Do images sit more deeply inside us if they are accompanied by a strong story or does a strong story sacrifice the image to the narrative? When for example Jean-Luc Godard in his personal journey through film, Histoire(s) du Cinema, mentions Hitchcock’s work he talks of the images: of the glass of milk in Suspicion, the Bates motel in Psycho and the spiral of hair in Vertigo. He wonders if what we remember in Hitchcock is not the plot motivation, but the isolated visual image. The question would be, is it the strong storylines in a director’s work that allow the images to sit deeply inside us, or are the images so strong that the story, however far-fetched, however contrived, can be salvaged by the way the film shows us things?
This might be more a projection on Godard’s part rather than an exploration of Hitchcock’s oeuvre, but how does it fit with Werner Herzog’s work, and Especially Heart of Glass? There are several comments by Herzog quoted in James Franklin’s New German Cinema that are useful here. One is that he is “not a theoretical person,” but that he knows “that I have the ability to articulate images that sit deeply inside us, that I can make them visible”. Another is where he said of his film Signs of Life, “symbols and signs are more important than action…at the end of the film Stroszek [the central character] is not important any more; his signs are more important than his actions.” Such comments can help us get to grips with Herzog’s work, to see that his films are not based on narrative momentum but much more the weight of the shot. This is subtly different from the great Russian director Andrei Tarkovsky’s idea of the rhythm of the shot, where Tarkovsky says in Sculpting in Time “the dominant, all powerful factor of the film image is rhythm…” Herzog’s work gives much more the impression of weight. There seems to be a gravity to the image greater than its capacity for movement, and this ties into his comment on symbols and signs being more important than action: there is a stubborn still life quality to Herzog’s films that make both momentum of story and character irrelevant next to the weight of the image.
If we describe the film’s plot there would nevertheless seem to be enough in it to generate narrative force. When the owner of a ruby glass factory dies, he fails to leave the locals the formula for them to continue making ruby glass. Will the villagers manage to find the magic formula with the help of the local prophet, or will they starve without the factory to sustain them? Herzog more or less ignores the tension available to him, and instead makes every shot not the accumulation of narrative meaning, but the dissipation of individual purpose. It is as though Herzog wanted to find in each character, instead of motivations for their actions, signs of life, a spiritual existence that has little to do with the motivational. When Herzog says that what is central to his work is “to render inner states that are transparent from a certain viewpoint”, does the filmmaker have to forego the motivational to find them: as though motivation isn’t an inner state but the seed for goal-oriented behaviour?
Now of course Herzog also says that he hypnotized most of the cast during the filming, and the film is probably more famous for this piece of information than anything else. But the interesting question resides in what Herzog achieves out of this novel approach, and to realize that it doesn’t create a mood very different from other Herzog films like Aguirre, Wrath of God, The Enigma of Kaspar Hauser, Nosferatu: films where he didn’t use hypnosis.
We return to our initial comment about images sitting deeply within the viewer, while thinking of another Herzog statement where he says that his films arise out of the physical features of the landscape, and add that they just as readily come out of the features of the actors. Whether through the landscape or the body, Herzog wants to create images that not only sit deeply within us as viewers, but where the process of filming them brings out the stubborn depth of the thing observed.
At the beginning of the film, Herzog shows us the prophet sitting in contemplation as in voice-over he talks of the world’s doom. Meanwhile Herzog cuts to images of nature at its most majestic, but as if pointing out not its majesty but its potential erosion. Though Herzog says he deliberately wanted his film to have a timeless quality, “it is a very loosely defined past, certainly pre-industrial, and these indefinable landscapes do not help you place the story of the film in a solid historical past” (Herzog on Herzog), the film has the feel of a work alluding to a fundamental choice, of man potentially possessing a heart of glass or a heart of stone: a heart turned towards nature for spiritual growth, or interested in the commodification of nature for financial gain.
In a lecture Martin Heidegger quotes Nietzsche saying “well nigh two thousand years and not a single new god!” But neither Nietzsche nor Heidegger are advocating new deities, they are, rather, proposing that man possesses language so that he can say who he is and give testimony – to testify, in Heidegger’s words, of “his belonging to the earth.” Now in the film immediately preceding Heart of Glass, The Enigma of Kaspar Hauser, Herzog opens with the comment from Georg Büchner, “Can’t you hear that terrible screaming men call silence.” Within the context of Herzog’s work, and the Heidegger/Nietzsche comment above, what can generate this ‘screaming silence’ is surely the inability to speak of who one is and how one belongs to the earth. When we talk of Herzog creating certain images that sit deeply inside us, and also the stubbornness of these images, what we’re saying is that Herzog tries to find a place from which people can speak that encompasses them in their entirety.
