BOOK REVIEW: Every Night the Trees Disappear

An author re-examines his take on Werner Herzog's eerie "Heart of Glass" 35 years later.

My goal is always to find out more about man himself, and film is my means," says Werner Herzog near the beginning of Every Night the Trees Disappear, a penetrating study of the German director's eccentric working methods.

First published in 1976 as Heart of Glass, Alan Greenberg's book took its original name from Herzog's mesmerizing film about a community of 18th century Bavarians whose doom is sealed by the economic collapse of a glass-blowing factory.  Greenberg, who was present during the shooting of Glass, has re-edited his earlier book, which often has been compared with Lillian Ross' Picture (about the making of John Huston's The Red Badge of Courage), to reflect a more measured, less adulatory appreciation of Herzog.

"Alan Greenberg has now looked at the person and events with fresh eyes," acknowledges Herzog in Every Night's afterword. Yet, grumbles the 69-year-old director, "I still do not recognize myself since now I come across as didactic and dictatorial."

The first outsider invited by Herzog onto one of his movie sets, Greenberg -- an American who has written several screenplays -- hunted down the director at his Munich home in 1975 and, after bonding over poetry and ancient chamber music, was encouraged to come aboard as a type of assistant.

Herzog, who already had sealed his reputation with tales of alienation like Aguirre, Wrath of God (1972), clearly sensed his methods on Glass would stir up controversy -- it was the first film with its cast under hypnosis. The director, who had placed an ad in a local newspaper calling on volunteers, did the hypnotizing himself.

"This will be done for reasons of stylization and not for reasons of total manipulation," Herzog tells Greenberg. "The film is meant to convey an atmosphere of hallucination, of prophecy, of the visionary and of collective madness, which coalesces toward the end."

He actually carried out his aims. "Eerily, it occurs to me that what we may actually be hearing are the intonations of Herzog's own voice," wrote critic Roger Ebert, who believes that Glass comes closer than any other film by the director to expressing "the inchoate feelings in his heart."

In his book, Greenberg cleverly juxtaposes chunks of German author Herbert Achternbusch's poetic screenplay for Glass with the practicalities of shooting a script in real time. Above all, the author captures the essential loneliness at the heart of Herzog's work as a filmmaker. "He could not make contact with another person," explains the director's mother. "That is why he makes films."