Werckmeister Harmonies (Hungary, 2001) * * * *
D: Bela Tarr
There should be more filmmakers taking the approach that Bela Tarr takes in Werckmeister Harmonies--and if I picked up a camera, it is the school I would follow, the same school of which the late Andrei Tarkovsky is still principal. It is to film the action, no matter how fantastic or strange (both Tarkovsky and Tarr tell stories with dollops of magical realism), as it happens and with complete realism; rather than rushing events, to plunge the viewer into the film's space by stripping away the D.W. Griffith language of cinematic editing. In other words, to simply point the camera and follow the characters as they go about their business, which is also to tell the story at a much slower pace. Ideally, the viewer should begin to forget that it's just a film, and will seem to occupy the world within. Then--as the viewer becomes lulled by the spare use of music, the very long takes, inaction or dulling repetition--something happens with an impact that would not be as effective if any other approach were taken. I'm thinking here of the very last shot in Tarkovsky's Stalker, one of my favorite scenes in any film, or a key moment at the climax of Werckmeister Harmonies, which should not be described.
There is a plot, and it is an interesting one that holds you through the 145-minute running time: in a nameless Hungarian village (the film takes place in a modern setting--there are helicopters and giant trucks--but the village is rustic, the cobblestone streets often empty), the innocent courier Janos (Lars Rudolph) is witness to a growing panic among the townspeople on the approach of a circus that brings the dead body of a giant whale, accompanied by someone called "The Prince"; the rumors go that riots and destruction accompany the circus, and that the Prince, the instigator, has three eyes. Janos visits his Uncle Gyorgy, a music theoretician attempting to reconstruct the original method of tuning the keys of a piano, before it was corrupted by Andreas Werckmeister's standard of tuning, and is charged by his manipulative aunt to urge his uncle to head a commission to investigate the (supposed) looting which has begun to occur throughout the city; but his uncle is less interested in restoring order than in continuing his research. Janos witnesses the arrival of the whale--stored in a giant truck--and is deeply impressed and humbled by it. But the rest of the villagers refuse to step into the truck, and instead begin to gather outside, building bonfires, and gathering weapons in anticipation of orders from The Prince. The film is an allegory (based upon a novel, The Melancholy of Resistance, by Laszlo Krasznahorkai), but for what is left up to the viewer. Certainly it dwells on the theme of order versus chaos, reason versus fear. But the film is so awe-inspiring that it's best to leave the themes hanging in the gray mist, beautifully photographed in black-and-white, and in the awestruck eyes of Janos as, standing in the darkness, he gazes at the dead, glassy eye of the whale.