Heart of Glass – Herzog hypnotizes everyone.

I’ve just watched Heart of Glass. You know the one – the Herzog film where he hypnotizes his entire cast. Everyone, except for the mystic who plays the central role and (thankfully) the professional glass blowers in the film, are hypnotized before their scene. This gives the film a totally bizarre feel, as if the actors are both there and not there.

Herzog is an excitingly experimental director who tries things that sometimes work and sometimes don’t. This film is one of those time when it just doesn’t work.

The basic plot line is:

The setting is an 18th century Bavarian town with a glassblowing factory which produces a brilliant red ruby glass. When the master glass blower dies, the secret to producing the ruby glass is lost. The local Baron and factory owner is obsessed with the ruby glass and believes it to have magical properties. Seeing as it appears this magic secret has died, he tries one hair brained scheme after another (from ‘reading’ the chair stuffing from the dead man’s house to murdering a young girl for her blood to color the glass) With the loss of the secret, he soon descends into madness along with the rest of the townspeople. The main character is Hias, a seer from the hills, who predicts the destruction of the factory in a fire, and predicts that it will mean the ‘end of the earth’ for the villagers. He does this in a kind of Greek chorus, providing us with a running commentary (ahead of time) of what is about to happen.  When the factory owner has burned down his own factory, Hias is accused of being the culprit, given his ability to predict its destruction. HIas is able to flee the scene and escape.  The film ends with a strange image of a man on a rock who is staring out to sea wandering about the end of the world. Eventually he is joined by three other men who all stare at the horizon wondering in silence about the end of the world. Finally they decide to get into a small boat and sail to the end of the world to find out once and for all what is there.

The problem with Heart of Glass is exactly the problem you think of immediately.  The film ends up being more conceptual and schematic than involving a thoughtful narrative and this is almost entirely due to the absolute stupidity of hypnotizing everyone. What you get is a bunch of hypnotized actors sleep walking their way through every scene, not interacting with each other in any meaningful (or otherwise) way, and contributing almost nothing to the narrative. When I read the blurb on the back of the DVD that stated “the entire cast performed under hypnosis” I blurted out a laugh and assumed it was a mistake, like the 578 minute running time printed on the back of the DVD that was (thankfully) a mistake. Then I found out it wasn’t an error. The entire cast have been hypnotized.

It has been reported that in order to choose his cast from a group of mostly non-professionals. Herzog first had them hypnotised and then showed them (or should I say, subjected them to) his film Fata Morgana . Apparently those who reacted in the most extravagant ways were selected. Then, during each day of the actual shooting, all the actors, except Josef Bierbichler in the role of Hias, were hypnotised by Herzog’s on-the-set psychiatrist. Herzog said, “I wanted this air of the floating, fluid movements, the rigidity of a culture caught in decline and superstition, the atmosphere of prophecy.” This is a noble aim, but hypnotized people can’t act, and that is the material point. These automatons recite their lines in a meaningless babble, including the rather horrific little twitches, rolled back eyes and utterly empty stares one associates with hypnotism.

This process, rather than serving the narrative, defeats it. For us to understand and appreciate a story, we need to see or sense the physical and social context, along with the individual motivations of the characters as they interact within that context. In Heart of Glass, the mental contexts and motivations of the characters are absent. The characters do no not have meaningful interactions. All we can see is that they are all “mad”. That kind of thing doesn’t wear well. (I’m giggling even as I write this) The madness that comes upon the villages therefore has no dramatic expansion. We understand the villagers are sheep-like humans who have been following the head glass-blower without taking responsibility for how important he has become to his village. When he has gone, the narrative explains there has been a gradual awareness of their impending destruction, but not the acting.

I looked up ‘Herzog on Herzog’ to get some clarification on this from the man himself.  This is part of an interview I found there:

Question:

For your next film, Heart of Glass, you hypnotized the actors. How could you have been sure that your ‘experiment’ wasn’t going to sabotage the whole production:

Herzog:

Well, cinema per se has a secret hypnotic quality to it. Often when I am on the film set I have to ask the continuity girl what scenes we have already done and what is left to do. I am almost unconscious and get a shock when I am told it is the third week of filming already. ‘How is this possible?’ I ask myself. ‘Where has all the time gone? What have I actually achieved here?’ I feel as if I had been at a drunken party and somehow got home without being aware of it. As if the police stood at my bedside the next morning accusing me of having killed someone during the night. There were two films that were a strong influence on me during the lead-up to Heart of Glass. One was The Tragic Diary of Zero the Fool,11 which was made with a theatre group from a lunatic asylum in Canada. The other was Jean Rouch’s Les Maitres Fou,’1 shot in Ghana and featuring the annual ceremonies of the Hauka tribe who, when heavily under drugs, enact the arrival of the English colonial governor and his people. The reasons for the experiments with hypnosis are quite simple. The script was loosely adapted from a chapter of Herbert Achternbusch’s novel The Hour of Death which was, in turn, based on an old Bavarian folk legend about a peasant prophet in Lower Bavaria who, like Nostradamus, made predictions about the cataclysmic end of the world. In the film Hias – a shepherd with prophetic gifts – has apocalyptic visions and foresees an entire town becoming halfway insane and the destruction by fire of its glassworks.  At the end of the film the factory-owner burns his own factory down, as foreseen, and the prophet is then blamed for the fire.

