“There’s not the smallest orb which thou behold’st
But in his motion like an angel sings,
Still choiring to the young-eyed cherubins.
Such harmony is in immortal souls,
But whilst this muddy vesture of decay
Doth grossly close it in, we cannot hear it.”
–William Shakespeare, “The Merchant of Venice,” V., 1., 58-63
FEATURING: Lars Rudolph, Peter Fitz, Hanna Schygulla
PLOT: Soft-spoken János takes care of his uncle, an aging musician and music theorist, in a small Hungarian town. One day a modest circus, featuring only a stuffed whale and a mysterious freak known as “the Prince” as its attractions, comes to town. János is impressed by the majesty of the whale and sneaks in to see it one night, and overhears the Prince declaring “Terror is here!”
- Andreas Werckmeister was a 17th century musical theorist who developed the “well temperament” (as in Bach’s “Well-Tempered Clavier”), a tuning system that competed (and eventually lost out to) the more popular “equal temperament.”
- Werckmeister Harmonies is based on the 1989 Hungarian novel “Az ellenállás melankóliája” (“The Melancholy of Resistance”), by László Krasznahorkai, who also co-wrote the screenplay with Bela Tarr.
- Those who have counted say that this 145-minute film has only 39 shots (some more generous sources say 45 shots).
- Werckmeister Harmonies ranked #56 on the BBC’s 2016 critic’s poll of the greatest films of the 21st century.
INDELIBLE IMAGE: The Whale’s massive dead eye, juxtaposed with tiny humans.
THREE WEIRD THINGS: Drunks enact the Solar System; eye of the Whale; the Prince speaks
WHAT MAKES IT WEIRD: Werckmeister Harmonies is a bleak and obliquely allegorical parable in which a Whale and a Prince bring a local apocalypse to a poor but peaceful Hungarian town. A political horror movie that creeps over you slowly, wrapping you in a fog of mysterious dread.
Fan-made trailer for Werckmeister Harmonies
COMMENTS: How many times have you been at a bar at closing time when, after dousing the stove with the dregs from the leftover beer steins, the patrons beg for the youngest person there to demonstrate how a solar eclipse works? You know, the kind of pantomime where one fat guy plays the sun, twiddling his fingers to represent solar radiation, while the amateur astronomer choreographs other drunks representing the sun and the moon to circle about him (being careful to step over the passed-out, and to spin slowly so they won’t lose their own dinners). The guy orchestrating the display will usually say something like “All I ask is that you step into the boundlessness where constancy, quietude, and peace, infinite emptiness reign…” to set the mood. Typically, the performance takes about seven minutes, just long enough for the barkeep to collect dozens of remaining glasses before sweeping the inebriated out the door. I mean, it’s happened to us all, right?
Well, maybe not. But somehow, this impromptu planetary presentation seems almost plausible in Bela Tarr’s world. Werckmeister Harmonies‘ trick is to take very strange incidents and drop them into a particularly detailed, yet ordinary, setting—a wintry small-town heated by wood-burning stoves and nourished by canned goulash and stale bread—so that they seem realistic, despite the fact that if you pause to think about it little that goes on in the story bears much resemblance to events that might happen in the real world. The naturalistic acting and restricted set helps in this regard. But the biggest weapon in Tarr’s arsenal is his use of long, unbroken tracking shots: the opening dance is an 11-minute take. The lack of edits makes us feel like real-time observers to unfolding proceedings, while camera movements take the place of cuts, allowing us to see the action from new vantages without jarring us out of the “reality” of the shot. With Werckmeister Harmonies, Tarr cemented his reputation as the true heir of cinema’s slowcore saint,.
Oftentimes, Tarr’s camera seems apathetic in its focus. We will see shots of the actors staring blankly after the scene has ended, or long sequences of two men walking into the distance, slowly receding, adding nothing to the narrative. Other long takes show the villagers going about their ordinary life, dressing for bed, eating supper. Like Tarkovsky, Tarr’s dedication to the slow, slow pace can be obstinate, and even perverse; at times it feels like merely a contrarian take on classical Hollywood editing, with little purpose besides the experimental impulse to buck a dominant trend. This style will turn off mass audiences, but don’t be ashamed if you don’t get it or buy it: many authentic cinephiles also find Tarr’s pacing hard to take.
