Despite having made a sizable number of important films, German director Werner Herzog is infamous for the extremes he took on various projects in the ’70s and ’80s, notably an incident (probably apocryphal) during which he pointed a gun at leading man Klaus Kinski in order to make the reluctant Kinski perform a scene. Somewhat in a similar vein, Herzog had nearly his entire cast hypnotized before each take while making Heart of Glass, a lyrical saga about the residents of a remote Bavarian village in the 18th century. The plot is an interesting fable revolving around a special kind of red glass that the residents of the town manufacture. After the only blower who knows the formula for the glass dies, the residents literally drive themselves mad trying to re-create the formula. Meanwhile, a mystic living in the hills over the town—played by the only leading actor who performed without hypnosis—observes the dissipation of the village and provides philosophical commentary. Like many of Herzog’s best films, Heart of Glass is about the cost of pursuing an impossible quest, a story archetype that Herzog often uses to remark upon what he perceives as the futility of the human experience.
In terms of sonic and visual style, Heart of Glass represents Herzog at his apex. The images are painterly and often mesmerizing; the music, by Popol Vuh, is atmospheric; and the unique gimmick of hypnotizing actors results in a beautifully consistent aesthetic. Furthermore, although he’s made interesting films with modern settings, Herzog thrives in historical and primitive settings because he creates such immersive worlds, a gift very much in evidence throughout Heart of Glass. No other movie feels or looks quite like this one. And if normal considerations of characterization and plotting get subordinated beneath the more ethereal qualities of mood and vibe, so be it—in Heart of Glass, Herzog explores primal themes of existence and meaning and purpose.
Per the director’s norm, Heart of Glass is also surpassingly weird. In one sequence, a dazed musician plays a hurdy-gurdy while a drunk laughs, a bereaved man dances with the corpse of his best friend, a prostitute with a shaved head cradles a duck, and a narcotized man waves his hands as if he’s conducting an unseen orchestra. Elsewhere in the film, two hypnotized actors sit across a table from each other as one cracks a glass over the other’s head, and then the victim pours a drink onto the first man’s head in response. Some of the vignettes in Heart of Glass are bewildering, some are compelling, and some are sad. Yet they all share a strange sort of mythological quality, as if the film retells some story that’s been handed down through generations. Achieving that effect with original material is no small feat, and yet it’s something Herzog has done again and again throughout his career.
Working with cinematographer Jörg Schmidt-Reitwein, a frequent collaborator, Herzog creates many painterly images, especially with transitional landscape shots filmed at various locations around the world, and he achieves pure poetry with the picture’s final massage, a story-within-a-story about the residents of a tiny island venturing out to sea. Heart of Glass is loose and unhurried, so some viewers may feel as if they’ve been hypnotized into submission just like the actors. For those willing to go the distance, however, a singular experience awaits.
Heart of Glass: GROOVY