If this sounds a little vague, recall the scene where the factory owner talks to the prophet and says he will make him the foreman if he tells him how the ruby glass is made. Instead the prophet shows more interest in the surrounding nature than the workings of the factory. Where the villagers are preoccupied with the glass, the prophet is concerned with on-going nature. When the owner says at one moment that he will dig up the man who held the ruby glass secret and get the prophet to read the dead man’s mind, this is clearly the opposite of speaking with a sense of encompassment.
What interests Herzog, whether the characters are megalomaniacs like Aguirre, who wants to start his own civilization in the Amazonian jungle, the eccentric Fitzcarrado, who intends to open an opera in the middle of the Amazonian too, or the prophet here, is the degree to which they are listening to a world beyond the self: in their capacity for incorporating the breadth of nature and the depth of time. Some of his characters do; some don’t, but Herzog cannot film from a position other than one that incorporates the broadest possible comprehension of the action. Thus for example when a straightforward, urban and literal writer and filmmaker like David Mamet would say in On Directing Film “character is nothing other than action”, Herzog would probably argue that most actions are not revelations of character; that the actions are too small, too selfish, too inconsiderate of the world into which they fit.
How can he find larger than life characters that incorporate the largeness of life? When he made a documentary about the famous mountaineer Reinhold Messner he knew Messner was a man of astonishing achievements, and knew also that he was media savvy. Yet Herzog wanted a film that would capture less the man and his achievements, than the man in relation to the madness of his feats. Herzog went deeply inside Messner’s thoughts and feelings: at one stage Messner broke down on film when talking about his brother who died during one of their expeditions. Herzog later phoned him and asked if he could keep the footage in the film: “you are here as someone who is not just another perfect athlete or who conquers every mountain with cold perfection. That is why I have decided to keep the scene.” (Herzog on Herzog) On seeing the film Messner was glad Herzog used the scene, and the director had once again achieved the deep-seated: the sense that an action is only as important as what it echoes.
This is vitally important to Heart of Glass, where the prophetic dimension to the character of Hias is less significant than Herzog’s capacity to make us believe in the character metaphysically – to believe in his existence not as a predictor of the future, but as someone deeply at one with the present: with the nature that surrounds him. As he sits in the tavern and reels off future woes, is this not the future he sees through the present he comprehends? As Hias talks of people living in houses with high fences, where one person will force another off a bench and kill him if he doesn’t move, the survivors in this brutally self-centred world will need heads of iron rather than hearts of glass. Hias signifies the opposite of self-centredness, the sort of nature-centredness we alluded to in mentioning Nietzsche and Heidegger.
At the beginning of this piece we wondered whether what created memorable images was the strength of the story or the strength of the image, or whether they were intrinsic to each other. Herzog is a filmmaker though who creates memorable images, whose very purpose, in his words, is to create images that sit deeply inside us, and yet clearly has little interest in narrative. If Hitchcock creates unforgettable images through strong story; Herzog does so with ‘weak’ story; not with narrative evolution, but the weighted shot where a character’s actions are intertwined less with the story than the milieu. Thus it made absolute sense that in Fitzcarraldo Herzog had to haul a real boat weighing 340 tons over a real mountain; that what mattered was to create an image powerful in and of itself: as Herzog insisted, “pulling a boat of that size over a mountain would inevitably create situations that nobody had foreseen and so would bring life to the film.” (Herzog on Herzog)
It is these “signs of life” that is at the core of Herzog’s work, the visionary perspective that insists an achievement is not important to the individual (which is often central to narrative), but somehow an undertaking at one with a world much bigger than oneself. Heart of Glass moves from image to image as though each image weighs a few tons of its own, and yet imagine if each human action were determined not only by its own agency, but an awareness that it is part of a world so much larger than its own individual purpose? Does this not help explain Herzog’s arduous pacing, and at the same time how he consequently creates such deep-seated images that can sit deeply within both the viewer and the world from which they are taken? When Herzog said the title perhaps refers to “an extremely sensitive and fragile inner state” (Herzog on Herzog), we may wonder if Herzog’s work helps make that inner state a little more robust.