The Curmudgeon


Sunday, March 19, 2006

Werckmeister Harmonies

Béla Tarr 2000

The first image is of flames behind a black grate, whose iron rays suggest a black, rectangular sun eclipsing the fire. The grate is opened, the flames doused from a beer mug, and the barman calls time. One burly drunk calls the others to order - "It's time for Valuska to show us!" They clear a space in the centre of the room. Valuska (Lars Rudolph), the youngest and least powerful-looking man in the place, choreographs a demonstration of the workings of the solar system, using three men to represent the sun, the earth and the moon. At one point, the moon passes directly between the sun and the earth, and Valuska halts the harmony of the spheres to tell how darkness gradually falls across the world, confusing even the birds, which go off to roost. Then at last, Valuska says, the moon moves away, a sliver of light is seen, and the daylight returns. The drunks break orbit and the barman opens the door and orders them out. All this takes place within the film's first shot, which is ten minutes long. I am told there are thirty-nine takes in Werckmeister Harmonies' hundred and forty minutes, but I have not counted them myself.

The Hungarian director Béla Tarr, whose name takes equal credit with those of his partner and editor Ágnes Hranitzky and writer László Krasznahorkai, has joked that the ten-minute limit on a reel of Kodak film is a form of censorship. Tarr's early features were apparently fairly conventional works of kitchen-sink social realism, but his television version of Macbeth in 1982 consisted of two takes, the first five minutes long and the second sixty-seven. The longer take apparently consists largely of close-ups of faces, a feature Werckmeister Harmonies uses to moving effect. Tarr's 1987 feature Damnation, also scripted by Krasznahorkai, has a conventional thriller plot - a man, thoroughly alienated and obsessed with a married singer, becomes involved in a smuggling operation - but spreads it over two hours of long, stunningly composed black and white takes in which very little, in any conventional sense, happens. "A film is not a spectacle," Robert Bresson once pronounced; "it is in the first place a style." It says something for Tarr's style that the plot of Damnation, on first viewing, seems not much more than a distraction. He has been compared to Tarkovsky, whom he admires for Andrei Rublev and Stalker, but whose later, non-Russian work he deprecates - a judgement in which I can only concur. Tarr resembles Tarkovsky mostly in his use of long takes and his metaphysical concerns; but he is wittier, less self-indulgent and far less interested in redemption. He has also expressed admiration for Bresson, Ozu, some of Fassbinder, and John Cassavetes, with whose work as a director I am still unfamiliar.

In Werckmeister Harmonies Tarr and his collaborators dispense with plot almost entirely, and instead construct a weird and fabulous poetry of music, idea and lustrous black and white imagery, based loosely on a novel by Krasznahorkai called The Melancholy of Resistance. After the collapse of his human orrery in the bar, Valuska walks down a deserted street as the camera reverses away from him into the shadows ahead, leaving him a silhouette dropping slowly into darkness. Light creeps silently along the blank face of a terrace of ugly buildings as a tractor slowly tows into town a huge corrugated metal box containing the body of a huge whale - a "fantastic attraction", according to a publicity poster, with "special guest star, The Prince".

Valuska lives with the shoemaker and his wife in a small Hungarian town, where he delivers newspapers and looks after Mr Eszter (Peter Fitz), who is working on a theory that the conventional system of musical harmonies, as worked out by Andreas Werckmeister among others, is based upon a fraudulent premise. As Eszter softly dictates his notes into a microphone, with Valuska observing behind him, the camera slowly orbits Eszter's head, first in one direction, then in the other. One of the women in the post office, in the course of a monologue about the world going generally to pieces, mentions "that horrible whale" and his special guest star, the Prince, who is rumoured to cause disorder wherever he goes. Throughout the early part of the film we hear that windows have been broken and fires set in other parts of the town; and although whenever Valuska goes out of doors the streets seem virtually deserted, silent crowds of men gather ominously in the square, where the great metal box is parked.

