Film Review: “Werckmeister Harmonies” — Beautiful Premonitions of Disaster

By Steve Erickson

Despite its depressing worldview, Werckmeister Harmonies is an exhilarating work of art, full of moments of grace, beauty, and even humor.

Werckmeister Harmonies, directed by Agnes Hranitsky and Béla Tarr. Screening at the Brattle Theatre, August 25 through 28.

A scene from Werckmeister Harmonies.

Among its many virtues, slow cinema is recommended as a form of resistance to an online culture that is all about nurturing tiny attention spans. Yet it is far more than just a dopamine fast; the method offers many distinctive, and considerable, pleasures. The work of Hungarian director Béla Tarr disdains commercial considerations, but it has stood the test of time, to the point that his films, which initially barely received an American release, are now being revived as modern classics. At first, his use of long takes was compared to the similar approach of his compatriot Miklos Jançso and Greek filmmaker Theo Angelopolous. But his stock has risen far higher than theirs. 1994’s Satantango, which runs seven and a half hours, landed at #78 in Sight and Sound magazine’s Greatest Films of All Time Critics’ poll 2022. It and Damnation, which introduced Tarr’s mature style, are now streaming on MUBI, while the Brattle Theatre is reviving 2000’s Werckmeister Harmonies.

The theme of Werckmeister Harmonies refuses to be pinned down, mixing imagery taken from fascism, communism, and capitalism. Describing its plot is much easier than coming up with what it’s all about. Reviewers inevitably underline that the film contains a mere 39 shots in 145 minutes. The opening scene sets the stage: it is a 10-minute take that hangs on until the film reel runs out. But don’t let the slo-mo narrative fool you. Werckmeister Harmonies is as tightly choreographed and preplanned as a musical. Imagine the weeks it must have taken to plan a shot that opens on a close-up of an oven’s logo and goes on to pirouette around men performing a strange dance representing the position of the sun and Earth. Without a cut, the shot constantly reframes to incorporate both close-ups and long shots in the same scene. In this sense, the camera is an active participant in the dance. Now, of course, digital editing can simulate long takes seamlessly. That wasn’t the case in 2001. And even if it were, I’m sure Tarr would not have used it. His films are defined by a lumpen, stuck-in-the-mud physicality.

Janos (Lars Rudolph), a mailman, is obsessed with arcane matters of astronomy. In the opening scene, he convinces a barroom full of men to play out his idée fixe — they dramatize a total solar eclipse. (The cinematography, which draws on infinite shades of gray, reflects this theme visually — Janos walks through jet black streets.) The guy seems to know that something ominous is approaching his town. It may be the arrival of a giant, slowly decaying whale corpse, exhibited by an unseen prince. No rational cause is provided, but this exhibition triggers something ugly in the townspeople. Janos’s uncle Gyorgi (Peter Bach) becomes convinced that conventional piano tuning is incorrect;  performing Bach with “natural” intonation would be preferable. The film’s title is inspired by the writings of German organist, music theorist, and composer Andreas Werckmeister (1645-1706). Gyorgi’s estranged wife, Tünde (Hanna Schygulla), returns home and begins to create a blacklist in league with the police chief. She insists that Gyorgi actively collaborate with her to enforce this new regime.

Tarr’s reputation rests on a small body of work. After 2011’s The Turin Horse, he stopped making conventional features and founded a film school in Sarajevo. (He’s directed two little-seen documentaries about refugees since then.) His early films are naturalistic, drawing on an extremely rough style that blended Ken Loach and John Cassavetes. Instead, Tarr moved toward making slow cinema: the shift in his interests was evident in 1982’s made-for-TV Macbeth (which contains only two shots, the second running 67 minutes) and 1984’s elaborately color-coded Almanac of Fall. Almost all his work is preoccupied with the torturous grind of ordinary people’s lives — and how they make each other’s existence hellish. But his style and content took a radical turn with 1987’s Damnation. He fed the despair of working-class life into a mythic framework with apocalyptic overtones as he turned toward extremely long takes, tracking shots, and black-and-white cinematography. On Werckmeister Harmonies, he started to share directing credit with Agnes Hranitsky, who also edited all of his features. He kept up his working relationship with novelist Laszlo Krasznahoraki (who adapted his own novel, The Melancholy of Resistance, into Werckmeister Harmonies) and composer Mihaly Vig.

In a time when few films fail to spell out their subtext, the hazy allusiveness of Werckmeister Harmonies is tonic. It begs for allegorical interpretation even while it resists it. Satantango presents a cynical view of Hungary after the fall of communism. Political and social change leads to gullible villagers falling for a con man. Similarly, Werckmeister Harmonies dramatizes a rising tide of intolerance that culminates in a group attack on a hospital. Casting several German actors in key roles — even though they are dubbed into Hungarian — lends credence to the notion that the film’s message is intended to resonate beyond the authoritarian context of Hungarian communism. It’s a movie about the possibilities for a better life being snuffed out, where even harmless eccentricities can serve as dangerous distractions.

A few critics have accused Tarr of mocking his characters, but the extreme length of Satantango helps create a sense of complicity between its bedeviled figures and viewers. Watching the film in one sitting requires us to spend almost eight hours alongside them. Beyond its demanding run-time, Satantango is also a film about how positioning in physical space dictates the sense we make of things. At several points in the film, its characters witness each other’s actions, previously shown to us from a different perspective. Where we stand inevitably shapes the meaning of what we see. Werckmeister Harmonies plays with the same idea: Janos can be seen as a stand-in for the spectator. He walks around town, observing the action without participating in it. But the sheer effort that’s put into capturing Janos’s constant motion contradicts the idea that he’s merely passive.

As bleak as the story is, Tarr and Hranitsky deploy the camera with contagious excitement. It took the pair six years to devise the film, and the obsessive passion that inspired the effort is omnipresent. This may be slow cinema, but it is never bloodless — it is carefully paced, methodically building up momentum to its set pieces. (The one where Tünde dances with a man waving a gun in the air is marked by a queasy suspense.) Concrete action begins to unfold at around the hour mark; the film’s final 20 minutes serve up an elegy of quiet horror. Vig’s violin-based score is used sparingly, but the sound design is deftly manipulated to supply an edge of tension. (For instance, in one scene a boy bangs cymbals together arhythmically before his brother joins in slamming a drumstick against a snare drum and fan.) Comparisons to the structure of a symphony or epic novel aren’t off base, but Werckmeister Harmonies is thrilling because it creates such an indelibly idiosyncratic cinematic world.

The evasiveness of Werckmeister Harmonies is a political gesture in itself. The film’s refusal to be pinned down is a rejection of the conformist mentality it condemns. But on another level, Hranitsky and Tarr conflate imagery that resonates with varying historical periods and ideologies in order to make a provocative point about the origins of mass violence, anywhere. As beleaguered individuals, its characters are too weak to terrorize. Drawn together for the sake of “righting wrongs,” they become part of a destructive movement. Hranitsky and Tarr predicted Hungary’s current decline into an “illiberal democracy.” This film’s vision of danger ahead remains prophetic: premonitions of January 6 can be found  here, 20 years before the attempted American coup took place. Still, despite this depressing worldview, Werckmeister Harmonies is an exhilarating work of art, full of moments of grace, beauty, and even humor.

Steve Erickson writes about film and music for Gay City News, Slant Magazine, the Nashville Scene, Trouser Press, and other outlets. He also produces electronic music under the tag callinamagician. His latest album, The Bloodshot Eye of Horus, was released in November 2022, and is available to stream here.

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