Werckmeister harmóniák | Werckmeister Harmonies
DIRECTOR: Béla Tarr, Ágnes Hranitzky | WRITERS: László Krasznahorkai, Béla Tarr | CAST: Lars Rudolph, Peter Fitz, Hanna Schygulla | Hungary
No matter what you might think of Werckmeister harmóniák, there’s no denying that it’s bravura filmmaking of the highest order. Shooting in high-contrast and grainy B&W, Tarr stretches 39 shots into 145 minutes, but if you’re willing to relax into his rhythms and sense of time you’ll feel a powerful and relentless surge forward: the camera is never static even when it comes to rest. Werckmeister harmóniák feels like a fable or allegory, but it’s hard to decipher what it all might mean. A Holy Fool type in an unnamed grubby town on the great Hungarian Plain sees God’s grandeur in everything, from total lunar eclipses whose workings he demonstrates with the help of three drunks late at night at closing time in a seedy tavern to the battered corpse of a stuffed whale, the headliner of the crummy circus that comes to town with a collection of biological abnormalities in formaldehyde and an ominous deformed dwarf called the Prince whose rants have left a trail of bloody insurrections in the circus’s wake.
János, the Holy Fool, looks after the aristocratic György Eszter, a man obsessed that the 17th century musical theorist Andreas Werckmeister made a disastrous mistake when he divided the octave into 12 fraudulently equal tones. Eszter’s estranged wife “Aunt” Tünde has taken up with the local chief of police, Eva Perón style, and intends to crush the looming revolt of the underclass. And the revolt does come. There are some stupendous images and sequences in the film that can’t be captured in writing: the lunar eclipse “ballet” I’ve mentioned; the ominous arrival at night of the circus housed in a huge corrugated metal trailer driven by a tractor; the Prince, seen only as a shadow, screeching a cry for bloody revolution in Slovak with his demented marionette’s voice; long tracking shots of people walking, endlessly.
It’s clear that Tarr has been influenced by Miklós Jancsó, especially in his long takes where the camera is constantly in movement, but whereas Jancsó’s intricate choreography is impeccably timed (brilliantly in Szegénylegények and Csillagosok, katonák, but almost overwhelmingly so in Csend és kiáltás), Tarr’s camera movements feel looser, rougher, less controlled. And the dubbing of the three (German) leads was probably unavoidable, but seeing Hanna Schygulla, for instance, act a scene in German but hear a Hungarian voice on the audio track that’s not synched to her lip movements — nor to her facial expressions and body language — was more than a little disconcerting. I should put in a word for the score by Mihály Vig: it’s deceptively simple but haunting, like Philip Glass but without Glass’s cynical roboticism. And a nice touch is that the recording of Prelude No. 8 in E-flat minor from The Well-Tempered Clavier that György Eszter finds so grating was played on an out-of-tune piano.