Combustible Celluloid Review - Werckmeister Harmonies (2000), Bela Tarr and Laszlo Krasznahorkai, based on the novel by Krasznahorkai, Bela Tarr, Lars Rudolph, Peter Fitz, Hanna Schygulla
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With: Lars Rudolph, Peter Fitz, Hanna Schygulla
Written by: Bela Tarr and Laszlo Krasznahorkai, based on the novel by Krasznahorkai
Directed by: Bela Tarr
MPAA Rating: NR
Language: Hungarian with English subtitles
Running Time: 145
Date: 07/11/2000

Werckmeister Harmonies (2000)

4 Stars (out of 4)

Perfect 'Harmonies'

By Jeffrey M. Anderson

When I first saw the great Werckmeister Harmonies during the San Francisco International Film Festival last May, it looked like a slim chance that Bela Tarr's latest film would ever get picked up for distribution. Though much easier to digest than his previous film, the 7-1/2 hour Satantango, this one also did not exactly feel like a crowd-pleaser.

Because it did not receive a theatrical release during 2001, I did not count it for my list of the year's ten best films, though that did not stop Susan Sontag, Chuck Stephens and several other critics from adding it to their lists.

Now I have my chance to consider it as a serious contender for 2002's list, and I couldn't be more pleased. I haven't seen any other Tarr films -- his best known titles include Satantango, Damnation and Almanac of Fall -- but Werckmeister Harmonies alone convinces me that he's one of today's great film artists.

Running just shy of 2-1/2 hours, the gorgeous black-and-white Werckmeister Harmonies probably contains about a fourth of the camera set ups of any normal film. These shots last an impossibly long time. Most moviegoers weened on video games and MTV won't be able to stand it, but in these extraordinary moments we find truth and grace.

The opening shot alone sends me into tremors of joy. Our hero, Janos (played by Lars Rudolph, whom fans might recognize from his small roles in Tom Tykwer's films Run Lola Run and The Princess and the Warrior) hangs out at a grimy bar in some remote overcast small town in Hungary. Just before closing time, the barflies and reprobates ask him to "tell us." So Janos takes a few volunteers and positions them in the center of the room to represent the sun, the moon, and the earth. He makes the participants spin and whirl around to match the heavenly bodies' celestial movements. All the while he explains what's happening in beautiful, poetic dialogue. (Rudolph's voice is dubbed into Hungarian.)

Suddenly, at the moment of a lunar eclipse, Janos freezes the players, closes his eyes and waits. Tarr pulls the camera back slowly, slowly, while a beautiful strain of music makes the moment last. We're hanging breathless in darkness, in space. Finally, after we can hold our breath no longer, the camera begins to return, Janos starts the planets and moons spinning again, and we're back to normal. (Again, this is all filmed in one single shot.)

So many scenes deserve full descriptions to do them proper justice, such as the scene immediately following when Janos walks silent for several minutes through the night streets illuminated by a single pool of light. But I should move on.

This small town receives a visit from a traveling "circus," consisting of nothing but a giant trailer containing the world's biggest whale, and "The Prince," whom we never see outside of his shadow on a wall. Janos pays to see the whale, and his close-up look at the giant beast is another of the film's most mesmerizing sequences.

The Prince, on the other hand, seems to be a powerful otherworldly being who doesn't speak Hungarian and travels with a translator. Within days of the trailer's arrival in the town square, the village men (all middle aged) begin to gather in ever-greater numbers and wait. We can sense the violence brewing as Janos walks among them and receives their glares.

Meanwhile, Janos' aunt asks him to take his "uncle" Gyorgy Eszter (Peter Fitz) and collect several signatures, forming a committee of highly regarded townspeople to prevent any violent outbursts. Too late, though. An angry mob forms and marches on the town, destroying a hospital -- and, apparently -- most of everything else as well. One scene of the mob marching toward us for five minutes tends to raise everyone's hackles, but it's a true test -- we monitor their speed, their anger level, and dozens of other minute details. Whereas in any other film the scene would have been a three-second transition shot.

The fact that 30-ish Janos seems to be the youngest member of the town (except for two rowdy and nightmarish young boys) -- and that very few females turn up anywhere -- probably fits into Tarr's grand scheme. The most telling moment in the film comes when the angry mob stops its looting and smashing when one of them rips aside a plastic curtain in the hospital to reveal a naked old man standing in a tub. His pure frailty and fragility causes them to stop, to perhaps take stock of their own mortality.

Is this the ultimate mid-life crisis movie? I doubt Tarr would explain it away so easily. Such a master poet probably has far more on his mind. For example, the title comes from the "uncle" Gyorgy Eszter, a music scholar who ponders Andreas Werckmeister's music theories that led to the octave divided into 12 equal parts. That perfect order does a disservice to the holiness of music, he argues. Yet, when the Prince threatens to destroy the town, he argues that only in total destruction can anything be complete.

In other words, there's lots of stuff going on here. Most Tarr fans consider Werckmeister Harmonies inferior to Satantango, but for my money it's a masterpiece and one of the only sure things in town right now.

This movie is available on a Region 2, PAL DVD edition from Artificial Eye. This excellent 2-disc edition also boasts an earlier Tarr film, Damnation (1987), as well as a complete Tarr filmogrpahy and an interview. Damnation isn't quite as spectacular or as complex as Werckmeister Harmonies, but it features some of the same icy, black-and-white cinematography that moves with glacial slowness across the screen. It can be mesmerizing or infuriating, depending on your temperament.

In 2024, the Criterion Collection gave the movie a long-awaited American release on DVD, Blu-ray, and 4K.

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