I’ve watched Werner Herzog’s Heart of Glass (1976) twice now — once with just the movie and once with Herzog’s commentary. I still feel barely qualified to review it. It’s not that it’s that complex. In fact, as a story — at least till it gets to the end — it’s fairly straightforward. In essence, we watch a town — the economy of which is built on a glass factory — sink further and further into insanity when the glassworks’ foreman dies and takes the secret of how to make their famous “ruby glass” to the grave with him. We see their actions become increasingly incomprehensible — and it all lines up with a local psychic’s prophecies. (Of course, like most such prophecies, there’s a vagueness at work.) But this is Herzog, the wonderfully idiosyncratic Herzog at his most idiosyncratic.
To start with, the cast — largely non-actors — was supposedly hypnotized (by Herzog himself) before each take. I say supposedly, because in matters like this, I don’t entirely trust Herzog’s veracity. (I actually like that about him.) If indeed these people are hypnotized, he must have instructed them to act like people in trances in movies do. Regardless, the effect — however achieved — results in a movie that is itself hypnotic. Its stilted quality and often flatly delivered dialoge is very reminiscent of Carl Theodor Dreyer’s Vampyr (1932) — a film Herzog is surely familiar with. The film also appears to be grounded in childhood memories — or what Herzog claims are childhood memories — and its settings are a geographical hodgepodge of places Herzog had seen over the years and decided to incoporate here. The results make the film even more dreamlike, so that by the time it gets to its wholly allegorical (unexplained) ending, it may be puzzling, but it’s hardly surprising. What it all means — assuming it actually means anything — is perhaps not even clear to Herzog. I wouldn’t be shocked to find that it’s all one big boondoggle, but it’s a compelling one.
Classic World Cinema by Courtyard Gallery will present Heart of Glass Friday, Aug. 1, at 8 p.m. at Phil Mechanic Studios, 109 Roberts St., River Arts District (upstairs in the Railroad Library). Info: 273-3332, www.ashevillecourtyard.com