Heart of Glass: metaphor for downfall of German and Western civilisation

Werner Herzog, “Heart of Glass” (1976)

An 18th-century tale of a town dependent on its glass factory becomes a metaphor for the downfall of German and Western civilisation in this early film by Werner Herzog. The unnamed town, located in Bavaria, produces glass products with a ruby-red colouring but the knowledge of colouring the glass has died with the death of the foreman, Muhlberk, at the glass factory. As a result the townsfolk lapse into depression and madness and the local landowner / factory owner, Huttenbesitzer (Stefan Gaettler), hereafter referred to as H, resolves to discover the secret of colouring the glass red for himself. He pores over old manuscripts, he threatens to exhume Muhlberk and have the local cowherd-cum-seer Hias (Joseph Bierbichler) talk to the corpse, he even has his servants barge into Muhlberk’s house to bring him an old sofa so he can rip through the cushions and search the stuffing. Later on he orders other people to take some of the ruby glass products and throw them into the lake to discover the secret (but the men flee with the items and sell them in another country). As all his schemes fail, H resorts to even more drastic measures to find the secret including murder and arson, ruining himself and plunging the town into chaos.

The pity of H’s actions and their results is that Hias has foreseen everything and tried to warn everyone of the doom that will follow; in spite of his lowly status as cowherd, he’s so good at forecasting that he can even foretell individual people’s deaths. (Why he doesn’t charge for his services remains unexplained: surely he could have forecast the wealth rolling his way if he did.) Early on in the film we meet two town drunks Anscherl and Wudy who sit in the tavern discussing what they’ve heard from Hias about how Anscherl will die. After then digesting this information in shared silence, Wudy smashes his glass on Anscherl’s head; the glass shatters but Anscherl merely brushes the shards away and blinks as if waking up. He then pours beer over Wudy’s face and Wudy barely registers the attack. At this point you realise the actors are beyond seriously drunk, in fact they’re not even drunk but either on some heavy drugs or hypnotised. A later scene in which the townsfolk walk more or less in single file shows they are all in the same mental state as Wudy and Anscherl. Herzog did indeed have all the actors except Bichbierler hypnotised which explains their odd actions throughout the film: they sit or stand staring into space with no interactions until it’s their turn to say or do something and even then, in the case of two women characters who have to scream in separate scenes, they sometimes miss their cues. (Bit like watching some very old episodes of Doctor Who where actors really did stand around on the set waiting for their turn in full view of the cameras.) This gimmick, for want of a better term, is a metaphor for the way society acts and reacts generally: we generally sleepwalk our way through life, waking up and blinking occasionally if something hits us, then going back to open-eyed sleep.

H and his obsessive quest are a metaphor too for Germany’s leaders who took their nation into two disastrous wars in mad quests for more territory and resources among other things. Like most of the actors, Gaettler has been hypnotised and camera close-ups often show him with eyes half-shut, to demonstrate the often unthinking, reactive nature of German politics. Huttenbesitzer’s father, who hasn’t stirred from his chair in twelve years, laughs at people and only gets up and walks around to look for his shoes when the town has been destroyed by fire, represents those people absorbed in petty problems and the trivia of life, failing to notice the disasters coming upon them. The maid Ludmilla can be seen to represent perhaps the workers and supporters of society, like the armed forces: she is told by Hias to leave the Huttenbesitzer mansion but continues to serve her masters faithfully and ends up a sacrifice.

While the town is collapsing around him, Hias continues to have visions about what will come: he sees a time when peasants will be the equals of townfolk and women the equals of men. His predictions trace the history of Germany through the two world wars and the American occupation. The townsfolk accuse him of having the Evil Eye and throw him into prison with Huttenbesitzer. Hias is able to escape and returns to his cave lair only to grapple with an invisible bear. The film’s budget was either very threadbare or Hias is going insane. After killing the bear, Hias “sees” an island of people at the far end of the earth in the distant future, who wonder what is at the end of the ocean horizon; four of the islanders then set off in a boat to sail to that very end to find the answer.

Everything in “Heart of Glass” serves a purpose, even the beautiful shots of nature that bookend the film: the early shots of mountain and river landscapes with overhanging clouds and the waterfall cascades, overlaid with a melodic electric guitar soundtrack by the German band Popol Vuh, exist to mesmerise the audience and put it in the right mood to see the tragic events unfurl; the later panoramic shots of the islands emphasise their remoteness in both time and space from civilisation. These scenes also emphasise the allegorical nature of the plot. Popul Vuh’s soundtrack which includes acoustic and chanting matches the style of filming and acting in its strangeness and is used sparingly and appropriately; most of the film runs without any background music and this lack together with the sparse zombie acting helps to create a sense of distance between the characters and the audience. If we feel any sympathy at all for anyone, it would be for Hias who, though the only clear-headed person here, is unable to save his people and ends up a lonely outsider losing his grip on reality; and perhaps also for Ludmilla who won’t or can’t escape when offered the opportunity. At the same time, “Heart of Glass” isn’t without moments of humour – intended humour or unintended, it doesn’t matter – as in the aforementioned scene with Wudy and Anscherl in the tavern and Anscherl’s death scene where the drunks are laid out exactly as Hias predicted. Many such scenes and others seem to be totally irrelevant to the film though they are all linked in some way.

Obviously this isn’t a film for everyone but if you’re in the right, ah, frame of mind or consciousness to see it, you shouldn’t pass it up. And if you’re not but you wish to be, you’d be better off hearing some nice instrumental Popul Vuh music rather than ask someone to whack you on the side of the head with a beer glass.

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