Valuska is approached by Eszter's wife, Tünde (a beady-eyed Hanna Schygulla), who claims to have made the supreme sacrifice by walking out and leaving Eszter to his work. Tünde and the chief of police have formed a committee for "cleanliness and order", and she wants Eszter to chair it and use his influence to get funds. If Eszter doesn't agree, Tünde will move back in with him, and she gives Valuska her suitcase as proof that she is serious. A single shot follows Valuska and the disgusted Eszter along the street as they set about Tünde's errand; aside from some brief talk between Eszter and Valuska at the start, and between Eszter and the men whom they meet some minutes later, it is entirely without dialogue, and consists of a close-up, in profile, of Eszter's and Valuska's faces - the former tight-lipped and staring straight ahead, the latter with knitted brow, casting occasional anxious glances at the older man - coming to rest, at last, on the dog-headed handle of Eszter's cane as he tries to reassure the anxious local worthies in accordance with Tünde's ultimatum. Later, Valuska finds Tünde waltzing in her nightclothes with the drunken police chief and himself ordered to the police chief's own house to put his riotous sons to bed. Valuska is unable to manage this; in a bedroom whose wall is decorated with pistols and a sword, one of the little beasts uses a toy sword to whack, in alternation, Valuska and a drum, and screams "I'll be hard on you" into an improvised microphone, while his brother bounces on the bed and accompanies with clashing cymbals a wobbly version of the waltz to which Tünde and the police chief were dancing. So much for order and cleanliness.

Valuska goes twice to see the whale - in fact, he is the first to pay to see it, after the corrugated metal box lets down its grating door. He walks once around it in the dark, staring into its unblinking eye, while the silent crowds begin to gather in the square. Later, with the crowds growing ever larger, he sneaks in through the side of the box and witnesses an argument between the exhibit's manager and the special guest star, the Prince, who speaks (possibly in Russian, though I can't tell for sure) through a burly interpreter and is seen only as a shadow on the wall, its head thrown back. The manager dislikes the violence which accompanies the Prince's appearances and wishes him to remain silent while on exhibition. The Prince, through his interpreter, responds with threats to leave, interspersed with pronouncements on the folly and degradation of mankind and calls to slaughter and riot. Asked about the Prince, Tarr stated, in effect, that he saw the same thing as everybody else - a shadow on the wall.

The riot takes place over the space of two shots: the first showing, from above, a seemingly endless stream of expressionless, implacable men marching down a dark street; the second gliding coldly round a battered, echoing clinic as the mob moves in and patients are dragged from their beds, kicked and beaten with clubs, until a final, shocking image of abject helplessness causes the rioters to stop and walk out. In an extraordinary, brutally effective touch, both the march and the destruction of the clinic take place without a single voice being heard; the only sounds are the heavy footfalls of the mob, the blows and the scuffles, and the noise of things being smashed. Concealed inside a cupboard, Valuska watches from the dark; later, in a vandalised store surrounded by broken washing machines, he reads what apparently is the written confession (or perhaps testament) of one of the rioters, detailing other atrocities.

When Valuska makes his way home, he finds tanks in the streets, with Tünde pointing the way for the soldiers. The shoemaker has been killed in the rioting, and his wife tells Valuska he's in danger. "I haven't done anything," he says. "That doesn't matter to them," is the reply; "they recognise neither man nor god." On her advice, he makes for the railway, hurrying along the tracks; but he is detected by a helicopter, which circles him and then hovers interminably, the cockpit towards the camera, blank-eyed. Valuska is next seen sitting on a bed in hospital, drugged or catatonic, while Eszter tells him about developments at home: Tünde and the police chief have taken over Eszter's house, and Eszter himself has moved out and has re-tuned his piano. Valuska will be welcome, Eszter says, if he comes out. As Eszter makes his way home (carrying his own lunch pail, now Valuska cannot do it for him), he passes through the silent square, where the dead whale - "an evolutionary stage at which I would gladly have stopped," he told Valuska earlier - now lies exposed on its platform. Eszter looks into its eye, walks on, looks back, walks away; and then only the whale, and the wreckage, remain.


  • At 12:45 am , Blogger Piotr A. Szcześniak said...

    The Prince is speaking Slovakian. What is vital, becouse it shows, that historical context is not insignificant for Bela Tarr. So let me conclude. On the one hand the structure of this oeuvre is mythological. On the other hand this film is strictly attached to the (Hungarian) history. Maybe this attachment is not so strict, but, anyway, we can talk about some kind of dialectics.
    It means that we shouldn't forget about this historical backgroud, which is usually being put aside by the critics.

  • At 1:40 pm , Blogger Philip said...

    Thanks for that. It's probably less a question of the historical context being put aside or forgotten, as of anglophone critics simply being unaware of it. We can all see the echoes of the Soviet and post-Soviet era in Damnation and Sátántangó, but older or subtler resonances mostly pass us by, especially given the very overt individuality of Tarr's style. We'll catch on eventually; no doubt a thesis or two is being written even now.


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