Béla Tarr’s Werckmeister Harmonies is 2 hours and 25 minutes long and has only 39 shots. It is an extraordinary accomplishment, and difficult to describe. There were times, during this or that shot, when I found myself thinking, “How on earth did he pull this off?” The film is both seductive and trying. Despite the fact that there are no cuts within scenes, the sense of dread is on a slow burn here, building and building, through the intensity of the performances, the camera movement (it is rarely static), and the mysterious plot suggesting great violence and devastation. Roger Ebert describes the effect of the 39 shots as “stately”, and that’s very accurate. The “stately” quality of the long shots, with the camera snaking around through rooms, floating from face to face, or zooming in (or out) slowly, is unique. It gives the film a frightening relentless feeling. The camera is not a busybody, cutting in and out, with closeups, long shots, medium shots. Without those techniques, the story starts to feel like a collective nightmare, organic and inevitable. Nobody can wake up.
There’s one scene with a giant crowd walking silently down a street, wielding sticks. The crowd stretches as far as the eye can see. It is night. Nobody speaks. It is a mob we are seeing, and yet they seem rather organized and subdued (that will change). The shot goes on for what feels like a long time, with nothing changing. We are “merely” looking at a huge crowd marching forward.
But slowly, as we settle into the shot, as we submit to it (Tarr’s films require submission, you must meet them on HIS terms, he’s like James Joyce in that respect), different things start to happen. It’s an internal change. As the shot goes on and on and on, and the crowd never seems to end, the sense of danger ratchets up alarmingly. And nothing has changed in the filming of it. There are no closeups of glowering faces or sneering expressions. We are stuck with the same perspective throughout the shot. It is the sticking-with-it that is challenging about Tarr’s films, but it is through the sticking-with-it that you get the rewards. Slowly, as the shot of the crowd continues, you start to realize that the camera is, indeed, moving. It must be on some sort of crane, as well as a dolly, because it is moving backwards, ahead of the crowd, and sometimes the camera is down on face-level with the people and then, almost imperceptibly, the camera will float up high to give us a longer view perspective, and then, it floats back down into the throng for a while, and then it floats back up again. This goes on for five minutes.
As I said, it can be trying, but only if you don’t submit to it. Tarr is a taskmaster.
Béla Tarr is a Hungarian director, and his films are hard to come by. You have to seek them out. Festival favorites, many of them, they rarely find wide releases. He has been working in cinema since the 1970s. He originally wanted to be a philosopher, and this sensibility certainly is evident in his films, which are low on plot, and high on thought and reflection. They are challenging. You must meet them halfway. He started out with documentaries and short films, and rarely used professional actors in the beginning. Social realism was the accepted style of the day. He works with the same people repeatedly. He loves to film in black and white. Tarr was born the year before Hungary’s annus horribilis of 1956, when Soviet troops invaded the country to put down the burgeoning uprising, an event that ignited the world in sympathy and outrage. Despite the Communist iron fist, Hungary was considered a good place to live in the final decades of the Cold War. Budapest was cosmopolitan, artists were allowed freedom (limited, but still), and the standard of living was high (comparatively). Béla Tarr came from a theatrical family (his mother was an actress), and he got some acting jobs as a youth but he never took that seriously as a pursuit. He got jobs with some of the state cultural organizations, and it was under their auspices that he made his first short films. Already, the ties with Russia were loosening. The crackup of the Imperium had begun (it actually had begun the minute it was put in place, but there were years of darkness and isolation in between). The 70s and 80s were heady times for Hungary, the light at the end of the tunnel, and it was then that Tarr first started making his mark. As I said, much of his stuff is hard to come by. He directed a Macbeth that I would love to get my hands on: The entire film only has two shots. Tarr obviously loves to challenge himself in that way. If you set for yourself the task of filming Macbeth knowing ahead of time that you will be doing one long take for the majority of the picture, all kinds of interesting things can then happen, process-wise. (It is reminiscent of the film The Russian Ark, directed by Aleksandr Sokurov, which is a history of Russia up to the Revolution in 1917, filmed at the Hermitage in St. Petersberg, with a cast of thousands – literally – and it’s all one shot.)
I saw Tarr’s latest, The Turin Horse, at the New York Film Festival, and despite some of my issues with it, found much to admire. His cinematography is unparalleled. This is a personal filmmaker, with a unique and individual vision. There are shots in The Turin Horse that have stayed with me. The opening sequence is a masterpiece. There were moments, again, when I thought, “How on earth is Tarr doing this??” His stuff is symphonic, orchestral, filled with foreboding, menace, loss.
