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DVD Review: Werckmeister Harmonies

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Oftentimes, when bad critics run out of clever things to say about a film or director that they like, but know few others will appreciate, they will trot out the old ‘he’s an acquired taste’ gambit. Well, this is not true of Hungarian filmmaker Bela Tarr. One simply appreciates a master craftsman at the top of his game, or not. It is one of the rarest things in art, to be able to ‘turn on’ someone to appreciate greatness. In fact, putting art aside, greatness is one of the things most difficult to comprehend; and this is, ironically, the very thing that Tarr’s 2000 film, Werckmeister Harmonies (Werckmeister Harmóniák), is about.

Yes, there are issues of loneliness, mob psychology, human inanity, and violence, and many critics, from the bad to the mediocre to the good, have taken shots at cracking this film’s so-called meaning; yet, in the end, human difficulty in the face of greatness is what the film really is about. Some characters struggle with the greatness of art (music, specifically), others with the greatness of what they see as divine power, others with the greatness of a figure shrouded in Oz-like mystery, but all of these characters struggle with their lack of measurement up to greatness of one sort or another.

The film runs 145 minutes, but the long shots compress in one’s memory, making his films seem far shorter than temporally shorter films. As with many of his later films, this one is based on a László Krasznahorkai novel, The Melancholy of Resistance. Krasznahorkai and Tarr have to be considered one of the premier writer-director tandems in cinema history, for all of their work stretches the boundaries of the art of film. The title of the film refers to Andreas Werckmeister, a 17th century German musical theorist who created the 12-tone scale. One of the characters in the film, a famed local composer and musicologist, György Eszter (Peter Fitz), is seen speaking of his theory that Werckmeister’s harmonic principles in music are somehow responsible for aesthetic and philosophic problems in music and life ever since.

The film, however, mainly follows a nephew of his, Janos Valuska (Lars Rudolph). He seems to be a young man with no direction in life. He wanders about town, helping his uncle, the town’s local ‘great man.’ Yet, there is a yearning for depth and meaning in him. Like many folks, he has no real way to express his feelings, so acts as the de facto observer in the film’s diegesis. He may have a job as a postal deliveryman, but seems so anomic that one never knows if this is a job or just his natural trait of trying to ingratiate himself to others. Another point of confusion is Janos’s relationship to Eszter and others. Since he uses the term of uncle and aunt so freely, either the town is composed of only a few extended families, or it’s an honorific to show respect to his elders. There are several moments when he refers to Eszter, when speaking to others, as Mr. Eszter, not ‘my uncle.’ So, he may simply be a fool, an idiot savant, or hopelessly naïve and gullible. Regardless, he and Eszter share a house, and seem to be among the better off inhabitants of the dreary little burg, out on the high hibernal Hungarian plains.

The film’s opening shows Janos trying to get some local drunkards in the town bar (bars are a frequent Tarr setting) to understand more intimately their place in the cosmic way of things. He has one pretend to be the sun, another the earth, and a third the moon, to explain the power of what seems to be a coming eclipse; one that he rhapsodizes on in pseudopoetry. The choreography (naturally clumsy) and a great piano score make the scene incredibly moving, and within the first ten minutes of this film a Tarr viewer realizes that, yet again, the master has upped the ante of his cinematic skills, for lack of emotion has been a frequent charge against Tarr’s earlier works. Tarr knows when to use music and not. Too many films slather music over every scene, but most of Tarr’s scenes play out with real world sounds. This makes the intrusion of music more effective, for it not only signifies something deeper is happening, but Tarr only uses music when it adds to the scene.

