Bela Tarr: Werckmeister Harmonies (2000) - Can't Stop the Movies
Can't Stop the Movies
7Sep/101

Bela Tarr: Werckmeister Harmonies (2000)

Every Tuesday Andrew will be examining the work of the Hungarian director Bela Tarr.

"The lie is when we believe other people will turn around when faced with something they can't actually destroy."
-Bela Tarr-

Andrew COMMENTARYSo he says of the men marching through the hospital, looking for a way to release their anger and suspicion.  Tarr later says that they turned around because there was a wall blocking their path, and could proceed no further.  These are his methods, and his sense of humor, that he could blame the wall.

That despair is at the center of Werckmeister Harmonies, and transcends into the sublime.  I do not mean sublime in any joyful way, but rather that it presents a nightmare so vivid in it's depiction of that hopelessness that it has crushed any similar attempt.  The only other director that allows that much bleak emotion to enter the world of film without a glimmer of hope is Ingmar Bergman (even then, the spirits are at play regardless of Bergman's wishes).

Tarr creates this vivid portrait by completely removing all sense of realism from the film.  Aside from the long takes and strange intensity, we are so far removed from his early housing drama days that those films might as well have been made by another person.  Even Satantango carried a realistic fatalism in it's surroundings as it was not too hard to imagine life before the town began to die.  Werckmeister is so firmly rooted in the nightmare that "reality" doesn't play as much of a role here.

Janos weaves into and out of the darkness.

There is no hope in this world, only empathy and understanding but even those aren't enough.  In Werckmeister Harmonies Tarr, for the first time, gives us a sympathetic central character that we are with through the entirety of the film and watches as he is slowly broken down by his own sense of empathy.  This is cruel, but this is the way things are for Tarr.

The plot is one that he might has experienced in a dream.  Janos Valuska (Lars Rudolph) wanders about the town as a serene prophet.  In the opening ten minutes he arranges a group of drunks to simulate the lunar cycle, as their breathing becomes rhythmic with the universe, and for a moment everything is still.  That darkness, that moment where Janos realizes nothing that come back, is where the lie begins.  He hurries to reverse his story and get the rotation started again as the bartender hurries him out into the night.

In the middle of the night a low grumbling sounds across the town.  A long shadow grows over the buildings as some headlights pierce the night and the camera pans over a pole showing that the circus is coming, featuring The Prince and the whale.  The effects of the circus are not immediately apparent.  The town begins to grumble.  One girl heard that The Prince, the owner of the circus, has three eyes and evil powers.  Another man heard that the town that the circus visited last was destroyed a little after they stopped by.

Janos might have been better off staying ignorant of everything.

We watch and we follow.  Is the town being unreasonable for thinking that the circus will bring chaos and doom?  Or are they right to be suspicious of The Prince and his whale?  Tarr's answer is both.  Some members of the town were looking for a way to seize some small level of control over the populace, and it turns out that The Prince really does thrive on destruction and chaos.

This film is pure nightmare.  The moments where we are being lulled into a sense of false bliss are lies.  The uplifting music is there to rub salt in the wound.  Figures disappear into the darkness and reappear as hostile, threatening figures.  The jolly drunks that we see rotating around as celestial bodies in the beginning of the film are absorbed by the hate and despair that the circus brings.  We are anchored around the only source of hope in the film, and we're slowly watching him be snuffed out.

Rewatching Tarr's films I find that his previous work only hints at what he's capable of in Werckmeister Harmonies.  He is supremely confident in the images of the film, and has begun working with music and the soundtrack in more interesting ways.  Tarr allows non-diagetic songs to eek into key moments, heightening their impact in profoundly unsettling ways.

He's only now realizing how helpless he is.

On the thematic level you can approach it as an allegory for the rise of the Nazis, or the complacency of the former Communist population in the new Capitalist society.  Tarr keeps things fluid enough for you to construct your own reason for what happens.  The images are disturbing, with Janos navigating the darkness and enduring the hateful stares of the other town-folk.  Then there's the matter of the whale.  It's slowly decaying in the center of town, watching over the meager employees of the surface and the townsfolk that have gathered around the makeshift "tent".

No one else in the town is really pure, complicating the moral gravity in the center of the film.  Janos, despite his positive outlook, is met with silence by the townspeople when he is spiritual and is completely helpless against the hypnotic power of The Prince (who, if he isn't really the devil, is awfully close in philosophy).

I liked Janos.  It's not often that I find someone in Tarr's films that is completely innocent of what happens around him.  But it's that innocence that makes him ignorant of the plans of the ambitious townsfolk, and of the evil that the circus brings.  Innocence alone won't get us through this world, it will be corrupted and put on display for other's to mourn or take advantage of.

Werckmeister Harmonies is Tarr's most accessible and accomplished film.  Despite the omnipresent darkness the film takes many light, diverting moments that throw the rest of the film into sharper focus.  The soundtrack is gorgeous, and well used throughout the films set pieces.

Time has passed a lot quicker than I expected, and there are only two weeks to go with Tarr's films.  Next week is his latest, The Man From London, and following that a wrap up with his short films.

Werckmeister Harmonies (2000)

Directed by Bela Tarr.
Written by Laszlo Krasznahorkai and Bela Tarr.
Starring Lars Rudolph.

Tarr with text

Posted by Andrew

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  1. u4erthis is one of the most striking films ever, hollowing out any remaining soul one might have left, we are left with shells of ghastly ghosts. daily life is bleak and no one takes any joy in the daily grind. this film will empty you out and leave you refecting
    long after. watch this before you die.


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