Heart of Glass

Werner Herzog seemed to court risks, artistic and personal. Heart of Glass (1976), may be his most ambitious, stylized, and explicitly allegorical film, and seems in retrospect to mark the point where his relentless risk-taking overreached his limits. Heart of Glass in conventional terms is a failure, ponderous, stilted, overwhelmingly pretentious, but one that still somehow seems achingly close to greatness.

Heart of Glass
Heart of Glass

The images in the opening sequence—cows grazing in early morning mist while a nearby man sits lost in thought, water cascading over a falls (shown through a gauze filter)—fuse poetically into an overwhelming, ultimately indescribable visionary experience. Heart‘s ending, almost as arresting, somehow lacks the emotional resonance of the opening, perhaps because of the oddly unsatisfying quality of much of what we see between the two sequences. And a measure of the film’s failure is the way these two sequences seem curiously unconnected, aesthetically, emotionally, or narratively, to the story they frame.

Somewhere in Heart of Glass is a story, but its contours and logic are so murky that it’s almost impossible to find. Herzog’s characters are often, as here, questing for something. Usually, though, the metaphysical dimensions of their quests are suggested in mundane activities: as a dwarf tries to climb onto a bed where an eager woman awaits him (Even Dwarfs Started Small, 1970) or a trio of Germans tries to make themselves a home in Wisconsin (Stroszek, 1978),their frustrations and failures gradually take on universality; the “meaning” emerges from the material. But in Heart the characters’ quest—to recover a lost formula for making beautiful glass—is presented in such self-consciously symbolic terms that it’s obvious what they’re “really” after is something big, like “transcendence” or even the “meaning of life.” In case anyone misses this, a “prophet” wanders through the film, uttering profundities and even, in one ponderous scene, predicting World War I and the rise of Hitler in heavy-handedly symbolic terms. Give him pancake make-up, black robes and a chessboard, and he could be a refugee from Bergman’s Seventh Seal (1957).

In virtually all of his previous films, Herzog had shown an unerring sense of the limitations of verbal communication. Here, though, aside from a hauntingly beautiful glass-blowing sequence, there are words—usually of the portentously “meaningful” variety—inflating the pretensions of nearly every scene. An unfortunate casualty of this strategy is that Herzog’s gloriously apt ear for soundtrack music is here shamefully underutilized.

Equally perplexing is the film’s wooden, stilted, mechanical acting style. Herzog reportedly placed the entire cast under hypnosis during the filming, and nearly all the action seems to take place in slow motion, as if under water. Such self-conscious manipulation seems antithetical to the naturalness of Herzog’s handling of even his most peculiar documentary subjects. And it drains the characters of any trace of vitality or spontaneity, reducing all the acting to a monotone, like the brooding colors that suffuse most of the film. Thus there is precious little of the glorious, occasionally sublime nuttiness that makes the best of Herzog’s oddball subjects so vivid and unforgettable. Where there is no room for spontaneous craziness there can also be few traces of Herzog’s marvelous—if sometimes unwitting—humor.

None of this is quite as damning as it sounds. Heart of Glass effectively establishes a mood of gloom that accelerates into desperation. But there is something willfully perverse, even self-destructive, in Herzog’s choice to make a film using so little of what he does best. Indeed, his extraordinary landscapes, and his explicit revulsion at what human actions can do to mar their natural beauty (c.f. Fata Morgana [1971], Stroszek, et. al.) suggest a sensibility that might have ethical reservations about the manipulative methods used in making Heart. In any case, in attempting to construct, rather than to discover, images and meaning, Herzog seriously overreached.

 2009 David Coursen


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