on 2 April 2010
On a cold, windswept square in a small central Hungarian town a carnival arrives with a giant stuffed whale as the special attraction. The town longs to find out what it looks like and to perhaps catch a glimpse of the potentially dangerous "Prince" who runs the show. The arrival of the carnival is the catalyst for unsettling this quiet town and a revolution begins to be fostered by members of the town's political elite...
Bela Tarr is the king of the long take yet this film is so much more than just a slow moving, black and white European arthouse picture. Based on the book "The Melancholy of Resistance" by László Krasznahorkai, Werkmeister Harmonies is a powerful meditation on loneliness, evil, political power, control, and the potential insanity of crowds. It's effect is in many ways elemental...it is hard to be specific about what Tarr is trying to explore but you will come away confused and exhilarated.
This is film making of the highest intellectual standard. In addition to the incredible shot making and photography the score provided by Mihaly Vig adds emotional weight to the images on screen. This is without doubt one of the most significant pieces of cinema produced in the last 25 years.
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.
"Werckmeister Harmonies" is a mesmerizing film, directed by the Hungarian Bela Tarr. It is set in a small Hungarian town and the film is shot in monochrome and features the extensive use of long takes throughout. The film follows the life of Janos , an innocent, kind hearted young man , after the arrival into town of a circus featuring a large stuffed whale and a mysterious figure called the Prince. As the film progresses , the town descends into anarchy and mob rule , culminating in a memorable 15 minute scene where a silent, angry crowd march to a local hospital and proceed to beat up the patients. Janos gets caught up in these disturbing events as the forces of chaos displace those of law and order. To be honest , I couldnt make too much sense of this film, but it is visually impressive with many striking images and scenes and the soundtrack is good as well.
Bela Tarr is known for his use of non professional actors, often real people who work in real life in other jobs. He’ll often use the same actors in different films. He always takes their personalities and creates the story around that, stressing being rather than playing. He shoots on low budgets using hand-held cameras in black and white, with a great contrast between light and shade. For him there is a connection between film and real life. His movies are situated between reality and fiction: on the one hand is improvisation, on the other hand everything is very composed and perfect. He likes to show real people, real emotions. He works with the same people in a kind of family.He uses real moments and Meta communications, strong locations and formal artistry.
The film’s subject is shot like cinema verite, yet we get the material reality conjoined with a charged symbolic presence, so things are both themselves, but also have an essence that transcends their existence. We get a story but also a place as the narrative and people’s faces. Tarr said film is a very concrete thing,it only records what is there, there are no allegories in his films. Also literary language (as in the novel) is different to film language and has to be translated into film language through dialogue,images, and situations. The description of the novel requires in film the assistance of music, the editing, the cinematography(hand-held cameras),the actors’ personalities, the crowd scenes, the location. Werckmeister Harmonies works like a visual poem.
Tarr is the king of slow-moving takes and this brings out the ontological nature of the film. A post office worker describes that anarchy has been loosed,killings,lootings, murder, mountains of waste refuse. The centre cannot hold. Janos(Lars Rudolph) has been visited by his aunt Tunde (HannaSchygulla), the Professor’s former partner.She enlists Janos to get his uncle to obtain signatures on a petition for her nascent political movement in the hopes that his respected social standing will encourage other prominent townspeople to support her cause. She lives with the chief of police. The film is set at the time of Russian post WW2 occupation. The film is weighed down by symbols-the smelly circus whale, the Prince, the angry mobs,the Werckmeister Harmonies. I think we are meant to identify with the serene but baffled Janos,who is a sensitive soul who visits the town square a lot ,worried about the growing tensions of the groups of surly men standing around street fires, reporting this back home.
Here are some of the main scenes in the film with a few guesses what they mean:-
Opening scene in the tavern of the drunken bodies choreographed into imitating the revolution of the earth around the sun and the moon around the earth and the solar eclipse when the moon comes between earth and sun. The chill in nature and the chaos which descends,the apocalyptic shadow that is thrown on men. Janos as village fool. Image of the apocalypse with the secret entrance into the town of the massive lorry and caravan headlights of the world’s largest whale and Prince. The circus is a metaphorical Trojan horse.Is decaying whale symbol for death of God? brutalised political system? Prince as demagogue. Mobs result of fall from grace. Violence. Janos’s uncle Georgy speaks about the disharmony with the readjustment of the musical scale, a metaphor for the corruption of the political system and the man-made attempts to change human governance. Intelligentsia’s desire to improve harmony. Rioters like a tide of demonic anger who without knowing the object of their anger destroy everything in their path,e.g. the hospital. But come to a halt when they witness an image of their own mortality-the poor, bare, forked animal. Use of music as epiphany. Janos is on wanted list and runs out of town along railway tracks. Helicopter pursues him and brings him back to psychiatric hospital as a deviant. Visited by his uncle who says when he comes out he can live in a shed of the garden of his former house, now over-taken by police chief and fascist ex-wife. Tragedy as Janos is our only thread of real humanity connecting everything,taking us with him ,like Virgil, through the circles of hell. Tarr underneath is a hopeful film maker with a belief in humanity. For sure he is the real deal and his work will outlast that of lesser mortals. In the surreal parting shot of the immobile whale in the town square that represents a lost, a curious, dislocated relic rendered irrelevant and obsolete by the erosive tide of repression, inhumanity, cultural isolation, and spiritual desolation.