Thursday, April 11, 2013

The Best Films I Have Never Seen Before: Werckmeister Harmonies (2000)

Werckmeister Harmonies (2000)
Directed by: Béla Tarr.
Written by: László Krasznahorkai & Béla Tarr based on the novel by László Krasznahorkai
Starring: Lars Rudolph (János Valuska), Peter Fitz (György Eszter), Hanna Schygulla (Tünde Eszter).

Werckmeister Harmonies was the first movie I watched after Roger Ebert died – and that was no mistake. I knew my movie world was going to change significantly after Ebert died – he has been such a huge part of my moviegoing life for two decades now – and I wanted the first movie I watched after he passed to be in some small way a tribute to him. Bela Tarr’s 2000 film may seem like an odd choice to make – but to me it made sense. It was one of the few of Roger Ebert’s Great Movies I had not seen, and reading his review I was struck by how Ebert always pushed himself, and always wanted to experience something different. His experience with Tarr in some ways reflects by own – I had heard about him for years, and never watched one his movies until last year’s The Turin Horse, which I knew I had to see, if only because it would surely rank highly on film critics top 10 lists of the year (it did – on my survey of over 600 film critics, The Turin Horse ranked 16th – above such films as The Dark Knight Rises or Les Miserables). I admired The Turin Horse, with its beautiful black and white cinematography, it’s long shots, it’s long silences and the almost apocalyptic feel of the movie – why do they turn back for example near the end of the film when they finally resolve to go to town, unless there is no town to go to?) But I didn’t really love the film. Tarr’s films have always been described as “deliberately paced”, which is a nice way of saying they’re slow – and for all the great things about The Turin Horse, it is definitely a slow film – and at two and half hours, not an easy one either.

The same could be said, of course, of Werckmeister Harmonies. Here is another deliberately paced, two and half hour, black and white movie, with long stretches of silence, and very long shots (there are apparently only 39 shots in the entire film – meaning on average each shot lasts nearly four minutes, compared to most films which have an average shot length of a few seconds). And yet, much more than The Turin Horse, I was drawn into the mysteries of Werckmeister Harmonies. Yes, the film is long and slow, but unlike The Turin Horse, Werckmeister Harmonies didn’t feel as long. In fact, the two and half hours passed rather quickly.

The film opens with one of the best shots in any movie I can recall – that well over 10 minutes. It is winter in a small town in Hungary, and the bar is closing – meaning all the residents are about to be turned out into the street. One of these men – younger than most – is Janos (Lars Rudolph) – explains how the earth revolves around the sun, and the moon revolves around the earth, using three drunks, staggering around, as his examples. Darkness is introduced when he comes to the eclipse – the moon blocking out the sun – which serves as a metaphor from what is about to come – as this small Hungarian town is about to be cut off from God, and sink into evil.

As Janos leaves the bar, and starts to go around delivering his papers, he starts to hear disturbing rumors. A circus is coming to town – their two main attractions are a giant stuff whale, and someone known only as the “Prince”, who is said to have dark powers. The townsfolk are growing increasingly restless, fearful and paranoid. After the circus arrives in town, Janos heads down to see it – and sees seemingly the entire town milling about. Janos buys a ticket, and head in for the film’s most haunting shot, as he walks around the giant whale, which is held inside a trailer. This is the scene where the dread really begins to mount.

There are other major characters in the movie – Uncle Gyorgy (Peter Fitz) is an intellectual, who waxes on about about 17th Century German Werckmeister and this theories – which Gyorgy completes rejects, and sees as his job to correct society’s thinking on the matter – and society at large. Then there is Aunt Trunde, married to Gyorgy but separated from him, who is leading the charge to spearhead a new “clean society” in town. While these two are doing their thing, The Prince does indeed seem to be having a dark influence on the town – mainly through his seemingly telepathtic abilities. The town reaches its boiling point in a remarkable 8 minute shot where the people attack a hospital – and all the patients inside – in a brutal and shocking fashion.

Werckmeister Harmonies plays like an allegory, even if Tarr insists it isn’t one. The film, based a novel by László Krasznahorkai, published in 1989 just as Communism in Eastern Europe collapsed, can be read as a commentary on Communism if you want it to be – although I think it’s deeper than that. It can be read as a Bergman style movie about the Silence of God – this movie surely puts no faith in God to protect people from themselves – they are responsible for either caving into evil, or not. There is even a hint of Kafka in the proceedings – as near the end, when somehow poor holy fool Janos has ended up on an extermination list after the army had to be called in to quell the riot. Like The Turin Horse, there is an apocalyptic feel to the proceedings in this film.

What Werckmeister Harmonies means is something I’ll leave to figure out – there are lots of interpretations that the movie could support – and I think in essence, that is by design. Tarr doesn’t tell you what to think, as much as he leaves it up to you. What stands out about the film is the breathtaking cinematography – among the best of any film since 2000. The strange, dread filled tone of the film where we know something bad is going to happen – and that something bad is bigger than we first suspect. This is a very strange, haunting film. You may well hate it – if you want a normal plot, look elsewhere – but you will probably never forget it.

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