Monday, October 06, 2008


1958, 10:03
Directed by Bert Haanstra
Academy Award: Best Documentary, Short Subject (1960)
Silver Bear - Special Jury Prize for Short Documentary - 1958 Berlin International Film Festival

Quick: what are your top-5 short films centered around the craft of glass making? If you're at a loss for words, let me offer one: Bert Haanstra's Glas. Recipient of the 1960 Academy Award for best short subject documentary, this Dutch production, on cursory description, seems to be a simple short displaying the talents of Holland’s finest glassmakers. This would seem to be what the Dutch glass industry had in mind when they commissioned documentarian Haanstra to produce a brief educational piece on glass production. But Glas actually makes clear the separation between mass production and skilled craftsmanship, through a brilliantly simple juxtaposition of visuals and sound. An aesthetic difference is presented between the two methods of creation, and the film jars even the most sedated viewer with its subversion of a traditional documentary style.

With the sounds of a warm, laid-back jazz combo accompanying their work, its tough not to become immediately enamored with the artisans and their craft. These practitioners of the old technique of glass blowing are human and have personality, whether it’s a pipe hanging out of the mouth as they work or the wedding ring visible in close-ups of delicate handwork. This isn’t just a wage— it’s a work of art, whether it be a dinner glass, vase, or bong. Yes, Haanstra’s only showing their jobs, but the way that he portrays their occupation makes it seem like it’s a day at the pool for the men involved, akin to the Rat Pack onstage at the Sands.

Then it all turns to glass-stained shit as the machines rise (re: Terminator 3.) Bottles shooting around, disorienting Stockhausen-esque bleeps/blorps, and a robotic voice repeating an indistinguishable mantra softly in the background: these elements create a sense of horror and irregularity. But besides the aural touches and chopped tempo, it’s still just footage of machinery performing their “normal” function, yet the sublimity of Haanstra’s technique gets across the cold asperity of modern mass production. Men no longer are behind each piece of craftsmanship, only kept around to make sure that the machines work properly. Because of this critical depiction of machine, the Dutch glass industry were shocked at the finished product and wouldn’t pay Haanstra, until he won the Academy Award and brought recognition to his homeland.

There’s a moment that feels too calculated to be real, where at the height of the machines constructing bottle after bottle, it makes a mistake and leads to bottles falling off the conveyor belt and smashing on the cement floor. One of the human workers notices, and runs over to fix it. The image, in only a moment’s time, presents the main theme of the piece more convincingly than anything else I can think of. This feels like direct cinema, where the filmmaker has combined a documentary camera with a constructed scene of destruction, and for some reason, I can’t shake off this miniscule moment, which I suppose speaks the delicate beauty of the film.

I’m left with the lingering question of how a somewhat abstract documentary like this endeared itself to the conventional-minded Academy and won. Although it’s pretty clear to that there’s a message at the center of the film, this is also a work of quiet subtlety for the most part, without a trace of dialogue. Haanstra has crafted a small slice of cinema verite, something that I’m not sure was accepted by the Academy voters before this. If this truly is a forebear to the Academy’s recognition of other works of cinema verite like Faces and Woodstock, then I’d place Haanstra right next to Marco Van Basten and Goldmember in the pantheon of great Dutchmen.


Anonymous said...

I'd say the film is a rose-colored glorification of the craft and craftsmen who made utilitarian - not art - glass. It does look like a walk in the park rather than a hot, sweaty, sometimes dangerous job. Given the 50s time period, do you think this is a political commentary on the exploitation of factory workers on an assembly line vs. the joyous labor of the craftsman?

Anonymous said...

This is a worthwhile view for couch potato children and the Wal-Mart masses who continue to purchase overseas crap en-masse. That said, the beginning is creepy, reminds me of the last time I over-ate at a Mexican buffet. Refried, like the glass.

I feel this is one of your best interpretations.

Anonymous said...

Glas is an unlikely and beautiful tribute. Well done sir, glad I introduced you to this.

Lindsay Z. said...

Loved this. It starts off so casually and lightheartedly that the second part of it kind of comes by surprise, but it works.

This guy really loves Goldmember, eh?

Anonymous said...

I think someone ought to make a short film about glass blowing, especially in Italy. On my trip to the island of Murona I watched several bronzed, burly italian men create tiny glass animals for hours in the hot sun. I think this would make a great film

Pamela said...

I loved the short when you first posted it. What I liked the most is how a slightly quicker pace in editing makes and the mnusic made the two "methods" (for lack of a better word) of glass making seem as completely different crafts. The factory feels to dangerous and banal for the fragile and delicate glass.

Cecilia C-W said...

Commence obnoxious comment: could we do a Marxist reading of this? I didn't actually watch the film (shhh) but I'm referring to the part where you wrote, "Men no longer are behind each piece of craftsmanship, only kept around to make sure that the machines work properly."

I can't believe I've never seen Goldmember.

Alli B said...

I love how this film makes the glass blowing feel so light-hearted and fun, when in reality it was probably 100 degrees in that room, and the craft is certainly a lot harder than it looks.

Steve Erdman said...

My favorite part of this short-cinematic-adventure is the juxtapositioning of the craftsman with the classical music, making it seem that they are in fact playing the intsruments through their glass blowing (note:no one should try that at home).

Drew Rosensweig said...

I can't confirm or deny if Haanstra had any Marxist leanings, but I do believe that the first commentator was correct in his assumption that this is really about assembly line factorization vs. craftsman. I think that Haanstra hoped to provide a different look at institutions that the public often didn't give a second thought to, and his other documentaries seem to indicate that, such as "Zoo," which was a pioneer in flipping the script on how we view the animals in a zoo. I also had not thought about how great the fragility of glass works as a metaphor for the abrasive handling of products by machinery, so big ups to Pamelita.

Unknown said...

a brilliant film, another like this is post dark by shotz7

never turn an eye away from wrongdoings. a 4 minute short.