HEART OF GLASS (Werner Herzog, 1976; 94 min)
7 August 2023
Mocha J Herrup, PhD
Born under Hitler’s reign, Herzog narrowly escaped death as an infant when a neighboring home in Munich was bombed by the Allies. When his mother found two week old baby Werner asleep in his cradle under debris and glass shards, she fled with him to a remote Bavarian village, a safer location during the war. The village of Sachrang, located in the Alps, was so remote that young Herzog would not see his first film until the age of eleven, or make a phone before he turned seventeen.
An octogenarian now, Herzog has made over 70 films, many of which are focused on themes of danger and unlikely survival. While the prolific filmmaker once denounced psychoanalysis as modern day witchcraft, it doesn’t take a Jungian to connect Herzog’s cinematic fascinations with the miracles and hardships of his unusual early life.
HEART OF GLASS, one of Herzog’s earlier films, is set in 1800 in a Bavarian village with a landscape not unfamiliar to the upcoming filmmaker. HEART OF GLASS does for capitalism what Conrad’s “Heart of Darkness” does for imperialism. When the local glass factory that provides subsistence for its workers and great wealth for its owner loses the secret to making its highly profitable and sought after ruby glass, the townspeople’s stability and purpose is also lost. As an allegory of late capitalism, HEART OF GLASS is a strange and visual descent into the alienation and insanity of commodity fetishism and the cruel disassociation between labor and the product of one’s labor.
To create this eerie and deep sense of aimless horror mixed with conformist repression, Herzog, with the help of a professional, hypnotized the majority of his cast. This incredible maneuver along with the slow pacing of the film combines to make HEART OF GLASS what Roger Ebert refers to as “Herzog’s most famous but least seen film.” Critics also surmise that the film’s opening words and images are designed to lull the audience into a similar trance of collective unconsciousness, thereby offering a truly immersive experience into the heart of the film.
Ironically, audiences who are most involved in the film may find themselves getting sleepy. Very, very sleepy.