Two Early Films by Werner Herzog: Heart of Glass and The Engima of Kaspar Hauser

Werner Herzog’s 1976 film, Heart of Glass, can charitably be described as a failed experiment. This film is most notorious for the fact that Herzog had the actors hypnotized before each scene. He claimed this enabled them to express themselves more freely, although you would never guess that from watching this film. The actors seem stiff and wooden. They look past each other, and at times they seem to be about to fall asleep.

Another problem is that this film doesn’t have much of a story. It is set in a Bavarian village during the 18th century. The town has gotten wealthy by manufacturing ruby-colored glass. The factory foreman, Muehlbeck, is the only person who knows how to make the special glass. He dies without revealing the secret to anyone. (This is far-fetched, to say the least. The story is reportedly based on a German legend.) Realizing that their livelihood is now threatened, the townspeople become increasingly prone to violent or extreme behavior. The factory owner, Huttenbesitzer (Stefan Güttler) goes mad. He convinces himself that the secret ingredient in the ruby-colored glass is human blood, so he kills his servant, Ludmilla (Sonja Skiba). Immediately after that, he sets fire to his factory. Oh, and there is a seer named Hias (Josef Bierbichler, who was fortunate enough to be the only actor who wasn’t hypnotized), who makes apocalyptic prophecies. That’s pretty much all that happens. Herzog fills out the film to feature length by including long, brooding shots of the Bavarian countryside. There is also an interesting scene of glassblowers working in the factory that will teach you some things about making glass objects.

Strong performances might have compensated for the weakness of the story, but Herzog made sure that wouldn’t happen with his hypnotism. One can only conclude that the hypnosis was a gimmick. Herzog has always been a bit of a huckster (which is actually part of his aesthetic), but in Heart of Glass his carny impulses went a bit too far.

The Enigma of Kaspar Hauser, made two years earlier, is a superior film in many ways, not least because there was no hypnosis. The German title for this is Jeder für sich und Gott gegen alle (Every Man for Himself and God against Everyone). Herzog has said that he “loved” this title, but nobody else seemed to like it. (I side with the nobody else.) As the American title indicates, this film is based on the life of Kaspar Hauser, the foundling who was reportedly raised without any human contact. This film presents Hauser’s account of his life as true, although many historians have come to believe that he was a clever impostor. The abrupt and mysterious nature of Hauser’s death does not lend itself to tragedy, so Herzog tries to play it for irony. At the end, we see doctors performing an autopsy on Hauser’s body. They find that his cerebellum and part of his liver are enlarged, and that the left side of his cerebrum is smaller than the right side. (Strangely, the doctors don’t seem to notice that his brain looks as though it is made out of moldy cheese.) A government official writes all this down and then gleefully scurries off, satisfied that the mystery of Kaspar Hauser has finally been “solved”. As a satire of bureaucracy, this seems merely contrived and tacked on.

Herzog cast Bruno Schleinstein (also known as Bruno S.) as Kaspar Hauser. (Even though Scheinstein was 41, and Hauser was only 17 when he was “found”.) Schleinstein was a Berlin street performer who was said to suffer from severe psychological problems. Herzog once claimed that he found Schleinstein when the latter broke into his car and fell asleep in it. Later, it turned out that Herzog had actually learned about Schleinstein from a documentary about Berlin artists. This just goes to show that Herzog has a bit of Kaspar Hauser in him. Anyway, Schleinstein, who allegedly had no previous acting experience, gives a very strong performance in this film; he is the main reason to watch it. He had what Hollywood types call “presence”. Perhaps this is something he acquired from his experience as a street performer. It’s hard to take your eyes off him. He makes his character’s odd behavior completely convincing. Unfortunately, Schleinstein only appeared in a few films (one was Herzog’s Stroszeck), reportedly because he was difficult to work with. A shame.

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