Werckmeister Harmonies (Bela Tarr, 2000)
A weighty adaptation of a weighty novel -both Hungarian- that came recommended by a friend. It’s challenging stuff, very dreamlike and disturbing at once with its own inner logic. I got the sense that if I’d been watching it in a cinema I might have come out raving that I’d just seen a masterpiece.
The most striking thing about the film is its look. The B&W photography is as crisp as an early morning’s fresh snowfall. It’s Anton Corbijn meets Sven Nykvist meets kitchen sink new wave. The takes are very long, very slow, technically brilliant and repetitive to the point of near-hypnosis. The film credits seven different cinematographers, which I guess makes Tarr a proper auteur.
It’s set in a remote Hungarian town. One or two of the household objects suggest that we’re in the present day or very recent past, but really it could be any time in the past 500 years. The location is hermetic and timeless and the story has the feel of a dark fairytale or fable. The people with which Tarr populates the village reflect this too; they have slightly exaggerated features, none more than idiot savant Janos (a sickly, bug-eyed Lars Rudolph) in the lead role.
The logic that the story follows doesn’t really make sense unless you’re living within the world of the film; think of Rivette’s Paris Nous Appartient. Plainly put, everyone is very worried about the circus that’s coming to town and what it will lead to. The “circus” consists of a giant whale in a lorry, and a “Prince” who will at some point make a public appearance; the latter is reputed to bring a “godless, monstrous” message with him. After they come into town, town becomes a battleground between destructive rioters and authoritarian forces.
This being Hungary, one’s instinct is to take it as a crossword puzzle and work out what’s being allegorised. Late communist-era fears about the repressed breaking out? What’s the whale besides a nod to Moby Dick? The DVD extra is an interview with Tarr where he does get asked. He says politics is a “dirty game” (good for him) and there’s no allegory attached. As he went to such pains to give his film a universal, timeless quality, I suppose specific labels are the last thing he wants for it. The whale may be a riddle without an answer, like the 2001 monolith; evidence that there’s something more to life and this world, but that that something is beyond our comprehension.
Poor innocent Janos is rather caught in the crossfire between his uncle Gyorgy, a reclusive composer/musical theorist, and the estranged auntie Tunde (Hanna Schygulla looking, unsurpisingly, more grande dame than the dishy blonde you remember from all those Fassbinder films). It seems that some time ago, it was Tunde or the music and the music won. She fills the void by acting as mistress to the chief of police and trying to set up a quasi-blackshirt organisation that will “restore order”. Gyorgy gets blackmailed into putting his good name behind the movement and canvassing for signatures. He mutters something about “smashing the slut’s skull”, then complies dutifully.
The opening scene is particularly beautiful. We see a coal fire doused by the dregs of a pint, then the camera pulls back to show the landlord of a small, shabby bar announce closing time. His elderly clientele are either wobbly on their feet or falling over. One portly chap slowly walks towards the camera and addresses the off-camera Janos; “Show us.” The tables and chairs are pushed against the back wall. Are we in for some folk dancing?
Instead, Janos picks out three volunteers and demonstrates (as one imagines he is asked to every night) the movements of the sun, earth and moon. The camera slowly circles the four men, Janos choreographing his inebriated yet childlike actors with great care, until he stops them and describes the effects of a total eclipse in poetic langauge. It’s funny, but there’s an awesome mystery to it as the drinkers listen in hushed reverence.
Eventually the barman strides through and holds the door open, the camera focused on his beady scowl. Janos walks home through this sleeping town, down the middle of the road, with the camera before him and a gentle strings & piano score. He wakes Gyorgy from his armchair and puts him to bed, whilst we get a tour of the uncle’s comfortable big house. Thence to the post office, where he makes tea before starting his paper round. Outside, the circus truck edges slowly down the street and its shadow engulfs every one of the cottages to its left. All the shots of empty streets at night drip with atmosphere and existential dread.
Janos has a second uncle at the post office. As he drinks his tea, we listen to a sorting woman spread gossip about the ill omen of this Prince. Very slowly (of course), the camera nudges closer to her until Janos is forgotten and we’re close enough for the grille the woman is behind to have disappeared. A third uncle in a hotel lobby makes similarly grim prophecies to Janos whilst lighting cigarettes with a flourish.