At the time I knew very little about hypnosis and it never crossed my mind to use it in a film until I started to think about the story I had before me, one about collective madness, one that calls for these characters to be aware of the catastrophe that is approaching, yet one they continue to walk straight into. I wondered how I could stylize everyone who, almost like sleepwalkers with open eyes, as if in a trance, were walking into this foreseeable disaster. I wanted actors with fluid, almost floating movements, which meant the film would seem to depart from known behavior and gestures and would have an atmosphere of hallucination, prophecy and collective delirium that intensifies towards the end. Under hypnosis the identities of the actors would remain intact, but they would now be stylized. Maybe the title Heart of Glass makes more sense in this light. It seems to mean for me an extremely sensitive and fragile  inner state, with a kind of transparent glacial quality to it.

Question:
Back then, like today, did some people suspect the whole thing was just a kind of circus gimmick?

Herzog:

Oh sure, but there really was a very clear purpose to it. Everyone but the lead character – the only clairvoyanr one amongst them – was hypnotized before playing their scenes. I stress that the hypnosis was for reasons of stylization and not manipulation. I certainly did not want a bunch of performing puppets for the film. For years people have accused me of wanting to have more control over actors in my films. In the context of what we were doing in Heart of Glass, I assure you that as a director I would have been much better off having actors who were not in trance. And it is a common mistake to assume there is complete control over people under hypnosis. That is not so, for whatever is the hard core of your character remains untouchable under hypnosis. For example, if I ask a hypnotized person to take a knife and kill his mother, he would refuse.
What I did with Heart of Glass was, for me, part of a very natural progression. My attempts to render inner states that are transparent from a certain viewpoint were realized in a kind of nightmarish vision in Even Dwarfs Started Small, in ecstatic states in The Great Ecstasy of Woodcarver Sterner, and even in the state of non-participation of social activities with the children in Land of Silence and Darkness and Bruno in The Enigma of Kaspar Hauser. In all these films none of the people are deformed, not even the dwarfs.

I found the section where he claimed for years people have been accusing him of wanting to have more control over his actors was the most pertinent. Herzog cites not being able to get them to kill their mothers as proof he isn’t the one in control (!) but of course a hypnotized actor can’t add their own interpretation, can’t see a new perspective and most certainly can’t argue a point with a director!

There is, however one redeeming feature.

The cinematography is lush and evocative, with breathtaking panoramas of mountainous landscapes, evoking the German Romantics, along with sepia-tinted interiors of the glass factory workings, evoking the 16h century Flemish paintings of Peter Bruegel. The glass factory scenes are particularly interesting, because they suggest to us some of the unique handicraft skills that have been gradually lost since the coming of the Industrial Revolution. Herzog does lovely things with clouds and fog.

The overall perspective of Heart of Glass reflects Herzog’s grim vision of hopelessness. Man’s efforts to understand the universe and build a humane civilisation are doomed to failure in the face of his own depravity and the incomprehensibly vastness of great Nature. The universe is infinite and brutal, unmindful and unaffected by our puny efforts to find truth and beauty. Our so-called civilisation has tried to tame nature, but it is based on reductionist mechanism and increasingly drives us further away from any chance of harmony within it. Here in Heart of Glass, Hüttenbesitzer, (the Baron) in the final stages of madness, murders his faithful maid, Ludmilla, in order to see if her blood can be used to recreate the ruby glass.

At the end of the film, Hias recites a further parable about people who lived on two small islands at the end of the earth. These primitive people still believe that the earth is flat and that there are monsters at the edges. Some bold visionaries among them eventually are overcome with curiosity about what is actually out there at the edges, and they set out in a small, pitifully inadequate boat to see what’s there. Seagulls follow the boat as it maneuvers out to sea, and Hias closes the film by saying, “it may have seemed like a sign of hope that the birds followed them out on into the vastness of the sea.” But, of course, it’s not a sign of hope; it’s merely some random action of brute nature that is misunderstood by the adventurers, who are full of hubris and misguided hope.

Whatever you want to make of Heart of Glass, it is an interesting experiment, and whatever you want to make of a filmmaker who wants to hypnotize his entire cast, Herzog is a wonderfully experimental director. I really enjoyed a couple of his films, but this one – for me – was just a little too silly.