Thursday, July 14, 2011

Review – Heart of Glass

July 14, 2011

Heart of Glass – Germany, 1976

There are characters in Werner Herzog’s extremely challenging film Heart of Glass that seem resigned to a fate that they do not completely accept to be theirs. It’s an odd juxtaposition – they don’t quite believe what is predicted to occur, and yet they do very little to ensure that it does not come true. They do not protect the local factory after it is foretold that it will burn down, they do not come together when the collapse of their peaceful existence is predicted, and when it is forecast that a man named Wudy will “sleep on the corpse” of another man named Ascher, the two practically ensure that the prediction comes true by going into the very setting where such an act would be possible. Is all of this proof of the unbridled madness that is said to be infecting the town, or is it essentially a last ditch effort at preserving some control over their fates, an act of foolish defiance meant to persuade themselves that their destruction is not utterly inevitable? Perhaps it’s both.

If their way of life is indeed destined to end, then something must act as the catalyst for its destruction, a topic that seems to resonate throughout Herzog’s films. In his 1972 film, Aguirre: the Wrath of God, it was the tendency of mankind to believe too fully the fantastic and self-serving ideas of people who believe themselves better than others – namely, that there is a city of gold theirs for the taking and that others will naturally accept the ridiculous concept of one group’s genetic superiority over another. Later, in 2005’s The Wild Blue Yonder, it was mankind’s overconfidence in its scientific achievements that led to the planet being triumphantly reclaimed by nature. In both cases, Herzog seems to be cautioning viewers about their ambitions, as if the adventures that mankind embarks on are all based on miscalculations, misunderstandings, and unattainable objectives. Here, in Heart of Glass, it is mankind’s overreliance on its own inventions which leads to the mistaken belief that prosperity can ever be permanent.

As the film opens, we learn that a man named Muhlbeck has died, and with him, he has taken the secrets to the town’s economic lifeline, a spectacularly beautiful form of glass called “Ruby Glass,” which one character describes as containing an entire world of its own. The film’s central character is an aloof herdsman named Hias (Josef Bierbichler) who seems to have the ability to see the future. The film opens with a close-up of him looking in the direction of some grazing cows, a look of real worry on his face. It’s as if the future is presenting itself to him on an invisible screen, and what he is seeing is anything but cheerful. Sure, he sees the birth (or rebirth) of a new continent and a new society, but it is one for which the future will be violent. He sees a series of betrayals and revolutions in the short term and a never-ending cycle of armed conflicts in the long term, and those are just the predictions I could make two out of. There are a few that are equally horrifying to hear, yet they are shrouded in obscure imagery and vague descriptions that are impossible to decipher with any confidence. In fact, like the vague ramblings of Nostradamus, I’d venture to say that Hias’s more “transparent” predictions are only understandable as a result of hindsight. We know World War II occurred, and so we assume that’s what Hias is referring to when he speaks of two figures plunging the world into chaos. Perhaps it’s easier for us to see his predictions as being in the past and not the future.

During a particularly fascinating moment in the film, a procession of men walks back from the factory after witnessing a rather unfruitful demonstration. None of them are smiling, and some of them wear expressions that make them appear devoid of both thought and emotion. One of them, the father of the factory owner, is being carried as if he were a king. We’re told he has not gotten out of his chair for more than ten years. It’s as if these men are simply going through the motions of life now instead of taking control of their fates. They likely never thought a day like this would come. This can also be said of a young maid named Ludmilla (Sonja Skiba), who is warned to leave her job as a servant right away but can never bring herself to.

Of course, not all of the townspeople are walking zombies, although some certainly act as if they are. We see factory workers unite in the hopes that one of them will be able to somehow come up with Muhlbeck’s formula and save the town. We see the owner of the factory personally take on the difficult task of unearthing the lost formula. However, his actions frequently fluctuate between rational and irrational, and each successive failure sends him further and further into madness, until his only recourse is an act that dooms the residents yet saves the remnants of his sanity. Ironic, isn’t it?

I don’t confess to understand everything in Heart of Glass. The film moves at a sometimes frustratingly slow pace, and its characters often appear detached from any discernable reality. A few characters scream or laugh for no apparent reason, and there’s a rather odd battle in the snow that I may never completely understand. At times, I wondered if what I was watching was really directed by Herzog and not David Lynch, perhaps the master at making the weird and incomprehensible so appealing. In fact, in the wrong hands, Heart of Glass could have easily devolved into a haphazard collection of indiscernible scenes that ultimately led nowhere. It doesn’t, though.

Unlike Lynch’s film’s, Herzog’s seems to be conveying a message from start to finish. He has a view of the world that he wants to share with his audience, and it doesn’t matter to him if that message goes against the more cheerful, life-affirming themes of other more mainstream theatrical films. In those films, characters like Hias often attempt to fight the future. In Heart of Glass, Hias is simply a messenger. He says what he sees and often does not fully understand his own visions. He neither controls them nor is empowered to change them, for he often only sees the end result of events, not the smaller incidents that lead up to them. He seeks refuge in nature, far away from what the rest of mankind considers progress. In other words, he cannot save mankind. So just what is the message of Heart of Glass? Perhaps that we’re doomed and there’s nothing we can do about it. (on DVD)

4 stars

*In German with English subtitles

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