werckmeister harmonies
Opinion Pieces

Werckmeister Harmonies, a Classic… Happy Birthday!

If the Y2K scare would have came true we wouldn’t have gotten this!

Eleven years ago I stumbled across a Hungarian film titled Werckmeister Harmonies (Werckmeister Harmóniák) by a director named Béla Tarr. I never heard of this movie before, let alone the director, despite taking an interest in foreign film. The plot synopsis sold me on it without even seeing a trailer, so I sought it out and watched it. It became one of my favourite films ever. And now my baby is twenty-years-old.

IMDB has it listed as 2000 release and it even premiered in Canada at the Toronto International Film Festival on September 15 of that year, so technically I’m a little late to the party. I just need that as an excuse to talk about a masterpiece that is unlike anything else I’ve ever seen. Be warned, I am not shying away from spoilers from this twenty-year-old gem, so I suggest watching it before you read this.

But What Is Werckmeister Harmonies and What Is It About?

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Werckmeister Harmonies takes place in a small town that is shaken up by the arrival of a circus. This circus houses a taxidermy giant whale and a mysterious person known only as the Prince. They hear stories about how any town the circus has previously visited is left in darkness and despair because the Prince has special, deceitful powers . From the description you may think this is a horror movie but it isn’t.

There’s a sense of mystery to the whole ordeal but Béla Tarr is more interested in philosophical musings than he is making the viewer jump. Flickmetic is not meant to be a website where I comment on current events but I was taken aback by how much the events that unfold in Werckmeister Harmonies are relevant today. It was not meant to be contemporary even in 2000, but it translated well to now.

That’s because Werckmeister Harmonies is ultimately about ideologies that polarize and call us to action in unsavoury ways. This is most evident in the movie with the riots that take place once people witness the main attraction of the circus and feel its presence. North America, specifically the United States, is in a time of great civil conflict and while re-watching this I couldn’t help but see that reflected in the images on screen.

The people of the town became a mob and that mentality created a hive mind. They committed great acts of destruction towards property and their fellow man. Their actions are a haunting portrait of just how easy it is for us to lose our individuality. Tribalism is sometimes necessary and it’s inherent in all of us, but there is a dark underbelly to it that can ooze out when it’s not kept in check. That’s what Werckmeister Harmonies is ultimately about.

I’ve Really Never Heard of Tarr Before This?

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That’s right: even though he had been making movies since the 1970s I wasn’t fortunate enough to experience his oeuvre until decades after he began. Even with Werckmeister Harmonies I showed up nine years after its debut. Since then I have watched a bunch more of his movies but I still have a ways to go.

So what made him such a special director? It’s evident in what he pastes on the screen in this movie. It consists of thirty-nine shots. While most movies have a new shot every couple seconds on average, Tarr lets his scenes linger. Fans of the great Andrei Tarkovsky (one of my all-time favourites) should like Tarr because they occupy similar space.

While there are a few moments where I wish he would have cut away sooner, it’s only by a matter of seconds so it’s not that much of a distraction. Those blemishes are minor because the flick has so much artistic merit it’s insane. Everything is framed beautifully. With a film that’s shot like this it’s noticeable whenever the camera shifts, but it moves subtly from place to place and never feels like an intruder.

But even I could fall prey to tedium if there wasn’t more to the experience than overly ambitious visual demands. It could threaten to be overcome by intellectual wankery if it was just pretty photography and no real substance to the dialogue. One of the great strengths of Werckmeister Harmonies is that while it manages to be heavy and intellectually challenging, it’s also extremely emotional.

The Opening Scene

It takes less than ten minutes to introduce one of the most powerful elements, the music. While there is some music sprinkled in scenes, the soundtrack mostly consists of two tracks by Mihály Vig: “Valuska” and “Old.” In the scene above you can hear the former, but I will also be linking to another scene that includes the latter later on in this article.

This is one of the best soundtracks ever. It packs more punch with two songs than most movies do with an entire album of songs. Vig’s work stands on its own as a persuasive collection, but Tarr doesn’t just place the audio in and leave it. It would have worked as that, but the brilliant thing he does is link the music thematically.