Soon, however, weirdness infects the town. First, an old time carnival hits town, and its center attractions are a stuffed blue whale, hauled about inside a trailer truck, and an unseen and enigmatic figure called The Prince. The name of the character naturally invokes the work by Machiavelli, and the Luddite-like character, seen (in shadow) and heard (speaking Slovakian, according to several European critics) only once in the film, seems to justify the title, even as his words invoke the memory of an earlier Tarr con man, Irimias, from Satantango. Yet we never really see the Prince evoke any of the mind control that seems to seize the town. All of this occurs offstage, and wisely so, for triteness would have infected any Jim Jones-like scenes of the gull and his gulled. It also leaves up in the air whether or not the violence that follows is solely caused by The Prince, or other things, like a superstitious fear of the implications of an eclipse; thus placing The Prince in a precarious perch as a possible Rasputin, who causes evil, but leaves its deliverance to fools.

The other major character in the film is Eszter’s ex-wife, Tunde (Hanna Schygulla, a star of Rainer Werner Fassbinder films), who tries to blackmail her ex-husband into supporting some political propositions she wants enacted. The fact that the violence that ensues in the film is open for debate makes Tunde a possible cause of it. She heads a movement calling for the cleansing of the town. Be it ‘ethnic cleansing’ or a hard line sort of temperance movement is never specified. Her current beau seems to be the town’s drunken constable, and even in just the few scenes she is in she wreaks a creepy malevolence and hold over men, Janos included. A number of scenes from the middle of the film are outstanding: Janos’s first encounter with the dead whale in the trailer, and looking into its lifeless yet all-seeing eye, Janos and Eszter walking to the town center together, wordlessly, after Eszter learns of his ex-wife’s threats. That the two men say little speaks much of their relationship.

Then there is the aforementioned startling scene, where the townsfolk, for some unknown reason, riot and burn down the town, and then ravage the local hospital and beat patients, only to be stopped when they encounter a naked and emaciated old man in the shower. It’s a scene that hearkens back to the poetic ending of Stanley Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey, wherein Dave Bowman ages into fragility, but heightened because it follows after the terror (heightened by the silence of the victims) in the hospital, which is so reminiscent of Sergei Eisenstein’s massacre on the Odessa Steps scene in Battleship Potemkin. Janos watches all of this, while hidden, and, like him, just when you think the naked old man is a goner, the violence stops, and the villagers leave the hospital, like creatures from a George Romero film. Perhaps this is because the old man never flinches, and his gaunt, almost Dachauvian appearance seems to have an effect on the mob, perhaps making them think on what the consequences of their actions can ultimately lead to.

As the film nears its end, Janos becomes obsessed with seeing the whale again, even as his uncle avoids it. Another ‘relative’ warns him that the mob from the hospital has him on their ‘list.’ Janos protests that he has done nothing wrong, but heeds her advice and tries to escape the town along the desolate railroad tracks. He is then spotted by a helicopter, and we next see him sitting on a hospital bed, in a stupor, as Eszter attends to him. This scene reminds one of another Kubrick film, A Clockwork Orange, except that Janos, unlike Little Alex, is likely to not recover any time soon, if at all.

Interestingly, he and Eszter seem to have gone in opposite arcs during the course of the film. Janos starts out full of life and ends up emotionally crushed and catatonic, whereas Eszter’s first appearance seems to portray him as near death (he cannot even retire for the night by himself), yet he ends the film with vigor and in full command of his faculties, even imploring Janos to recover. The film then ends with Eszter headed to the town square, where the stuffed whale sits, as the trailer has been dismantled. He walks slowly up to it, peers into its dead eye, then walks away, seemingly as unaffected by it as his nephew was affected. Of course, in a great work of art, such recapitulation, in another medium, cannot do justice to the work.

In many ways, the best antecedents I can think of to this film are Ingmar Bergman’s films, The Hour Of the Wolf and Shame. The former because, like The Prince, in this film, there is a sense of dead based upon possible preternaturalism. Tarr’s film is far more equivocal than Bergman’s, nevertheless, the tone is similar, and Werckmeister Harmonies definitely qualifies as a horror film. In fact, in some ways, the scenes of the mob in the streets are reminiscent of James Whale’s Frankenstein. However, where Whale’s horror was based upon the dead resurrected, and Bergman’s upon possible vampirism, this film is in sync with Shame, in that its horror is a human one, and the mania unleashed by The Prince and the whale resembles that unleashed by the machinery of war. The wreckage and carnage in the center of town, the morning after the mob rampage, is a more realistic one than the floating bodies that end Shame, but the mood in the eyes of the two films’ protagonists is the same.

