Tuesday, September 22, 2009

Werner Herzog's Heart of Glass

I just watched Werner Herzog's Heart of Glass [Herz aus Glas], least effective among his great films of the seventies. But I was striked by the fact that all actors during the production were hypnotized and as a matter of fact the whole film has been made under such a condition.

Herzog says he was influenced by Jean Rouch's Les Maitres Fou, a documentary shot in Ghana and featuring the annual ceremonies of the Hauka tribe who, when heavily under drugs.
To me, heart of glass is like a Hieronymus Bosch painting - minus religious aspect of it - a gathering of madness in the world that is going to collapse any moment. But if a director's concept is picturing a Bosch, I prefer his cinematic style be closer to Robert Altman's moving camera, long shots and zoom than Herzog's rather still and interior treatment of the concept.

The script is 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.

During pre-production Herzog put an ad in the newspaper asking for people who wanted to take part in a series of experiments involving hypnosis. There were sessions once a week for about six months, and they ended up selecting those people according to the types that were needed for the story, and also, crucially, based on their receptivity to hypnosis.

For production, Herzog and his cinematographer, Schmidt-Reitwein looked at the work of seventeenth-century French painter Georges de La Tour. Herzog wanted to capture something of the same atmosphere one can find in his canvases. As I observed La Tour paintings, his influence is visible on interior photography and lighting the scene with candles (a year after Kubrick’s Barry Lyndon).

Most of the film was shot in Bavaria, some in Switzerland and some in Alaska near Glacier Bay. The final sequence was filmed on Skellig Rock, Ireland.

According to Herzog, the title of film, Heart of Glass, means an extremely sensitive and fragile inner state, with a kind of transparent glacial quality to it. "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,” says Herzog.

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. For me the most unforgettable part is its seven minutes prologue about collapsing the world (with a mystic music by Herzog usual collaborator, Pupol Vuh).

--Ehsan Khoshbakht

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