Directed by Bela Tarr and Agnes Hranitzky. Hungary/Italy/Germany/France. 2000.

Reviewed by Alan Pavelin and Howard Schumann

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It is well known that film moguls devote very many hours to deciding on a movie title, one that will appeal to the Saturday night multiplex crowd. It seems unlikely that a title like Werckmeister Harmonies will have them queuing round the block, though Hungarian director Bela Tarr presumably considered it marginally more user-friendly than The Melancholy of Resistance, the title of Laszlo Krasznahorkai’s novel on which it is based.

Perhaps this doesn’t matter, because Tarr’s belatedly-released piece of what is often referred to as “East European angst”, completed in 2000, will hardly make the multiplexes anyway. Quite simply, it is too much of a masterpiece - a word I use sparingly, but in this instance with justification. 

Where to begin? Perhaps with that title (a chapter heading in the source book). Werckmeister was a minor composer, a contemporary of J. S. Bach, who revolutionised the concept of musical harmony. A character in Tarr’s film, Eszter, is obsessed with the notion that Werckmeister was wrong, and that music ought to revert to previous notions of harmony.

But the film is not about music. In terms of previous works of art, it can best be described as a cross between Tarkovsky’s Stalker and Orwell’s 1984, with the crop-dusting sequence from Hitchcock’s North by Northwest thrown in near the end for good measure. Shot in glimmering monochrome, it contains just 39 shots in 145 minutes, par for the course as far as this director is concerned though not what the MTV generation is used to. I found it completely absorbing, certainly the best of the three-and-two-thirds Tarr films I have now seen (see my earlier article on Bela Tarr for an explanation of the two-thirds).

What, you might ask, is the plot? In a bleak provincial town, a huge stuffed whale is put on display in the main square, along with a shadowy figure called The Prince (the shadow is all we see). A general air of apocalyptic doom prevails. The only person interested in the whale is the local delivery man Valuska (Lars Rudolph, looking like the young Klaus Kinski in one of his wilder roles), a kind of “holy fool” who uses the local drunks to simulate an eclipse of the sun, calls everyone “uncle” or “aunt”, and tends to the needs of the elderly Eszter. Eszter’s estranged wife (Hanna Schygulla, still beautiful) threatens to return to him unless he agrees to lead a campaign to clean up the town. Meanwhile dozens, then hundreds, of rough-looking men congregate in the town square, then march on the local hospital and ransack it, ceasing only when they come across a very old, frail, skeletal naked man standing in the shower. Valuska loses his wits; Eszter visits the now-deserted square to inspect the whale.

Most of the reviews admire the film’s stunning images, which are indeed hypnotic and memorable, while expressing total bafflement as to what it is all meant to be about. Tarr gives no assistance; he is one of those film-makers who like to remain utterly enigmatic (when asked “but where is the hope?” he replied “the hope is that you will see this movie”). All I would suggest is that the whale with its huge eye, like the sea-monster in Fellini’s La Dolce Vita, is God, observing the destructive activities of Man, while the Prince is the Devil (“Prince of Darkness”), urging on Man to that destruction. (And who is the helpless old man who stops the ransackers in their tracks?). In other words the film is a Manichean drama of good versus evil, where evil wins the day, at least for the time being. The problem with this interpretation is that, according to an interview, Tarr is not a religious person. But perhaps that isn’t relevant.

What must have struck many viewers on its UK release in April 2003 is the extraordinarily prophetic scene of the sacking of the hospital. Isn’t that just what happened in Baghdad, following the downfall of Saddam Hussain? In this connection it should be noted that the novel was first published in 1989, about the time of the fall of Communism in Hungary and elsewhere. Are Krasznahorkai and Tarr saying that the fall of a long-standing and oppressive political system can easily result in anarchy?

Viewers may have alternative interpretations but, even if not, the images and the stately cinematography, as well as the masterly use of sound (Valuska’s echoing footsteps are an enduring motif), make Werckmeister Harmonies a truly memorable work of art for those prepared to adjust to its leisurely pace. Tarr’s films will never make the box-office “top ten”, and I certainly do not share what seems to be his utterly bleak view of human nature, but I cannot recommend this film too strongly.

Alan Pavelin

"This is the dead land. This is cactus land. Here the stone images are raised, here they receive the supplication of a dead man's hand under the twinkle of a fading star" - T.S. Eliot
It is closing time in a bar somewhere in Eastern Europe. Someone says, "Show us, Janos". A blank faced young man, Janos Valuska (Lars Rudolph), begins to organize a ballet of inebriated patrons playing the Sun and the Moon turning in their orbits. Valuska pleads, "All I ask is that you step with me into the bottomlessness." As the dance continues, the men are spun. They stop suddenly as the orchestrater tells us that "in this awful, incomprehensible dusk, everything that lives is still…" Then, with a push, the dancers carry on until the Earth emerges from the Moon's shadow. The eternal conflict between darkness and light begins again. 

Containing shots that last up to fifteen minutes at a time, Werckmeister Harmonies, the latest film by Bela Tarr (Satantango, Damnation), is a nightmarish vision of a society duped by political demagogues and distracted by circuses, being led into a cycle of violence and despair. Based on a novel by László Krasznahorkai, it is a powerful and disturbing film that, in its surreal depiction of growing madness in an unnamed town, is reminiscent of Roy Andersson's Songs From the Second Floor. The film takes its name from the theories of Janos' "uncle" Gyorgy Eszter (Peter Fitz), a musicologist who tells him of his obsession with the legacy of Andreas Werckmeister, a 17th century German musician who created the twelve-tone scale. Eszter believes that perfect order does injustice to the holiness of music, and says that the heavens move to their own music.

As Janos leaves the bar and walks through the cold and half-deserted streets, streets that in T.S. Eliot's phrase "follow like a tedious argument of insidious intent"*, an enormous van drives up the main street and comes to rest in a great empty square in the town centre. A circus is in town. The exhibit contains the world's largest whale, dead and stuffed with tiny staring eyes, and The Prince, a shadowy figure that we never see. The town is full of rumours of impending violence. Janos sees the whale and watches a growing group of seemingly unemployed middle aged men gather silently around fires in the square. He seems to know everyone in the town. To further her political agenda of "town cleansing" (read ethnic cleansing), Eszter's estranged wife, Tunde (Hanna Schygulla), sends the compliant Janos on errands. He is told to put the children of the police chief to bed but, as if presaging the coming violence, they stomp on their beds to a cacophony of noise while one shouts at Janos over and over again. "It will be hard for you". "It will be hard for you." He is also asked to listen to conversations in the square and report back to her, but he only hears the Prince saying, “What they build and what they will build is illusion and lies. What they think and what they will think is ridiculous”. 

When the signal is given, the men in the square come together and march towards us with growing anger in a hypnotic parade lasting five terrifying minutes. They go on a rampage, setting fires and ransacking a hospital, beating the sick in an unbroken orgy of violence. Patients huddle by their beds in silent fear. Suddenly a door is opened. Confronted by the menacing faces, an emaciated old man stands naked in a shower bathed in an amorphous light. Transfixed by what they have seen, the men abandon their task and retreat silently into the street. On the morning after, order is restored. The van is broken down and the whale looks like an overstuffed balloon. The Sun emerges from behind the Moon to the swell of ineffably beautiful music. We have reached the end of the cycle only to begin dancing again when the next Prince calls the tune. 

Howard Schumann
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