Watching Werner Herzog's HEART OF GLASS is like having a waking dream, and it should be. Herzog famously hypnotized his actors for most of the filming, lending a transcendent aura to the film that permeates past plot, characters and all the other mechanisms of storytelling to create an emotional experience not unlike daydreaming while listening to gentle music.
This fact does not and should not add or take away anything from the movie itself. Herzog strips his actors of emotional expression, having their lines delivered in a mostly monotonic, detached manner, as though none of them really believe the things that are coming out of their mouths, but they are not devoid of meaning. HEART OF GLASS could be one of the most honest films ever made by a filmmaker in the sense that everything truly is Herzog. His voice is the only voice that matters and for the most part, the only voice we really hear. He speaks through his actors like a puppet master manipulating his voice for a doll on his hand, pulling strings to make them appear lifelike to the point that we believe for a minute they are acting on their own agency, until he stops the act. Herzog has no intention of stopping the act.
This isn't a movie about plot. There's a prophet who warns of upcoming doom, a man obsessed with finding the secret to making Ruby glass - the town's only source of income/glory, after the only man who knew how to make it dies without ever telling his secret - and two drunks who get into a fight without actually really getting into a fight, that ends with one of them dying and the other dancing with his dead body.
Nothing that happens "happens," not in any strictly dramatic sense, rather we see representations of what happens. The drunk fight elicits no response from either person, people discover shocking images to which they have to think for a minute about how to respond before they give a half-hearted shriek seemingly only for the purpose of responding. Nobody has any genuine engagement with their life, rather they behave in ways that they feel they are supposed to. This is all part of Herzog's intended effect and it makes for a truly unique watch.
Taken as a metaphor for the devastation of humanity, and it doesn't take a lot of digging to arrive at that conclusion as our local prophet waxes about the topic quite simply, Herzog peels back the skin of humanity to look at the mundanity of the threat of extinction. The concept of doomsday gets blown way out of proportion with images of riots, terror and mass violence coming to mind. If the world really were to end tomorrow I imagine it would be quite different, tearing us into two camps: those who accept it and welcome it, either by waiting patiently for the end or by keeping on as they always have, and those who rebel against it, ultimately succumbing to the futility of protesting the end of the world. Lars von Trier's MELANCHOLIA actually comes to mind and might make for a good double-feature if you can stomach four hours of despair.
Why are we so drawn to our own end? Perhaps it is simply a by-produce of consciousness, knowing that it is limited and one day we will not possess it, but we have no real way of knowing what that is like. Maybe the unknowing is what fascinates us. It's not the end of the world we fear, but today. This would explain our endless obsession with art that deals with loss and devastation, it might after all explain why great art is often a cliched sub genre that combines melancholy and over-seriousness. It is very rare that an uplifting comedy full of hope and happiness fever falls into the realm of classic art. How afraid we are to feel happy.
Is Herzog making a great film? I would say yes, he is, but I'd go a step further, I'd say he also knows it. The German filmmaker's entire work is full of meaningful revelations on life, but usually via the process of painfully drawing out a work that seems purposefully shy of having any resonance itself. These movies work best in the moment and then they fade, like all things, they come to an end. That the end does not live on is a testament to Herzog's profound ability to capture the essence of humanity rather than simply make up stories to distract us from it. He revels in difficult subjects.
I find it difficult to recall the details of Herzog's films, but I never forget how I felt watching them. I think that is his point. For a famous filmmaker the man has a certain amount of disdain for cinema, preferring books and conversation. He makes his movies from the heart, as fragile as the heart is, and that is what makes them so great. They are delicate reminders of ourselves, reflecting back something deep within us, something we had forgotten was even there, and daring us not to look away. The catch is, even when we do look away, we still gaze only into ourselves.