The Chaos of the Stars in Werner Herzog’s “Heart of Glass”

Hias, the prophet, speaks: „ I look into the distance, to the end of the world. Before the day is over the end will come. First time will tumble, and then the earth. The clouds will begin to race, the earth boils over; this is the sign. This is the beginning of the end. The world’s edge begins to crumble, everything starts to collapse, tumbles, falls, crumbles and collapses. I look into the cataract. I feel an undertow, it draws me, it sucks me down. I begin to fall… Out of the falling and the flying, a new land arises. Like the submerged Atlantis, the earth rises out of the waters. I see a new earth.“ In this vision, Nietzsche’s cyclical concept of eternal reccurrence is intimated. Time itself tumbles, and the earth arises out again of the waters, „like the submerged Atlantis“.  All existence is in a constant flux, the end of things is subsumed in their beginning. The past, the present and the future are One, everything that is happening now, has already happened ad infinitum. The vision before Hias’ eyes, is the same event which occurs throughout Time, endlessly. The cataract we see falling, enormous and relentless, is equated with Being, which „tumbles, falls, crumbles and collapses“, only to re-emerge in the clarity of vision. The collapse of the earth and time entails re-creation, or rather we shall say subcreation, a secondary creation of everything that is, re-occurring endlessly, entailed in the Creation itself.

In a barren, stony, mountainous landscape, illuminated with pale sunlight, several men from the village are standing, as in a trance, staring wildly toward the distance. Herzog hypnotized most of the crew for the filming, (the actor who plays Hias is an exception) the actors are in a haze, as in a daydream, the characters they are portraying seem to be on the verge of discovering matters of great importance, only to be lost again in reveries.A villager says that he sees a giant, he is in a state of shock, blinking expressively, describes it as a monstrous being, the villager is shaking, claiming that it is sucking out their brains. The other villager says: „The time of the Giants is coming back.“ The tragic age is at hand, the villager sees, as in a vision, the age of horrrific tumults. Croatian novelist Ranko Marinković used the metaphor of a cyclop to describe war, its all-devouring nature, but in Heart of Glass the vision of a giant monster who takes the villagers’ cattle, is even more encompassing. “The age of giants“, as Nietzsche wrote in his The Will to Power, is a tragic age in which values that pass judgment are overcome, after a series of disastruous events, which will shake the foundations of the Earth. The age seen in a vision is the 20th century, „the time of the Giants“, or Titans as Georg Friedrich Jünger envisioned it. There are no Giants, Hias says, but they can be spotted on the horizon.

The glass factory foreman, Mühlbeck, has died, the only person in the town who knew the secret of making the Ruby glass. The Baron, obsessed with Ruby, orders his house to be searched, and the ground beneath the house dug, in order for the secret to be discovered. He says: „The chaos of the stars makes my head ache.“ The stars, observed as objects of astronomical research, are placed in precise order by mathematical criteria of the Faustian culture of the West (as Spengler understands it), but for the Baron, they are chaotic. This signifies that the order of the world, his world, is in disarray, lost in madness. The Baron also laments: „This splendor is now extinguished from the world… What will protect me now from the evil of the universe.“ The film takes place in the 18th century, in the modern era, which is painfully aware of the vastness of the universe, the emptiness of its godless, endless spaces. For Baron, the essence of the world is contained in the Ruby glass, but now that the secret is lost, nothing can fill that void.

Hias prophesizes three major events in the film, and all three come to pass. The frist is the murder of a man in town, the second is that the Baron will want “something” from the maid, while the third is that the factory will be burned to the ground. In the case of murder and arson, the culprits are aware of the prophecy, and this may be the very fact that motivated them. In J.R.R. Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings, the chapter entitled “The Mirror of Galadriel”, Lady Galadriel says: “Remember that the Mirror shows many things, and not all have yet come to pass. Some never come to be, unless those that behold the visions turn aside from their path to prevent them. The Mirror is dangerous as a guide of deeds.”[1] When the Baron burns the factory, the townsfolk accuse Hias of having an “Evil Eye”, that he has taken part in the act of arson, solely by predicting it. Galadriel says that those that “behold visions” can “turn aside from their path to prevent them”, but in case of the arson and murder in the film, the culprits had forced them into being, otherwise they might not have happened.

The Baron orders all the objects made of Ruby glass in the town to be thrown into the lake beside the mountain. He wants the lake to be dyed red, and this desire is the culmination of his aesthetic obsession. By getting rid of Ruby, and transforming nature into the object of aesthetic appeal, he wants to put his heart to rest. In the act of arson, the destruction of the only thing that can possibly produce Ruby glass, a desperate attempt by the Baron to get rid of his obsession, we can see the attempt at completion, the elimination of a tormenting desire. When he murders Ludmilla, and observes her blood on a napkin with fascination, the Baron says that he has found the secret ingredient of Ruby glass, the essence of things. His madness is complete, mystery is “solved”, but only through the act of murder and displacement of the object of his aesthetic desire. By these acts, he descends into madness even more forcefully. The Baron and Hias are put in the cell together, accused of the burning, and the Baron says to him: “I like you. You have a heart of glass.” His heart is translucent, pure, like Ruby, in it one can see the lost secret, the essence of all things, his gift of prophecy. Hias descends into madness as well, he hallucinates a bear, wrestles with it, and by “killing it”, he brings his own obsession which haunts him, to an end, if only in the realm of the imaginary.

