Glas (1958): Dutch Filmmaker Bert Haanstra's Oscar-Winning Short Documentary

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A Still from Bert Haanstra's Glas
A Still from Bert Haanstra's Glas
I recently had the privilege of watching the Dutch master filmmaker Bert Haanstra’s 1958 Oscar-winning short documentary film Glas. The film’s first viewing left me in such awe that since then I would have re-watched it at least a half of dozen times, if not more. When Haanstra was commissioned to make an industrial film about the manufacturing of glassworks, the master seized upon the opportunity to make what is often regarded as the perfect short documentary. While Glas is essentially a film about the manufacturing process of glassworks, it is also something much more. Glas, above all, is the celebration of the spirit of filmmaking. Here is a film that presents in great unison the three most important elements of the cinematic language: image, sound and montage. Haanstra’s mastery over his craft is evident in each and every frame of Glas. The narrative is absolutely devoid of any dialogue, voiceover commentary or text. And yet the message, delivered lyrically, is crystal clear.

The lyrical technique employed by Haanstra has a divine rhythm to it. As if the glassware has developed a language of its own to communicate itself. Haanstra’s choice of music is absolutely impeccable. It makes the craftsmen working at the glass factory look like musicians. These men, much like Haanstra, have attained a certain level of mastery over their craft. Such is the level of their proficiency that these men can blow glass with scalpel-like precision while simultaneously enjoying a round or two of smoking. The film also strikes a contrast between the manual glassblowing techniques employed by the craftsmen at the Royal Leerdam Glass Factory with the modern industrial techniques used at an automated bottle making factory. The complete dedication of the master craftsmen to their craft at the glass factory is in direct contrast to the callousness with which a laborer at the automated plant lights up a joint using a hot piece of glass placed on the assembly line. Also, the musical symphony of the factory scenes is replaced by an annoying electronic dirge. This striking contrast may remind some of Charles Chaplin’s masterful Modern Times (1936).

A Still from Bert Haanstra's Glas
A Still from Bert Haanstra's Glas
During his illustrious career, Bert Haanstra made many memorable films. His first major success was Mirror of Holland—a short documentary for which he won the Grand Prix du court métrage at the 1951 Cannes Film Festival. In the ‘50s, Haanstra made several films for Shell including The Rival World (1955), which deals with insect control. Haanstra also directed various fiction films such as Fanfare (1958), which still remains Netherlands' second most popular film of all time.  The film also competed at the 1959 Cannes Film Festival. But, it is Glas that stands out in his formidable body of work. Even today it is shown in film schools to make students appreciate the nuances of filmmaking. The aspiring cinematographers ought to watch to enhance their understanding of lighting and exposure. Also, the sound engineers may study the film to develop a better understanding of the relationship that sound shares with the other essential elements of the film language i.e. image and montage. All this is a testament to Glas’ timelessness as a work of cinematic art.

Watch 'Glas' (1958) (YouTube)
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  1. What a delight to watch this film. It came as a surprise how the medley of two things worked together to create a beautiful effect. Apt and informational review, Murtaza.

    1. Very well said... it's absolutely magical how Haanstra weaves those elements together to create something so sublime!


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