A casual observer will notice that the average filmgoer's attention span is commensurate with the time it takes for a variegated, exciting movie poster (seen from afar) to be approached and understood (seen at arm's length) as yet another ensemble of preposterous gags. Yes, we are all drawn to the gaudy and outlandish – they would hardly exist otherwise – and that brief moment is enough to lead the more impulsive among us to purchase a ticket, download a song, or enter a store with a mission. In a world filled with near-equivalents, we are naturally attracted to what involves an idealized partner, location, or version of ourselves (no nonsensical psychology classes required to come to that conclusion). Thus the least successful advertising campaign, a staunch effort at sabotage, might boast heaping doses of dreariness, ugliness, and mystification. Who would want to see such a film, and, more importantly, who would want to make it? The same small segment of mankind that can appreciate a conceptual endeavor if the images correspond to the motifs. To wit, if from that murky mystery something profound and artistic can be derived, which brings us to this highly unusual production.
Our setting is Germany and our time is around 1800. These details, we note, are gathered simply from the language spoken and the attire worn; nothing in the way of context is afforded the viewer. We begin with a shepherd gazing at some misty cows, then, much more sensationally, at lush hills that appear and disappear as the mist wends around their girths. When a ruthless cataract becomes the camera's subject, a voiceover expresses some pseudo-philosophical concerns ("I begin to feel the cataract. It pulls me down. Death pulls me down"), yet we are still uninformed as to why we're looking at these nature shots at all. After several minutes in slow preamble, our lens focuses and we follow our herdsmen whose name is Hias. Hias is probably short for Matthias, and the basis for this character, as well as for another character called Mühlbeck, may well be this alleged soothsayer (Mühlhiasl and Matthias Stormberger seem to be separate accounts of the same person), the "prophet of the Woods." Whatever one may think of such folk heroes, if one such figure is the cornerstone of your film, you are interested in neither realism nor straightforwardness. And indeed, once Hias retreats to his herd, he is besieged by villagers who claim they have seen a giant. Giants "break our trees and slay our cattle," they lament. "Did you not," he chides them softly, "pay attention to the position of the sun? Otherwise you would have seen that it was the shadow of a dwarf," which is where our film distinguishes itself from many other allegorical tales. Most films would not have gone the extra step and added "dwarf" (the elongated shadow of a normal-sized man would be frightening enough), yet Herzog underscores that what we are watching is not only a nightmare, but a nightmare destined to come true. One day, dwarfs will indeed walk like giants. But for the time being the villagers face a more immediate crisis: the death of Mühlbeck, the glass factory foreman.
Mühlbeck is never shown on-screen, augmenting his legendary status as the only villager privy to the formula of the red glass, the lifeblood of the village's economy. I should say, the lifeblood of the wealth of the factory owners, an unnamed father and son complacent and paranoid in their mansion as the rest of the town drudges through hand-to-mouth squalor. Upon the foreman's death panic strikes the locals, most of whom are employed in the factory. Protracted scenes of attempted glass-blowing and actual craftsmanship remarkable in their simplicity and beauty are interwoven with the melodramatic worries of the nobles. "Will the future see the fall of the factories just as we have understood the ruined fortress as the sign of inevitable change?" the son tells his pint-sized butler, Adalbert. Yes, the butler is a dwarf, and the son claims he will die if the secret of the red glass is not discovered ("I need to put my blood in the Ruby glass or it will trickle away"). The father, whose laugh suggests insanity, has not left his armchair for twelve years, the last time he put on his shoes and inspected the factory and the outside world. With the image of the factory owners more fully defined, it is not difficult to imagine what is really going on, especially after Hias, renowned for his prophecies, states: "Those with smooth hands will all be killed." What is being predicted is an overthrow of the ruling elite – the means of production has literally changed hands – but the villagers seem to be the last people to know. In fact, it would not be surprising if the events in this little isolated hamlet postdated this notorious period, and Hias's visions were both prescient and things of the recent past.
Many critics have detected in Herz aus Glas not only the advent of the French and October Revolutions, but all the future of mankind. While it is not my place to belittle such assumptions, it might be better to restrict our ambition to the era in question: that is to say, the general upheaval, unification, and democratization of nineteenth-century Germany. As such, we could describe some of the minor characters: the lobotomized exhibitionist who seems to live in a convent; the sexually repressed, destructive maid Ludmilla; Mühlbeck's deaf-mute mother, garbed like a Corsican widow, who sees her son's favorite Davenport sofa torn up and restored as the nobles' search team ferrets around for the secret; the two mates, Ascherl and Wudy, who are told by Hias that one will end up dead on top of the other and decide to drink their sorrows and fears away (every time a beer mug is picked up, we assume it will be downed in one gulp); the endless assortment of clownish and clueless extras, some of whom appear to be wearing lipstick. Who are all these characters? Most of them are parodies of standard figures from German folktales, whose heyday is coming to a screeching halt. It may also help to know that Herzog, in an unprecedented move, hypnotized the entire cast apart from Hias. The herdsman then became the sole bastion of reason and, consequently, slightly aloof and disdainful of everyone else ("If nothing changes," he says to them with disgust, "you think it's a blessing"). Since Herzog has a long and vivid history of casting locals with little or no theatrical experience, it is impossible to determine what kind of performances he could have elicited had his charges not been as sleepy-eyed and sluggish. The film's best scene takes place when the sofa is actually delivered to the nobles' house. "I am excited about this letter," the young noble tells Adalbert. He then requests a letter opener, slices open the sofa as if it were a piece of daily correspondence, finds nothing except springs and padding, and declares, "when a letter's words are scrambled, it makes you think." One would hope so. One also wonders what the young nobleman thinks when Hias whispers: "You will never see the sun again and rats will bite your earlobes." And we haven't even mentioned what Hias does to that bear.