Hypnotised by Herzog

Director Werner Herzog, considered one of the major lights of the German New Wave along with Rainer Werner Fassbinder, is a cult figure to film buffs. Heart of Glass (1976), screened by Collective Chaos to a rapt audience last weekend, foregrounds the reasons why.

Herzog's plot line is transparent enough not to tax the viewer. It hinges on an 18th century Bavarian small town whose living depends on the ruby-red glass it is famed for. But when its chief glassblower takes its secret to the grave with him, its people find themselves in the throes of a collective crisis. Will they survive this obsession?

That sounds ordinary enough when merely delineated. But what Herzog does with the threadbare storyline haunts one for days afterwards. He consciously defies conventional notions of narrative. His camera presents mystifying images that seem to draw from an atavistic consciousness, even as the cowherd-town seer Hias (Joseph Bierbicher) predicts a global doomsday scenario.

Why, we wonder, does Bierbichler, resonate with an arching differently from the characters around him? It is because, in the tantalising allegory that underlies this rare, eerie cinematic experience, Herzog achieves an unforgettable impact by hypnotising all his performers except for Bierbicher. Does his idiosyncratic approach work? Do his actors perform as zombies?

As their controlled delivery distances us from the ramifications of the plot, we enter a boundary-free, timeless zone. The brilliant, extended opening shot wafts us into a metaphorical landscape where gazing into a mist-cloaked waterfall amidst a river of clouds connects us to Herzog's charged images that signify and mystify equally, gathering weight from the viewer's receptivity.

Though unique in film annals, Heart of Glass does drag somewhat, an aspect we forgive because its lyrical final conclusion is hope-pitched for humanity, even as it predicts Germany's future as it lurches towards two world wars through lust for power.

The town's feudal lord, in contrast, goes mad in pursuit of the secret. He orders the ruby ware to be tossed into a lake. Instead, his serfs smuggle it across the border to reap a fortune. He rips open the dead man's sofa, but finds nothing but stuffing. He even kills his maid, in case human blood is the cue to the ruby glass. But in the denouement, as the glass factory goes up in flames, the lord's father — who has been chair-bound for over a decade — finally gets up to look for his shoes!

How does the hypnotism impact the actors? Take the two drunken mates bickering over beer. When one has the foaming liquid poured over his head, he does not even blink, while his companion fails to recoil when a glass smashes against his forehead. The charged

atmosphere is electrifying!

We cannot help saluting Herzog for his crusade to expand the vocabulary of cinema through 50-odd films. Heart of Glass is a challenging experiment that consciously elasticised its limits. Will others tread in his visionary footsteps?


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