The opening is one of the most intriguing I've come across. We're in a working class tavern in a small Hungarian village. It's closing time, but one of the drunks wants Janos (Lars Rudolph), the young mail carrier, to explain the cosmos again, and the meaning of a great eclipse. Soon Janos has these rough, staggering men shuffling around the one he has made the sun, one the earth, another the moon. Others join in, eyes unfocused, all caught up in something out of their understanding. "...and now," Janos says, "we'll have an explanation that simple folks like us can understand about immortality. All I ask is that you step with me into the boundlessness where constancy, quietude and peace, infinite emptiness reign. And just imagine that in this infinite sonorous silence everywhere is an impenetrable darkness." The temperature outside is 17 degrees below zero. It's cold to the bone, but without snow. And Janos says, "The sky darkens and then all goes dark. The dogs howl, rabbits hunch down, the deer run in panic, run, stampede in fright. And in this awful, incomprehensible dusk, even the birds, the birds, too, are confused and go to roost. And then...complete silence. Everything that lives is still. Are the hills going to march off? Will heaven fall upon us? Will the earth open under us? We don't know. We don't know."
Bela Tarr's Werckmeister Harmonies seems to me to be a great combination of allegory about human beliefs, pessimism about human behavior and extraordinary movie making. The image of all these village drunks slowly shuffling and turning around one of their own, the sun, is pure cinema, original, striking and memorable.
Late that night, when Janos is delivering mail, he sees a huge truck slowly driving past a row of buildings leading to the town square. The truck casts a shadow like a pitch-black cloak against the buildings, slowly putting them in such darkness that we can't see them. Inside the truck are the preserved remains of a giant whale and, a poster tells us, a "guest star, The Prince."
Janos Valuska is one of life's innocents. He's "our Janos" to all he knows. For him, everyone is "Uncle" or "Auntie." He believes what people tell him. He does what they ask of him. He cares for them. He does no harm and much good. But now in the village strange things are rumored to happen...families have disappeared, headstones stolen, assaults, killings and burglaries. Rough men are coming to the town because of the whale and The Prince. "The mysterious unknown plagues are here," one woman says. " Great frozen mountains of refuse are everywhere. People bolt the door and tremble, dreading what is to come..." Some choose to prepare themselves by making lists of names.
Much worse is going to happen. The natural harmony of God (or the gods) shouldn't be interfered with. Between the forces of anarchy and the forces of order, between faith and God, there's not much left for most of us, only a disordered and dangerous universe. Janos will no longer be one of life's innocents.
With two minor caveats, I think this is one of the most significant films I've seen. The discussion of Andreas Werckmeister, whose theories of tonal harmonies is challenged by one of the characters, seems to me to be needlessly abstruse (That's probably because I'd never heard of the man and didn't have much of an idea of what the movie's character was going on about.) Surely this could have been developed in a less abstract way. And then there are Tarr's long, unbroken takes. At first I wasn't expecting this and was caught up with the time Tarr was quite willing to spend on a character's expression or action. Close to the beginning of the film, late at night, Janos visits an old man, an important character in the film, who is dozing in the cold parlor of his home. The camera follows Janos in the commonplace activities of helping the man to bed, folding the old man's trousers, helping to take off the socks and shaking and folding them. Pulling up the blanket. Going into the bathroom to bank down the wood-burning heater. Putting on a scarf and heavy coat and his mail pouch to go deliver letters. There was nothing special in these activities, but they were so naturally framed and conducted that they were interesting in themselves and illustrated the kind of well-meaning person Janos was. At the 90-minute mark, however, I found myself anticipating the scenes where Tarr would use this device. Some of those long takes began to seem very long. Small criticisms, really, considering how masterfully Tar composed this film and how deeply he looked into faith, evil and human behavior.