Imagine a film written by Alejandro Jodorowsky, halfway directed by Aleksandr Sokurov then completed by Andrei Tarkovsky, Werner Herzog, Fritz Lang and Fellini. If you can do this then you have a feeling for Bela Tarr’s black and white 2000 film “Werckmeister Harmonies”. If you can’t do this and are turned off by the idea of watching something with so many film school darlings as reference points then this movie won’t last twenty minutes in your DVD player. In the same vein, if you’re someone who finds most films made before 1990 to be too slow for your tastes then by the one hour mark of “Werckmeister Harmonies” you will be trying to wrap your index fingers around your optic nerves. If on the other hand you like puzzling, analogy driven works of philosophical cinema then Bela Tarr’s film may be to your liking.
“Werckmeister Harmonies” tells the story of a town’s descent into madness at a pace that feels slower than real time. If you have ever tried or succeeded in reading James Joyce’s “Ulysses” take that experience with you into this one, it may help. Janos is a caregiver, a paper delivery boy and the beloved mascot of his small town in the Hungarian grasslands. The town is seeing a significant uptick in crime and discontentment when news comes that a traveling sideshow is on its way. Janos tries to reassure everyone that he knows that the show is harmless entertainment but the nervous locals are sure that it is tantamount to the Star of Wormwood crash landing in their water supply.
One of Janos’ charges, a famed local musician named Eszter forwards a theory that musically and perhaps more globally things may have gone out of step because of 15th century musical theorist Andreas Werckmeister. Werckmeister believed that the use of counterpoints in music was directly tied to the movement of the planets.
The sideshow arrives, boasting only two oddities of interest. One is the gigantic stuffed carcass of a whale, the other a reclusive freak named “The Prince” whose magnetism is said to have mesmeric effects on people. People begin to crowd into the towns square from far and wide, keeping some sort of tense vigil over the trailer. Janos is tasked by Eszter’s estranged wife to keep watch over the crowd and get a pulse for what they want. Tense hours elapse and the square dwellers become increasingly hostile. As night falls “The Prince” emerges spouting the rhetoric of mayhem and a faceless throng of thugs take to the streets wreaking havoc on the tiny community.
Like Andrei Tarkovsky Bela Tarr wants the viewer to really ruminate on the multitude of layers in every filmed image. Tracking shots several minutes long account for nearly all of the 39 set-ups that comprise the film. To put that into perspective a bit, it is not uncommon for a Michael Bay action scene to reach the 39 shot tally before 15 seconds have elapsed. Tarr’s technique may not be friendly to a broad audience but by the end of “Werckmeister Harmonies” the reward is substantial. The time the director spends lingering in places when the narrative has moved on or prior to the action starting is well spent. It is a glacial advance that not only mimics the speed of an ice flow but carries the same heft and tension.
Philosophically I am sure a good deal of this film flew right over my head. What I found accessible and really compelling is the interplay of rationalism and supernatural ideas. The film starts with Janos using drunken bar-patrons as celestial bodies to illustrate the phenomenon of an eclipse. He seems to be propounding that there is a cyclical quality to the state of normlessness and suggesting that it is a necessary movement to effect change in all things. The barkeep chases them all out but Janos pauses at the door to tell him that there is more to come. His bar stool cosmology is the first bit of friction in the story; a science minded young man surrounded by the superstitions of Hungarian steppe. Janos notions are rooted in his love of the stars but the forces that will eventually destroy his town look more like the cold architecture of greed and megalomania. It’s a formula that goes something like, stir the superstition of the people, find an agent to incite violence then wait for the dust to settle and seize power in the reconstruction phase.
If densely packed philosophical ruminations on revolt, change, and fear combined with dream-like visuals are not enough to fire your cinematic engines then it would be best to stay far away from this film. There is very little action to speak of and the story evolves with such languor that you might well swear off Hungarian cinema altogether. On the other hand if you love Tarkovsky, can’t get enough of virtuoso camera work and enjoy the challenge of ‘reading’ a film then there is a lot to be discovered in Bela Tarr’s stark and haunting tale of Abaddon and avarice.