Original release: February 1st 2001
Running time: 145 minutes
Country of origin: Hungary
Original language: Hungarian with English subtitles
Director: Béla Tarr
Writers: Béla Tarr, László Krasznahorkai (novel)
Cast: Lars Rudolph, Peter Fitz, Hanna Schygulla
Béla Tarr once said film could and should be used, not to tell stories, but to examine the human condition. While this is perhaps how artists consider their work – as an examination of themselves, our species, or our nature – film is seldom afforded this luxury by the majority of those who partake in it.
The popular opinion is that film is a medium for telling stories, first and foremost, and the latest releases are sold to us using their brief description and blurb summarising the narrative to hook our attention, not by speaking about their underlying themes.
Given the rather opaque nature of Tarr’s seventh feature film, Werckmeister Harmonies, based on László Krasznahorkai’s novel The Melancholy of Resistance, it surprised me that the story follows a vague plot rather than attempting to understand what’s going on behind it. Unlike the work of someone like Apichatpong Weerasethakul, whose films are better enjoyed if you just let them wash over you, Werckmeister Harmonies‘ mystery kept me glued to the screen for its two and half hours run time.
There’s something even more wonderful and enchanting than the mysteries of the film’s plot though, and that’s its visual style. The opening sequence is perhaps the most beautiful one of any film ever made and I was entirely in love with the it from that moment on. It shows a hearth being tended to by the landlord of a small local public house. He calls time, but one of the patrons explains they can’t leave until Jànos Valuska (Lars Rudolph) has shown them something.
Jànos shows them how the solar system works using the addled punters as the Sun, Earth and Moon. He explains how a solar eclipse occurs – leaving the Earth in utter darkness – and then how the light bursts back onto our planet. Who knows whether the idea of the eclipse, the moment of darkness, is a foreshadowing of the darkness to come but it may be hard to argue that a bright sunny future awaits them after the turmoil of the film’s events.
What’s certain is that the scene is almost ten minutes long and done in one shot. The camera glides in and out and around the room, giving the sensation of close-ups and wide-shots, all through movement and the actors framing themselves by their actions. It’s glorious and I return to this scene regularly for inspiration.
The rest of the film is not much different, with Tarr employing only 39 shots in 145 minutes, meaning an average shot length of just less than three minutes. This may not seem very long but if you watch a scene from a typical Hollywood film you will quickly see how many shots make up a short scene.
The shots often begin before the characters arrive in the scene and continue after they’ve left. The magic of Tarr is that you’re never bored, even when you watch a man walking down a dimly lit street in the dead of night. It’s worth noting this isn’t to create tension, as it might be in the realm of some directors; Tarr’s propensity for long takes is a far more philosophical stylistic choice.
The rest of the film sees Jànos, after his cosmological display in the pub, going about his rounds in the town, which involve looking after the withdrawn musical academic György Eszter (Peter Fitz). At this point, a circus arrives, consisting of a stuffed Killer Whale and a mysterious man called “The Prince”. While Jànos eats dinner in the post office, we hear the woman in the sorting room who is concerned that the travelling show seems to inspire rioting wherever it goes.
Soon enough, when Jànos goes to see the whale, he also notices groups of men beginning to congregate in the town square surrounding the whale. Things escalate as György’s estranged wife, Tünde (Hanna Schygulla), blackmails her husband into supporting her new committee to create order in the town, whilst The Prince – who we hear but never see – speaks of his desire to inspire the masses of followers now surrounding the whale to destroy the town.
What this all means, it is up to us to decide. The money-making idea of taking the whale around the Hungarian countryside, from town to town, could perhaps be read as a condemnation of capitalism. The Prince, and for that matter the whale, could represent the beginnings of a totalitarian state. There is perhaps a clear line drawn between the chaos of the mob and the order of the committee and the stars.
György’s failed academic ideas that music should be simpler and that Bach should never have conformed to the notions of Andreas Werckmeister. It might suggest yearning for a simpler life is futile, or it might not.
Tarr and Krasznahorkai create a compelling and disquieting world that seeps inside you as you watch. The despair is overwhelming when the followers of The Prince finally begin to do his bidding; this feeling is echoed perfectly in the grainy high-contrast black and white photography as they ransack a hospital. I’ve seen Werckmeister Harmonies several times now and while I do have ideas regarding what it means – or at least what certain parts mean – they are just ideas. One of the joys of the film is trying to find your own; that and watching the stunning and sublime visuals.
Ben has had a keen love of moving images since his childhood but after leaving school he fell truly in love with films. His passion manifests itself in his consumption of movies (watching films from all around the globe and from any period of the medium’s history with equal gusto), the enjoyment he derives from reading, talking and writing about cinema and being behind the camera himself having completed his first co-directed short film in mid-2011.
His favourite films include things as diverse as The Third Man, In The Mood For Love, Badlands, 3 Iron, Casablanca, Ran and Grizzly Man to name but a few.