Book Review: Every Night the Trees Disappear: Werner Herzog and the Making of 'Heart of Glass'

Alan Greenberg

Every Night the Trees Disappear: Werner Herzog and the Making of 'Heart of Glass'

by Alan Greenberg
Chicago Review Press, 224 pp., $24.95

How to explain the genius of Werner Herzog? It's like trying to explain the clouds to someone blind since birth or explicate the melodic gravity of Das Rheingold (or for that matter, Slayer) to a deaf-mute. Experiencing, for instance, Aguirre, Wrath of God in a theatre, on a big screen in the dark, is key to understanding the heady and hypnotic power of the great German director/provocateur's aesthetic.

Apart from Les Blank's comical documentary Werner Herzog Eats His Shoe, all of Herzog's films were made to be seen under such optimal conditions – not the least of which is the director's eerie masterpiece Heart of Glass (1976). Greenberg was there for the duration of the shoot, having travelled from his home in Worcester, Mass., to the Cannes Film Festival in search of "real cinema." Smitten by Herzog's work after seeing Fata Morgana and Even Dwarfs Started Small, Greenberg watches Herzog's latest – Every Man for Himself and God Against All (The Enigma of Kaspar Hauser) – and more or less throws himself at the director. Herzog instead demands that Greenberg go meet Fassbinder's actor Bruno S., thwarting their initial meeting, but six months later, the pair finally get together under the auspices of an interview for an unnamed film journal. From there-on in, Greenberg is essentially taking an early version of Werner Herzog's Rogue Film School as Heart of Glass goes through preproduction, shooting, and postproduction.

Greenberg includes illustrative selections from the shooting script (which Herzog kept from his actors until moments before they were to say their lines, thus eliciting both spontaneity and, in some cases, panic and anxiety) but what keeps Every Night the Trees Disappear as remarkable as it is is the director's forthrightness to keep this annoying journalist by his side. He confides all: "I learned how to concentrate by necessity, when I was very young," Herzog explains vis-á-vis his total dedication to the moment at hand. "As a child I lived with my whole family together in just one room. There were four of us in the tiny place, and each of us did what we chose to do. I chose to read .... Often I would read all day long and, when I finished, I'd look up to see that my family had disappeared." And that may be the best way to describe Herzog's genius: It's his world that exists up there in flickering shades of light and dark. We just live in it.

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