The DVD, put out by Facets Video, is a good one, qualitatively. But, it is utterly bare bones: no commentary, no trailer, no featurettes. Its only extra is a small booklet with essays on Tarr and the specific film, However, when a film is this great, it doesn’t really matter. The sound quality is very good, and the film is in a 1.66:1 aspect ratio. There is one big negative, though, and that is the white subtitling Facets employs. I’ve often ripped on titles from The Criterion Collection for this flaw, but this particular Facets DVD is even worse, for not only are the subtitles white, but very thin. Also, there are several scenes where the extreme white in the cinematography (excellent by Medvigy Gábor, and supposedly composed of less than 40 actual shots in the film – claims range from 33-39, which, according to legend, allowed Tarr to edit the film in less than a day) almost totally blanches out what one can read.

What the hell is wrong with the folks in the subtitles department? Is it too damned much to add a bit of gold, or even some black trim about the subtitles so that they can actually be read? It’s bad enough DVD companies skimp on English language dubs, but illegible subtitles? The score (piano and violin), by Míhaly Vig, who played Irimias in Satantango, is spare, but highly effective, as any scoring should be, and it's likely the best in the Tarr films I’ve seen, adding to the reality that this is the most emotional of the films, as well. Some critics, however, have taken issue with the film’s scoring, claiming that the film argues that music is an immanently flawed vehicle to base any sort of foundation upon, thus the film’s score is at odds with its artistic claim. But, this is clearly wrong, since the film does not argue that music is immanently flawed, just one of its characters does — Eszter.

Another error that many critics have made is calling Werckmeister Harmonies a minimalist film. It is not. It’s amazing how many critical notions in art and life are flawed simply due to the critic’s inability to understand the definitions of the very terms they use. Minimalism is when a work of art is reduced to its barest minimum, i.e. some of the Absurdist plays of a Samuel Beckett, or some scenes in George Lucas’s THX 1138 or some films of Carl Theodor Dreyer come to mind. These critics conflate mere economy with strict minimalism, but there’s a world of difference. Minimalism is not just a spare setting, but that spare setting with a singular focus, a character or two, and brevity in action. Economy can have multiple characters, themes, and plot points, but be told in broad, singular strokes. This far more fits the description of a Tarr film, including this one.

The film is not larded down with symbolism, but the few moments of such are ripened and potent. The scenes with the whale, never seen in its entirety, when seen by Janos, but only in the final scene, with Eszter, is a good example; for when we see what has so enraptured Janos, in the daylight, it is not nearly as mysterious nor awe-inspiring as when we see only glimpses of it in shadow. To paraphrase, the elephant that the seven blind men feel, in the old parable, will always be more interesting and exciting than if they could see the real beast. Werckmeister Harmonies is not minimalist; in fact, it’s the exact opposite, it’s loaded with meaning, detail, and subtlety. And the elephant also hearkens back to the ending of Federico Fellini’s masterful La Dolce Vita, and its ending with the discovery of a manta ray’s corpse, and its all-seeing eye.

Despite many of the critical misreadings, Werckmeister Harmonies is a truly great film; audacious in its depiction of reality, however askew, and even bolder in its plumb of human consciousness; especially in its relationship to things greater than the self. That it does not lay out all its cards on the table for immediate perusal is not a weakness, but a strength, in that it invites rewatches. If all films offered only a quarter of what this film does, cinema would be far better for it. But, when given a rare full plate, like this, it’s okay to gorge between the famines. Grace is optional.

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