There are magical moments, however, when the style harmonizes with the artistic intent. The riot sequence, for example. It starts with about four minutes of the townsmen marching. Their faces are grim but otherwise expressionless. The camera goes in front of them, pulling back for an overhead shot to show their vast numbers, then falling to eye level. They are all individuals, in that they have different heights, different overcoats, different styles of facial hair—but their identity is as a mass. They walk in and out of shadows, further obscuring their features. They don’t shout angry slogans; they are silent, entranced. Only the metronomic slap of their boots on the pavement echoes in the street. Their silence is most frightening, because we have no idea where they are going, what they are planning. There is true dread here, and we need time to feel it build, to make our own fear grow. Then comes a long, intricately choreographed scene of violence as they enter their destination and set about their assigned task of meaningless destruction. Tarr captures the carnage in a single masterful take, as cathartically violent and vital as the previous scene was static and tense. It is only in back-to-back sequences like these that we begin to understand the method to Tarr’s understated madness. With all of its difficulty, the consistent accumulation of all of these slow, slow moments creates a mood impossible to capture in a different style. Ultra-slow pacing is a gamble that often produces insufferable boredom, but when it pays off, as it does in Tarr and Tarkovsky’s best moments, it arouses a wave of emotions that might otherwise feel too shallow.
Uncle Gyorgy’s long and abstruse monologue about Werckmeister’s tuning system is another moment of alienation for the audience. The speech is full of scholarly tangles that are humorous due to the seriousness with which Gyorgy takes them. But inside this labyrinth of musicological trivia hides the film’s major theme: dissatisfaction with order, and the human impulse to periodically revise faulty models of reality. Gyorgy finds an existential crisis in Werckmeister’s harmonics: a “test of faith” as to whether harmony really exists at all, or can be captured by mortal men. He praises the ancient Greeks because he believes that, unlike enlightenment Europeans, they were satisfied with terrestrial approximations of harmony, leaving perfection to the celestial gods. Gyorgy’s angry essay echoes János’ much friendlier demonstration of the workings of the solar system for the town’s drunks. It also reflects the political situation in the town, where the leaders are dissatisfied with what they perceive as a lack of order. We hear discontented grumblings about disappearances, crime, vandalism, rumors of horrible things happening in other towns, coming towards this one. But from what we actually see, rather than just gossip we overhear, things are just fine in town before the arrival of the circus: the roving camera captures no muggings or thefts or broken windows, the streets are empty and peaceful, no cause for alarm or panic. János brushes off the harbingers of doom. “Everything’s fine,” he assures his anxious relatives, and he is right, as far as the present goes. The upheaval some in the town believe is occurring under their noses is actually coming in the future; some of them are even planning on bringing it about themselves, in the name of restoring order. It is time for the old world to pass away, and an uncertain new one to come. With the encroaching restlessness and uncertainty comes doubt, with doubt fear, and with fear, opportunity for the unscrupulous. Soon strange men will arrive with vague but passionate plans to make things right.