In the inn, Hias sees things to come. He prophesizes the French Revolution, World War II (“Then the little one starts a war, and the big one across the ocean extinguishes it”), and the communist takeover in Russia, using language which borders on the comical. He says: “I tell you what I see; I do not know if it will happen.” Prophecy is not knowledge, it is a poetic vision which can, or will not, come into being. During his visions, a man dances with a corpse to a tune, signifying the absurd dread of things which will come to being. Via parallel editing, as Hias speaks his prophecy that there will be war in every house, and no man will like another man, the Baron’s murder of the maid Ludmilla is shown, the Baron and Hias are again shown together, as different sides of the same coin. Hias says that the peasants will dress like townspeople and that the townspeople will be like apes, a vision which holds similarities with Nietzsche’s evocation of the Last Man in his Thus Spoke Zarathustra. He is in a way, like Zarathustra, he prophesizes the world which is to come, dying it in red, in the colors of beasts.

The maid Ludmilla visualizes while watching Ruby: „How strange, a whole town made of glass with people living in it.“ Throughout the film, the Baron searches, in vain, for the lost essence of things. Like Hias, the Baron, in the lucidity of his madness, sees the doom which is to come: „Will the future see the necessary fall of factories, just as we see the ruined fortresses as a sign of the inevitable change.“ The history carries on, relentlessly, leaving everything in ruins, for the new to be created. The Baron, as a factory owner, sees his own end in the future of the world. When the two meet for the first time, the Baron’s and Hias’ shadows coalesce on the wall. Both of them share the same fate, the former’s doom is the madness of his obsession, while the latter’s, the gift of madness, of prophecy. The Baron is lost in aesthetics, particularly speaking, the aesthetics of Ruby glass, which is his obsession. In its beauty, he sees the lost secret of the universe, its glow speaks the truths nothing else can say. He posseses the qualities of a decadent aesthete, he is lost in observing beautiful objects made of Ruby glass.

Toward the end, Hias sees a vison of a rocky island. He says he sees it quite clearly… The island lies there on the far edge of the inhabited world, and a group of people is there, the word has not reached them yet that the world is round. They have retained the belief that the world is flat, “and that the ocean far beyond ends in a yawning abyss”. For many years they gazed into the ocean, one of them started to doubt. One day, they decided “to risk the ultimate”, to reach the edge of the world, to see if it truly ends in a yawning abyss. Accompanied by music, they depart, “pathetic and senseless” in a small boat, “a boat far too small” for the endeavour. The film ends with words written on the screen: “It may have seemed like a sign of hope, that the birds followed them out into the vastness of the sea.” In his The Nomos of the Earth, Carl Schmitt writes: “Manifest in this book [Thomas More’s Utopia], and in the profound and productive formulation of the word Utopia, was the possibility of an enormous destruction of all orientations based on the old nomos of the earth. Such a word would have been unthinkable in the mouth of anyone in antiquity. Utopia did not mean any simple and general nowhere (or erewhon), but a U-topos, which, by comparison even with its negation, A-topos, has a stronger negation in relation to topos.”[2]

The mariners who departed “pathetic and senseless”, are in a search for a utopia, a non-place, where “ocean ends in a yawning abyss”. For Schmitt, utopia is equated with nihilism, the non-place beyond order, nomos of the earth. Schmitt writes that “in mythical language, the earth became known as the mother of law… She contains law within herself, as a reward of labor, she manifests law upon herself, as fixed boundaries; and she sustains law above herself, as a public sign of order. Law is bound to the earth, and related to the earth. This is what the poet means when he speaks of the infinitely just earth: justissima telus… The sea knows no such apparent unity of space and law, of order and orientation.”[3] The mariners, still believing that the old nomos of the earth is in place, want to find out the truth, if the utopia, “the yawning abyss”, exists. Their quest is tragic, since it is utterly nihilistic. What awaits them, if they manage to realize that there is no end to the sea, is “the chaos of the stars”, the realization that beyond the sea’s edge there is only endless sea, which knows no law. “The step taken later, in the 19th century, that destroyed a maritime existence and effected an industrial-technical existence, was foreshadowed in such a word [utopia]… But the fateful shadow had fallen, and, behind the image of a new world ordered from the sea, the wider future of the industrial age was dawning”.[4]

[1] J.R.R. Tolkien, The Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring, HarperCollinsPublishers, London, 2007: 472

[2] Carl Schmitt, The Nomos of the Earth, Telos Press Publishing, New York 2006: 178

[3] Ibid: 42

[4] Ibid: 178

2 responses to “The Chaos of the Stars in Werner Herzog’s “Heart of Glass””

  1. I just watched “Heart of Glass”, and I heard the voices of Nietzsche and Spengler within. Thank you for sharing this, I am grateful to have found it tonight.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Thank you! I am glad that you enjoyed the essay.


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: