinematography, by Jörg Schmidt-Reitwein, as mentioned, is stunning, and many aspects of this film- from that cinematography, to certain odd sequences, such as a ‘bar fight’ between Wudy and Ascherl, where they break glass steins and pour beer over one another, or a later scene where Wudy dances with Ascherl’s corpse, just lodge jaggedly in one’s psyche, which show that the hypnotizing of the cast was something more than a mere ‘gimmick’ to sell the film. Also of note, in the cast, is an early Herzog cast regular, the dwarfish Clemens Scheitz, as the Master’s man-servant, Adalbert. Thus, the film falls into that class of art beyond a good or bad axis, and onto one that is simply ‘interesting’ or ‘worthwhile,’ for it is not a masterpiece- as it is too unstructured and narratively anomic, nor is it a bad film- as it is too laden with great images and jaggedly lodged moments.
Heart Of Glass is a film that seems to call out for critical dissection, even as such a task would rob the film of its ineffable power, such as poetic scenes of glassblowers attempting to replicate the Ruby Glass formula, or a scene of an ugly and retarded girl named Paulin dancing topless on a table with a duck that seems to have the beak wattle of a chicken or turkey. there is nothing that prepares one for such an image, but once it has been unreeled, there is no putting the proverbial genies back in the glass. That Heart Of Glass is only 94 minutes long is both a good and bad thing: good, for the tedium of some of the somnambulism bores, and bad, for the images could hold one’s fascination for hours- sort of like Godfrey Reggio’s –Quatsi films do, only even more powerful. Werner Herzog shows, in this film, that a great artist can still touch greatness in works that are not his best, but it is the fact that a film like this, clearly in the lower half of the Herzog canon, is still leagues better than all but the top ten or twelve films put out by the American film marketing machine which proves that Herzog’s work will live as long as, or longer than, the many legends his masterful films retell.
[An expurgated version of this article originally appeared on the Hackwriters website.]
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