I encourage you to seek out his films. Especially if you are interested in the art of moviemaking.
Werckmeister Harmonies tells the story of a small Hungarian town, surrounded by the great plains (on display in a magnificent shot involving railroad tracks and a circling helicopter). The film opens with Janos (Lars Rudolph), a young well-liked man in the town, coercing a bunch of drunks in a bare-bones drinking establishment, to participate in an exhibition of the solar system’s workings. One man is the sun, he has to stand still, doing what amounts to jazz hands, and turn slowly in a circle. One man is the earth, and he has to twirl around the sun, and another man is pulled into the act to be the Moon, and he has to twirl around the earth. Janos is the maestro of this symphony of the celestial spheres.
Later in the film, another townsperson asks Janos, “How’s the cosmos, Janos?” The setting may be grim and poor, but Janos’ natural outlook is up and out.
However. Posters have appeared on telephone poles and lampposts, announcing a circus’ impending arrival. A giant corrugated crate on the back of a truck rolls into town one pitch-black night, its shadow stretching across the houses irrevocably. A harbinger of something dreadful. The light blotted out, no more jazz hands.
The only thing the circus posters proclaim is that you can come see the “world’s largest whale”, and there will be an appearance by someone named “Prince”. Nothing about trapeze artists or acrobats or clowns. Meanwhile, as Janos makes his morning rounds, dropping off newspapers at various locations, stopping to chat, he hears rumblings of unease in the townspeople. A woman at the local restaurant gossips ferociously behind a caged window about the unrest, and how the circus people have been going on violent rampages every night, breaking windows and attacking people. No one is safe. Janos talks to a cleaning woman at his uncle’s house who is afraid to walk home alone. Everyone can feel that something terrible is coming. It may have already arrived, but life, as they know it, is still going on. It is certainly not safe to go to the main square and check out the whale. Nothing good can come of that.
In The Turin Horse there was a similar sense of impending apocalypse, symbolized by the ferocious wind that blows everything away. It is an apocalypse that is felt rather than seen. Werckmeister Harmonies could be seen as a metaphor, for sure, of living under tyranny, of learning early the necessity of keeping your head down and not calling attention to yourself. Of man’s inhumanity to man. Similar to the opening scene in Mikhail Bulgakov’s brilliant Master and Margarita (so full of terror and you cannot quite place why: it is just a friendly meeting in a public park on the surface of it),Werckmeister Harmonies works subconsciously and subtextually. The dread felt by the populace is there in the shadows, it is there in the camera movement (which often comes in so close to a face that you ache for it to pull back so you can see more of the scene), it is there in the music.
Speaking of music.
Janos’ Uncle Gyorgy (Peter Fitz) is a musicologist, obsessed with the theories of Baroque-era theorist/composer/tuner Andreas Werckmeister. Werckmeister, as I understand it, came up with theories of harmony and counterpoint, as well as tips for tuning instruments so that music played would be in tune with the proper harmonies, a revolution at the time of Werckmeister, when tuning was far from a science. Uncle Gyorgy, huddled in a dark room by his piano, feels that the world went wrong after Werckmeister, whose heyday, let’s remember, was in the 17th century. After Werckmeister, the world turned its back on more celestial and natural harmonies, the ones provided by God and the universe. If we could just undo the work of Werckmeister, if we could un-hear him, we could actually be in sync again with the way things ought to be (and to sound). Uncle Gyorgy is so obsessed with Werckmeister that he has kicked his wife out of the house, and is barely paying attention to the catastrophe unfolding in the town.
But perhaps the two are connected. Of course they are connected. Janos spends his life trying to explain and understand the organic movements of the universe, and his uncle spends his life trying to hear the harmonies that existed before everything was straightened out and regularized. What is the world missing? What are we now unable to hear? What have we lost?