In the main square the next day, the lorry is ready to open. There are clusters of men all through the square, few of them talking. All is shrouded in dazzling white light and mist. The back door opens noisily, from within we hear Cabaret-type music as an old man brings out a desk, chair and cash box. Janos is the only one who goes in to see the whale. He stops at the eye, does one circuit and leaves with a slight shudder. An acquaintance tells him the whale “will lead to trouble”.
Janos lives with Lajos, his fourth uncle, and his room is like a prison cell. The walls are rotting and there’s a vast map of the cosmos above his narrow single mattress. He boils a tin of stew on a camping stove. Enter Tunde; Janos tries to protect Gyorgy, citing his ill health, but the threat of Tunde’s suitcase is enough to have the old man out on the streets. After an endless shot of Janos and Gyorgy walking into town, the villagers begin to tell the pair their troubles; there’s no heating, no transport, and now this Prince is adding insult to injury. To Janos’ disappointment, by the time the sigantures are collcted his uncle is too tired to see the whale.
As he crosses the square, a man grabs a stammering Janos by the scruff of the neck and threatens him. The clusters of people are now lighting fires. Tunde is with the chief of police, who is in his cups and sits on the bed shouting. She sends Janos on an errand- put this man’s kids to bed then snoop around the square; who’s there, what are they talking about? As Janos leaves, the couple dance to military music, the chief waving his gun aloft.
The chief’s house is a mess, his young sons are playing the same record we just heard at Tunde’s. Janos can’t control them; one screams threats of violence, continuing after Janos leaves, the other spends the entire scene bouncing on the bed and incessantly banging saucepan lids. This repetitive scene is very similiar in feel to Herzog’s Even Dwarfs Started Small and is genuinely horrible to sit through.
The bonfires in the square are raging; Janos slips inside the lorry to look at the whale (“see how much trouble you’ve caused”). He overhears an argument between the circus proprietor and a thug who represents the Prince. The former discovered the Prince and gave him his artificial title, but the latter asserts that the Prince is now much bigger than the circus and cannot be dictated to. Eventually the Prince speaks- we only see a shadow on the wall but he looks/sounds like a dwarf. He’s a Hitlerish megalomaniac who wants to incite his followers in the square to revolution. Janos runs and we see flames, smoke and explosion from behind the houses that line the square’s exterior.
The next extended take is of a crowd marching, all carrying clubs. Over a long period of time the camera ascends above them to show how many people there are, then descends back to eye level. The dreamlike manner in which it’s lit and depicted defuses the tension a little, makes you feel drugged. Eventually the men burst into a hospital, tip patients out of their beds and beat them savagely. Lack of a soundtrack again distances us, but the mindless nihilism is once more akin to Herzog’s dwarfs. The camera looms through the corridors until we meet a naked old man standing up in a bathtub; the theme music starts and the rioters shuffle out with heads bowed. The spell has been broken.
The camera rotates around an ornate ceiling, then descends in a downward spiral to reveal Janos reading a notebook containing the Prince’s speech and an account of all the rioters did (“We didn’t find the real object of despair, so we rushed at everything we came across with wilder and wilder fury”). He sits in a room filled with smashed-up washing machines and fridges- a looted shop? Outside, soldiers and tanks have arrived in town. Tunde is pointing to a map and giving orders to the generals.
Janos emerges and finds the dead body of uncle Lajos. When he gets home, he hasn’t the heart to tell Lajos’ wife. She tells him that the army are after him; leave town and hide. Long shot of Janos running along the train track out of town, until a helicopter passes over, returns and hovers- taking photographs of a motionless, petrified young man.
Cut to Janos on a hospital bed, wearing a white smock. Gyorgy is at his side, telling him that Tunde and the police have commandeered his house but “if” Janos comes out, Gyorgy can put him up. Janos doesn’t seem able to hear- he stares into space and emits a range of yips and whimpers. Gyorgy walks home and checks out the remains of the whale, leaving us with a deep sense of pity and injustice over the fate of that nice boy.
Having been sacrificed that the largely unsympathetic villagers might recover their own sense of stability, one could perhaps say that Janos is a Christ figure of sorts; but his lot at the end of the film leaves us with a particularly pessimistic brand of catharsis, if any.