Reviewed by Glenn Erickson
Werckmeister Harmonies is a long and slow art movie from Hungary, directed by the unfamiliar Béla Tarr. It has some good qualities and a sense of mysterious purpose, yet is fated to be pigeonholed as an obscure masterpiece to be lauded mostly in film periodicals.
Béla Tarr is an honored director with several prizes at the big film festivals. A web search for Tarr will reveal critics of sound mind honoring him as the kind of genius who wisely lets his films speak for themselves and refuses to suffer silly questions. His most reprinted quote followed an inquiry about the fact that he likes unusually long takes: He called Kodak's thousand-foot roll limit on 35mm film a kind of censorship, as it keeps him from making movies with even fewer cuts.
János Valuska (Lars Rudolph of Tom Twykers' Run Lola Run and The Princess and the Warrior nervously paces an unnamed Eastern European town where a part of the populace believes civil order is getting out of control -- rumors are flying about unpunished crimes and breakdowns in communication. A strange sideshow comes to town to display a preserved whale, but the huge crowds of surly, uncommunicative men that hang around the display trailer in the town square are more interested in the ideas being disseminated by "The Prince", an unseen fat man performing in the circus. The proprietor won't put The Prince on display because he openly preaches a philosophy of chaos and destruction, but the mob is ready to run riot even without a personal appearance. János' Aunt Tünde (Hanna Schygulla) asks him to persuade his uncle György, a noted scientist with deep theories about music, to contribute to and help lead a reactionary movement against the destructive mob before it is too late.
Werckmeister Harmonies' 145 minutes are divided into fewer than forty individual shots. Some are extremely long, while a few are only very long. The first eleven minutes of the movie is one unbroken take in which János tells a story of the solar system by posing drunks in a barroom. Like everything else in the movie, it's simultaneously interesting and wearying. There's nothing wrong with deliberation in film and plenty of filmmakers have used a slow pace to artistic effect. Director Béla Tarr is better than most at energizing his long takes, but the main result of his effort is to make us think about his filmic technique. Even though Tarr's Werckmeister Harmonies generates a compelling Kafka-esque tone, it will be hard going for all but the most dedicated viewer.
On video or DVD, the impulse to use one's remote to jet ahead to the next event is difficult to resist. Most scenes (or shots) have at least one interminable tracking movement or static pause waiting for something to happen. A trailer takes forever to creep into town. János walks, and walks some more. We watch him run along some railroad tracks seemingly forever, until he's overtaken by a helicopter. The helicopter then circles interminably. Are we trapped in Tarr's inescapable present-tense reality, or do we simply choose not to engage?
Werckmeister Harmonies's intriguing story remains a paranoid mystery. Evil forces seem to be overtaking the town in the form of a hostile mob. The police chief has apparently gone crazy with fear. Civil servants and private individuals function in ignorance, unaware that they may shortly be murdered in their beds or have their homes burned down. Art and philosophy seem to be the keys to the puzzle, as János, his scientist uncle and the sideshow Mabuse called "The Prince" all see the world in abstractions. János tries to express the beauty of God in his living model of a lunar eclipse. For him the great, dead whale symbolizes God's unexplainable Creation. Uncle György expounds his learned theory about natural human harmonies being pre-empted by Werckmeister's eight-tone octave, a musical tyranny.
The Prince's mad philosophy of terror and chaos could well be a provocation arranged by oppressive counter-forces, as the mob's night of murder, arson and vandalism prompts a crackdown by the equally sinister authorities. When Aunt Tünde is seen accompanying tanks through the village, János doesn't feel any more comfortable approaching her than he did the surly mob in the town square.
For all of its interminable stretches, Werckmeister Harmonies relies on the same conventions as an ordinary narrative film. Peripheral characters dispense pages of exposition establishing the (almost completely unseen) situation in the town. The movie stops while its three philosopher spokesmen (János, his uncle and the Ufa - shadow of The Prince) talk directly to us, dispensing the film's intellectual underpinnings with the cinematic equivalent of pamphleteering. Béla Tarr tracks his camera around one speaker, animating the film frame with the same empty camera movement as the average American television drama. Tarr rebuffs our emotional involvement in his story by simply ignoring János' fate. A jump in continuity leaps him from concerned fugitive to catatonic mental patient without explanation. We're left with a very conventional symbolist effect as his Uncle György finally stares into the whale's dead eye.
Facets Video is a great supporter of European artistic cinema, and their DVD of Werckmeister Harmonies will make the intriguing work of Béla Tarr more accessible in Region 1. In his Chicago Reader article, Jonathan Rosenbaum reveals that the New York Times Magazine replaced Susan Sontag's mention of European directors Theo Angelopoulos, Miklos Jancso, Alexander Kluge, Nanni Moretti and Krzysztof Zanussi with references to Francis Coppola and Paul Schrader. The implication is that European directors are being marginalized in the American press as well as excluded from our screens.
The non-enhanced 1:66 transfer is good but not spectacular, even though it shows off the rich blacks in Tarr's many interesting lighting schemes. The careful audio track makes good use of Mihály Vig's reserved music score. There are no extras on the disc, which was provided as a screener without packaging. Facets' marketing publicity mentions a Collectable Booklet that this reviewer would have been eager to read -- it might have had a positive effect on the viewing experience.
On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair, and Poor,
Werckmeister Harmonies rates:
Sound: Very Good
Packaging: not provided for review
Reviewed: February 16, 2006
Republished by permission of Turner Classic Movies.
DVD Savant Text © Copyright 2007 Glenn Erickson