False harmonies, false order, will be imposed in such a vacuum. The circus, and the ominous never-seen figure of “Prince”, represents that imposed order. But the circus’ order is actually chaos, a perfect representation of how tyranny operates. Pacify a populace (totalitarian language has a chilling way of taking perfectly peaceful words like “pacify” or “cleanse” and using them to describe violent genocidal events) through terrifying violence. One swift strike and you won’t have any problem for generations to come. Order imposed separates us from God. Werckmeister, “Prince” … same force in our world, violence masquerading as order. Gyorgy’s estranged wife Tunde (a fantastic Hanna Schygulla) appeals to Janos: Gyorgy is the only citizen in the town respected enough to resist Prince and the circus. Aunt Tunde tells Janos that he must get Gyorgy to go out and collect signatures for a petition to keep the town safe from harm. Gyorgy needs to step up, basically, and if he does not do what Tunde asks, then Tunde will move back in with him. “Tell him,” she whispers to Janos, “that I will have supper with him tonight if he does not do what I ask.”
Having to live with his wife again is enough of a threat, apparently, that Gyorgy struggles on his overcoat and heads out with Janos to talk to the citizens and get organized as a resistance. Tarr shoots Janos and Gyorgy walking along the sidewalk, in tight closeup, both faces in the frame, both characters walking briskly, another amazing accomplishment (in a film filled with camera behavior that boggles the mind). You wonder how they timed it, how they got in sync. I do know that it sometimes takes months to get one shot right in a Tarr film. Because the characters are talking, and because they are discussing things like the whale in the town square, and marital issues, and things like that, the scene is engrossing enough on its own. But the filming of it is the stand-out. Werckmeister Harmonies forces you to pay attention to those details.
Meanwhile, a restless crowd gathers on the town square around the corrugated iron shed. Fires burn in the open. Birds fly above and swoop down, as though they too are alarmed. You pay a couple cents and you are allowed into the shed to look at the giant whale. Everyone warns Janos to stay away from the square, stay away from the whale, but Janos must see it. Janos enters the dark shed. The whale, dead, with open staring eyes, lies there motionless. Janos stares into the giant eyeball of the dead whale. To Janos it is not a harbinger of doom, although by that point in Werckmeister Harmonies you may start to feel that Janos’ naivete may be dangerous, as political naivete usually is. I don’t know why the whale is a bad sign. But it is. Or, to say it more plainly: the whale is a blank slate, a vacuum of meaning, and anyone can project anything they want onto it. Janos sees the whale as evidence of God’s magnificence. It is part of that circling perfect cosmos he tried to create in the opening scene. Others refuse to look upon the giant dead thing waiting in the town square. It will bring no good. Others still seem to feel proprietary towards it: it is THEIR whale, what the hell are YOU doing here?
When violence breaks out, after the unseen Prince rallies the forces of chaos, it is horrifying to behold. The mob walking down the street enters a dilapidated hospital, and wreak havoc on the patients. People are beaten and killed. It’s almost balletic, symphonic, the movements of the mob and the camera floating down the hallway, peeking in and out of rooms as horrific events go down. The crowd has turned into a mob (Nobel laureate Elias Canetti broke down the different types of crowds in his fascinating book Crowds and Power: I thought of it often while watching Werckmeister Harmonies.) Power is lying in the streets, waiting to be picked up, as a famous revolutionary once said.
The film’s outlook is bleak. The prospects are not good, people. It’s far too late to wish for simple things like safety and comfort and leisure. Even in the first scene, as Janos manipulates his fellow townsmen into the formation of the solar system, it is too late. The apocalypse has already begun. “Mere anarchy is loosed upon the world.”
Werckmeister Harmonies, filmed in elegant and sometimes spooky black and white, is pierced with longing for another time, for peace, for harmony, and pierced with terror of what is to come, of annihilation.
Another Nobel laureate, Polish poet Czeslaw Milosz, wrote a poem that came to mind when I saw the whale, lying in the square, naked and exposed after the violence. Milosz himself experienced tyranny, oppression, and terror. His poetry often had to do with exposing the truth of living under a totalitarian system (in his unforgettable Nobel acceptance speech, Milosz said, “In a room where people unanimously maintain a conspiracy of silence, one word of truth sounds like a pistol shot.”). Milosz’s poem “So Little” is a pistol shot of truth and, incidentally, it involves a whale.
I said so little.
Days were short.
I said so little.
I couldn’t keep up.
My heart grew weary
The jaws of Leviathan
Were closing upon me.
Naked, I lay on the shores
Of desert islands.
The white whale of the world
Hauled me down to its pit.
And now I don’t know
What in all that was real.
Werckmeister Harmonies, directed by a vital and uncompromising artist, hauls us down into the pit of the “white whale of the world”. We are forever separated from God. And in that chaos, we can’t know “what in all that was real”. It’s a must-see.