Mysticism in Film: ‘Heart of Glass’ (aka, Herz aus Glas, 1976)

❉ Werner Herzog contemplates the chaos of the stars.

Werner Herzog has always had a reputation for taking artistic risks. Producing both fictional and documentary feature films at a furious pace, his work cannot be mistaken for anyone else’s. Heart of Glass is both typically Herzogian and typically unique.

Inspired by a chapter in Herbert Anchternbusch’s novel, The Hour of Death, the film tells the story of herdsman-prophet Hias (Josef Bierbichler) in a remote, late 18th century mountainous region of lower Bavaria, and his apocalyptic visions both relating to the local glass factory, around which village life and the local economy revolves, and larger catastrophes to come. Rather than a straight literary adaptation, however, Herzog opted to go back to Bavarian folklore, particularly the predictions of real-life prophet Mühlhiasl, whose writings form much of Hias’ dialogue. There is some suggestion amongst historians that Mühlhiasl was, in fact, seer Mattias Stormberger, who lived in the same area and shared the same birth year.

Contemplating the Chaos of the Stars.

The narrative examines the catastrophic effect the death of glass factory foreman Mühlbeck has upon the community. The glass factory is famed for making ruby glass, a rare and expensive commodity. Unfortunately, only Mühlbeck knew how to make it, and he failed to pass the secret on, and all experiments by his fellow glass blowers prove fruitless. The master of the factory (Stefan Gütler) is rapidly losing his sanity, complaining about the chaos of the stars, tearing up furniture in attempts to find the formula by rearranging the stuffing from the upholstery, ordering his stock of ruby glass to be cast into the nearby lake until it turns red (which naturally leads to the men given the task absconding with the valuable merchandise), and ultimately resorting to murder when his delusions lead him into believing the secret is in the blood. In the meantime, the glass blowers go about their work mechanically and the villagers gather in the local inn to drink and sit in a state of dazed disbelief whilst a resigned Hias issues warnings of impending destruction that everyone either ignores or deliberately enacts with fatalistic nihilism.

Seeking a way of presenting a community sleepwalking toward destruction, Herzog hit upon the idea of hypnotising his cast after seeing Morley Markson’s improvisational The Tragic Diary of Zero the Fool (1970), which was purportedly shot in an asylum with real inmates (it wasn’t), and Jean Roch’s ethnographic documentary Les Maitres Fou (aka, The Mad Masters, 1955), in which Hauka dancers emulate British colonial ceremonies whilst under the influence of drugs.

Quite literally the most chilled bar room brawl you’ll ever see.

Herzog kept his actors under hypnosis only during takes, so the film is mostly shot in long, painterly wide shots to minimise the time they were under. The actors got to the stage where they could re-enter a trance state after only 15 seconds of prompting. The only performers not hypnotised were Bierbichler, who, as Hias, had to appear clear of vision, and the glass blowers, who were played by real craftsmen in a real traditional glass workshop, and so for safety reasons had to remain lucid. We are treated to scenes of the craftsmen creating vases and mugs, and most impressive of all, one pulls a perfect miniature horse from a shapeless, white-hot blob.

Hias’ visions take the form of poetic diversions separate from the main narrative. In the early parts of the film, they mostly take the form of Super 8 images captured in such locations as Alaska and Yellow Stone National Park projected onto the back of a screen and rephotographed on 35mm to create dreamlike scenes resembling moving watercolour paintings designed to draw the audience in. Herzog considered, but then rejected, the notion of directly hypnotising the audience as irresponsible, preferring more subtle techniques such as presenting them with distorted images of flowing waterfalls and mesmeric, churning cataract. Later, Hias’ visions take the form of meditative 35mm sequences accompanied by medieval music and repetitive fugues courtesy of Herzog’s regular composer at the time, Florian Fricke and his group Popol Vuh , and were clearly imitated (to the point where some shots are near-identical) by Terrence Malik in Tree of Life (2011). Herzog intended these images to speak to viewer’s inner dreamer.

Herzog makes a cameo as one of the men tasked with throwing the ruby glass into the lake.

Jorge Schmidt-Reitwein’s camera work is extraordinary. Whilst most cinematographers paint with light, Schmidt-Reitwein paints with shadow. The moody, Bavarian exteriors often resemble the landscape paintings of Casper David Friedrich; A Wanderer Above a Sea of Fog, for example, is directly referenced, and the island featured in Hias’ epic final vision (actually Skellig Michael, which was also used in 2015’s Star Wars: The Force Awakens) looks like Friedrich’s Rocky Reef on the Sea Shore gone mad. The interiors, lit using candlelight supplemented by small spotlights and reflectors, bring to mind the works of 16th Century Flemish Painters, as well as later artists such as Georges de la Tour or Joseph Wright.

The film includes some of Herzog’s favourite images; the breathtaking time-lapse shots of the mists and clouds rolling over the Bavarian mountains, which were shot by hand, with a camera operator physically clicking away every 10 seconds for hours at a time, so that the exposure could be adjusted from frame-to-frame as the natural light changed. The overall effect is of rivers of fog flowing over the undulating contours of the landscape.

Hias Above the Fog.

Steeped in Bavarian mythology and landscapes all declared Bavarian by Herzog (whether they be locations as close to home as the countryside around his native village of Sachrang or as far afield as Alaska, Ireland, Monument Valley and Wyoming), Heart of Glass is one of the few films that manages to convincingly portray the alien world of a time long past, precisely because it doesn’t try to be a realistic “recreation” by modern film makers but a stylised portrayal that skirts perilously close to surrealism but always manages to stay just the right side of odd. The hypnotised actors look like denizens of another realm, appearing genuinely awed and frightened when they talk of a rampaging giant (which Hias points out was probably the shadow of dwarf cast by the low sun), filled with resigned despair as they mope over the loss of Mühlbeck and his secret, and, ultimately, uncomprehending at the indifference of the seemingly magic yet hostile world around them.

Rocky Reef on the Sea Shore.

Heart of Glass is effectively an end-of-the-world fantasy in which nothing fantastical takes place, because it’s about the bizarre and fantastical notions that its characters form about the world around them as a result of their delusional old world innocence, which leads to dire consequences for all concerned as they sheepishly accept their predestined place in Hias’ prophecies, and their helplessness against the flow of time and a destiny they accept as inevitable.

 About the author: Jonathan Sisson studied Moving Image at the University of Central Lancashire and produced several short films. After that, he became an actor and has appeared in several film and television productions.

 Jonathan Sisson’s 2001 film ‘The Institute’ is now online on Vimeo and can be seen here:

Become a patron at Patreon!