In the Academy Award-winning Glass (1958, 10 mins.) Dutch director Bert Haanstra introduces us to his country’s glass industry by way of the Royal Leerdam glass factory. There’s no talking heads, no explanations of what’s going on, and no industry jargon to learn. Instead, he borrows the old writers’ adage of show, don’t tell, the result of which is an entertaining shot-by-shot glimpse of the skills involved and a paean to the craft.
The documentary opens with a range of men, young and old, blowing the malleable glass, their cheeks inflated like puffer fish. One gent is so adept as to not bother removing his pipe while blowing. There’s no goggles, gloves, overalls, or anything else that contemporary health and safety zealots would endorse. And with the furnaces all around them, they don’t appear to even be breaking sweat. They blow the glass, they roll it, and they shape it both in moulds and by hand, all in sync to an upbeat jazzy soundtrack that gives the impression of being trapped in an elevator.
When technology gets involved, the music changes. It’s much more restrained, applying sound effects to the machinery. Clinks, whizzes, and clockwork winding punctuate a bottling line as it produces identical bottle after bottle, all with a robotic voice incrementing a count. It makes sense to show this side of the industry since it poses a potential threat that could ultimately downsize the workforce and nullify the skill involved. However, since the product is uniform and in high quantities it leaves the glass blowers to focus on the more complicated designs. As the film shows, when a bottle gets stuck on the line, causing breakages, people can never truly be ruled out as someone has to watch over the machines.
When the focus returns to the men of Royal Leerdam — and a jazzy piano accompaniment — we no longer see their faces. Instead Haanstra turns his camera to their hands. In every swivel of the blowpipe or roll of the molten glass, the men are likened to musicians. Artists, certainly, with a very unique skill. As the climax builds all elements that have gone before come together, showing that the craftsmanship and the automation, as an industry, are ultimately tied.
The real joy of the film is experiencing what is most likely a mystery to most — the shaping of glass. To see it twisted, moulded, and worked into a recognisable everyday object is a pleasure, especially as it dawns on you what is being produced. The complementary soundtrack simply adds to and enhances the positive experience the film provides. Put succinctly, Glass is as immaculately crafted as the items it portrays.