Thursday, November 12, 2009

Werckmeister Harmonies

"I despise stories, as they mislead people into believing that something has happened. In fact, nothing really happens as we flee from one condition to another ... All that remains is time. This is probably the only thing that's still genuine -- time itself; the years, days, hours, minutes and seconds. And film time has also ceased to exist, since the film itself has ceased to exist. Luckily there is no authentic form or current fashion. Some kind of massive introversion, a searching of our own souls can help ease the situation."
-Béla Tarr

Consisting of only 39 shots, Béla Tarr's 145-minute Werckmeister Harmonies is certainly a sparse film. As that quote would indicate, the director wastes little of that precious, genuine time, establishing a story, and as soon as he goes through enough of the motions to support the film's weight, he dives straight into his characters and their musings and reactions. Yet I fear that by opening with that quote followed by the obligatory mention of Tarr's shot-to-length ratio, I'm already painting a picture of pretentious, insufferable philosophizing, enjoyable only to a film geek like me who must surely be trying too hard to impress people. On the contrary, I found Tarr's technique to be absolutely spellbinding, and though he barely even bothered with narrative, I was as excited and enthralled by his camera as I am by Scorsese's, or Kubrick's.

Take the opening, 10-minute shot. In one unbroken take, Tarr moves in and out of close-ups, establishing shot and differing angles, and he follows the characters in a dilapidated, drab pub with a varying pace as if a conductor gently leading the action through shifting tempos. The film's protagonist, János, a working-class, amateur astronomer creates a model of a solar eclipse for the patrons using some of the drunks on-hand. He has one stands waving his hands about as the Sun, another rotating around the first man as Earth, and yet another spiraling around the second man as the Moon. It's all quite funny, until the men line up properly for János to demonstrate the eclipse, at which point his speech turns darker, even apocalyptic: "Are the hills going to march off? Will Heaven fall upon us? Will the earth open up under us? We don’t know. We don’t know, for a total eclipse has come upon us.”

The metaphor of the eclipse and its frightening undertones is one of the few utilized in the film, yet this works to Tarr's advantage as he can flesh out each of them. The eclipse naturally represents the dichotomy between light and dark, but here that split also reflects the divide between natural and unnatural, as well as pointing toward the coming storm. Said storm arrives in the form of the strangest sideshow attraction ever devised: a huge truck carrying a stuffed whale carcass and an unseen, purportedly deformed, ringleader known as the Prince. The truck's journey through the streets of the town is as unsettling, even suspenseful as any monster film, as the truck lumbers and groans like a great beast and casts a shadow so huge it covers (or rather eclipses) the buildings next to it.

Upon arrival, the circus attracts the curiosity and mistrust of the town's citizens, as news of the circus' strange effects have preceded it. Combined with the extreme cold affecting the town and the mounting problems facing the infrastructure -- telephone lines failing, transportation issues, etc. -- the circus begins to stoke budding tensions among the townspeople.

Also stoking fears and tensions is János' aunt Tünde, who comes to town spouting rhetoric against the country's broken political system. Her polemics have a trace of totalitarianism in them, and soon she shacks up with the town's police chief and sends János to the site of the circus to keep tabs on everyone (the way Tarr so matter-of-factly handles the notion of fascists being in bed with cops is quietly hysterical). Eventually, whether through Tünde's politics, the rhetoric spouted by the Prince, or a combination of the two, the town devolves into chaos.

The key to understanding this turn of events, or at least the film's title, comes from a monologue János overhears his uncle György record. In it, he notes that the Werckmeister scale, from which the modern concept of the octave was derived, is out of tune with nature; ergo, all of the music composed since the late 17th century is not only inherently "false" but spiritually at odds with the world. So obsessed is he over fixing this imbalance that he does not mind his wife's infidelity and even uses his influence to raise money for her political schemes just to get her off his back. This theory raises questions about the film, though, in that Tarr does use a score every now and then. The usage could of course be ironic, and it's interesting to note that the deceptively soothing and emotional score often plays over acts of shocking brutality or in quieter moments to build tension.

So many sequences in this film are so extraordinary that it's impossible to list them, but apart from that masterpiece of an opening scene, the destruction of the town's hospital is particularly seared into my mind. Once the mob is fully unleashed, they ransack the city; the hospital is the only building Tarr actually shows being torn apart, but it's more than enough. The mob shuffles through the city streets for what seems like an eternity, until they finally reach the hospital and start killing all of the patients. As with the rest of the film, Tarr combines strikingly realistic photography with ethereal elements; gradually he mutes the diegetic sound, until the patients are scream in silence and assailants topple equipment without a sound. At last the group breaks into the final room, only to find an old, naked man standing and waiting for care that will never come. Suddenly faced with this stark display of mortality and frailty, the mob stops and dissipates. It's a powerful moment, and the zombie-like procession that leads to it is more thoroughly unsettling than anything I've ever seen in a Romero film.

I don't have the first clue what political situation, if any, in Hungary might have informed Werckmeister Harmonies, but Tarr's messages apply to broader senses anyway. In the aftermath, Tünde appears to have emerged as the dominant power, one of the middle class who spends the entire film indoors engaging in bourgeois activities such as sex and speechifying and venturing outside only when the working class destroys the system and clears her path to the top. János, the one character who could wander between the classes and the film's sole source of optimism, is struck catatonic by the sight of the hospital ransacking (yet another aspect of that sequence that recalls Night of the Living Dead), while György, first seen so feeble that he needed help to go to bed, is now virile and reassuring. The Prince's rhetoric, partially overheard by János, states that only in utter destruction is something truly complete, and György, who spent the whole film wracked with obsession and fear over the danger of our musical structure, is now freed by an apocalypse. Nowhere to go but up, I suppose.

There's also an implication, one that borders on satire, that the film is really about man's how humans can be so threatened by that which they don't understand -- even a piece of art, for lack of a better term, like the whale -- that they can devolve into madness. János is the first person in town to venture inside the opened circus vehicle to look at the whale, and he is clearly affected by its enormity. He believes it to be beautiful, while the townspeople regard it with suspicion and anger and, eventually, hostility. At the end, György heads to the town square to see the whale, now fully exposed as a perverse (and perversely beautiful) moment to nature's reassertion of power over the environment, he walks up to the mammoth creature, looks in its dead eye as János did, then walks away, wholly unfazed. If you count the mob as a single character, then we can see the three responses to art: indifferent appreciation, fanatic love, and bitter rejection.

At 2-1/2 hours, Werckmeister Harmonies is considerably easier to digest than his 7-hour Sátántángo, which I have not yet seen as I cannot set aside the time until the end of this semester. It's been on my list for a while, though, and watching this only strengthened the desire. It's common to look for similarities to other works when one watches a film, and for the film's entirety I was reminded of Ingmar Bergman's Spider Trilogy (there might even be open nods to both Through a Glass Darkly and The Silence with shots of a black helicopter and tank) and the microcosmic political apocalypse of Robert Altman's Nashville. And if that isn't a glowing recommendation in and of itself, I don't know what is.

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