Allegorically, the film refers to the rise of Communism in Hungary. I’ve even read (on IMDB’s crowdsourced trivia section, at least) that the Prince is bald to recall Vladimir Lenin. This interpretation is unavoidable; and even if it the movie doesn’t have schematic point-to-point correspondences to events of the postwar period, it obviously evokes the feeling of revolutionaries harnessing fear and resentment to wreck the established order to set up an even worse one. Gyorgy, who explicitly wishes to be left alone to pursue his esoteric studies in baroque harmony, represents the ineffectual intellectual. This is a stock figure in Eastern European anti-totalitarian parables, and for good reason. Gentle János, on the other hand, represents the even less-effectual spiritual man. He sees the beauty in the harmony of the cosmos, and explicitly associates his beloved Whale with God, and with the enigma of creation: “How mysterious is the Lord of the world that He amuses Himself with such strange creatures,” he effuses breathlessly. But absolutely no one else—not even his compatriot Gyorgy—gives the slightest damn about the Whale. The town has ears only for the demagogue Prince. Both the man who lives the life of the mind and the man who lives the life of the heart are outcasts in a world where people live by their angry blood and their fists. Both of our protagonists are impotent against the swelling mob. And although they both unknowingly collaborate with events, when you look back over the plot, you can’t imagine one thing Gyorgy or János—the only good, reflective characters we see—could have done differently to stop the stone from rolling down the hill and crushing the village. Neither reason nor religion can save us from totalitarian chaos when man’s periodic need to overthrow the established order rises once more. This message is bleak and hopeless, I am afraid, but honest and true.
WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:
“Flowing like a torturous dream on the brilliantly composed black-and- white cinematography directed by Gabor Medvigy and an elegiac score by Mihaly Vig… Mysterious, poetic and allusive…”–Lawrence Van Gelder, The New York Times (contemporaneous)
“In terms of technique, ‘Werckmeister’ resembles Stanley Kubrick’s work, with its classically composed images, and occasionally the David Lynch of ‘Eraserhead’ and ‘The Elephant Man,’ with its stark black-and-white photography. Samuel Beckett is in there, as well, with the notion of a spiritual void waiting endlessly to be filled, but none of this is to say that Tarr lacks for originality or a strange, singular passion.”–Edward Guthmann, San Francisco Chronicle (contemporaneous)
IMDB LINK: Werckmeister Harmonies (2000)
OTHER LINKS OF INTEREST:
How to Watch Werckmeister Harmonies – A film professor gives a thorough overview of the film, with a number of supplemental links
Interview with Béla Tarr: About Werckmeister Harmonies (Cannes 2000, Director’s Fortnight) – Interview with Tarr (who is notoriously reluctant to provide insight into his own meanings and purposes) for Bright Lights Film Journal
Werckmeister Harmonies Movie Review (2000) – Roger Ebert’s essay on the film for his “Great Movies” series
Deep waters – Richard Williams of The Guardian puts Werckmeister Harmonies in the context of Tarr’s ongoing career
Hope Deep Within – Béla Tarr’s Werckmeister Harmonies – Senses of Cinema‘s introduction to the movie
Intensive Care – Jeff Richert’s essay for Reverse Shot revolves around a single take in Werckmeister Harmonies (the hospital sequence)
The Importance of Béla Tarr’s ‘Werckmeister Harmonies’ – A Jewish writer opines that the film evokes the Holocaust
The Postcolonial Self and the Other in Béla Tarr’s Werckmeister Harmonies – Academic article from Acta University’s Film and Media Studies journal
HOME VIDEO INFO: Werckmeister Harmonies is another tough case for North Americans. The (poorly received and extras-free) Facets DVD is long out-of-print and only available used (buy), while whoever owns the rights has not signed up with any of the major streaming services. With its arthouse gravitas, Harmonies seems like an easy pick for the Criterion Collection or one of its competitors; but so far, nothing.
Europeans (and those with multi-region players and import-sized budgets) have it better, since they are able to avail themselves of the Artificial Eye release. This comes on a single disc (buy) or packaged with Tarr’s 1988 film Damnation (which is similar in style but, to my mind, greatly inferior to Harmonies) (buy). Both releases include a 40-minute interview with Tarr. A word of caution: the single disc release crops (!) Tarr’s academy-ratio original to make it fit “today’s widescreen televisions.” After taking some heat for that decision, Artificial Eye’s followup dual disc release restores the proper aspect ratio.
The film is not (yet) available on Blu-ray, and, as previously mentioned, has no streaming contract that we can find.
(This movie was nominated for review by Russa03, who called it “So subtle with its mysteriousness.” Suggest a weird movie of your own here.)