“Valuska” is named after the main character, János Valuska and as far as I can remember it plays twice during the film. The first is during the opening scene above, and the second is when he sees the whale for the first time. In the opening scene it begins when he says “and then… complete silence.” The rest of the quote goes like this:

Everything that lives is still. Are the hills going to march off? Will heaven fall upon us? Will the Earth open under us? We don’t know. We don’t know, for a total eclipse has come upon us… But… but no need to fear. It’s not over. For across the sun’s glowing sphere, slowly, the Moon swims away. And the sun once again bursts forth, and to the Earth slowly there comes again light, and warmth again floods the Earth. Deep emotion pierces everyone. They have escaped the weight of darkness

– Valuska, taken from IMDB

As Valuska is about to leave the bar that he was giving his monologue in, he looks at the bartender and says, “But Mr. Hagelmayer. It’s still not over.” Tarr chooses to position the camera on Hagelmayer’s face for a few seconds before it cuts to the outside. There is a tracking shot where strings find their way into the song and we watch as Valuska leaves, alone. There is a great burden.

This is not the only time he feels alone, and it’s not the only time he is overcome. When he sees the whale it’s a similar moment, but it is more solitary. He is not completely aware of what is about to come, but he spends his time drifting, watching. It’s only fitting that “Valuska” plays over that, too.

The opening also showcases the exact plan that the film has for your next two and a half hours. If you’ve watched the ten minutes above and don’t think that Tarr’s brand is appealing to you then you won’t like Werckmeister Harmonies. I was invested from the very beginning, but I’m not ignorant enough to think that this time of art is for everybody.

One of the Best Scenes Ever

Before the camera–the eye–can even enter the hospital a group of men rush in, weapons in hand. They spread out, running down the hall, opening doors. The intensity has hit a fever pitch and violence is about to arrive. Patients get assaulted, equipment gets wrecked. Some patients try to fight back but are overwhelmed easily, beaten down for their troubles.

There is no music present; only the sounds of lawlessness and abuse ring out through the cold silence of the hospital. We are left to watch with disgust as these people rampage a place of healing, an establishment that is designated as one of the most fundamental departments of any functional civilization. These people don’t care, they’ve become a savage horde with no distinguishable characteristics besides being a brutal group. A collective where any humanity that once existed was now buried deep within.

During their ransacking of the hospital two men break off from the pack and pull down a curtain. Behind it is a tub, and inside that tub is the return of humanity in the form of a frail old man. They stand there looking at him, he is too weak to even consider trying to fight them off. The aforementioned song “Old” begins and we are left to watch, wondering what they will do. Are they going to smash this old guy? No, because he is what is needed to remind them of the good within themselves; without saying a word he condemns the evil they have become engulfed by.

They leave the hospital and we’ve just been privy to one of the most impactful eight minutes in cinematic history. I can’t even discuss it without getting goosebumps. It is also no surprise that “Old” returns later on and has a similar effect on the proceedings as it does here.

I Hear the Criticisms, I Just Don’t Agree

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Tarr liked to enlist amateurs to do the acting. This can mean that sometimes the performances aren’t as organic and believable as they might otherwise be. In the eyes of detractors this level of unnaturalness also manifests itself in just how long Tarr chooses to keep the action rolling.

Werckmeister Harmonies is never bogged down by the experience of the actors. It helps that most of the storytelling is visual but even so, I was never pulled out of it when it got to more dialogue heavy sections. I would agree that they are the weakest link, but it’s not even close to tanking it. I’ve seen terrible beginners and this is not it.

In terms of how long he holds steady, there are some scenes–like I said earlier–where I feel that he could have edited it a little bit more. There are times where people just stand there gawking and I could see why people might think that it’s a little obtrusive. Most people don’t just stand there and gaze into space awkwardly.

I really do see why this might be off-putting to some, but in context of Werckmeister Harmonies I usually felt that it was endearing. It added a gravitas to it, almost as if the incredible burden of the universe was weighing on them. Nobody was cognizant of how everything would develop but like Tarr’s camera movement/placement, the subconscious feelings lingered in them.

In Closing

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I don’t want to give the impression that Werckmeister Harmonies is just those two scenes. I merely use them as examples to what Tarr has accomplished. While I would argue that those two scenes are the highlights of the film, followed by the ending, the rest of the film is gripping if you give yourself to it.

Admittedly, Werckmeister Harmonies doesn’t really answer questions. It poses them but doesn’t offer tidy responses. I suppose that makes sense since it’s a drama wrapped up in philosophy. It demands a little bit of attention from the viewer in a few different ways, but it’s also incredibly rewarding. It doesn’t waste your time even if it is forceful with it, and that’s the mark of a classic.

If you have any interest at all in foreign movies, or want something that breaks from the tradition of more fast-paced, quickly transitioning Hollywood movies (nothing wrong with them), then seek this out. Even as I take in more of his movies I doubt that this will ever lose its place as the finest work that Tarr ever did. So while I’m not on time, I hope I’m fashionably late when I say, happy birthday Werckmeister Harmonies.

To see a picture of the cinematographer, click here.

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