The other day I saw a film called Werckmeister Harmonies. It was by a Hungarian director named Bela Tarr who I wrote about a few weeks earlier. So far it is the only of his films I have seen fully. When its 145 minutes had passed by and finished, I sat in my seat for at least ten minutes, immovable. I very, very rarely cry during movies but I’m unashamed to admit there were tears drying on my cheek. I was unaware they had even begun to flow. I was too engrossed in thinking about what I had just witnessed. If I’m trying too hard to make it sound epic, then I’m trying too hard because that’s exactly what it is: epic. There are no human words to describe its brilliance, so this review is little more than a futile attempt to try.
The film centres on Janos (Lars Rudolph), a young man with a fascination for astronomy, who lives in a small unnamed town somewhere in Hungary. It’s not one of those small towns you just pass through in minutes, but it’s certainly not very big either. There are numerous scenes where characters walk across large parts of the town in relatively short times. The opening scene sees Janos in a bar, teaching the patrons about how the earth revolves around the sun, and using people as planets to illustrate his lesson. The patrons are nothing less than engrossed and fascinated by his intriguing, beautiful thoughts, and the unforgettable underlying score by Mihaly Vig enhances the beauty of these moments. The next day, a very, very large truck drives into town. A shot shows it beginning as a speck in the distance, and slowly becoming a lumbering figure of increasing size, until the comparitively tiny Janos is dwarfed by its titanic mass. What is inside? We soon discover, in another heartbreaking scene, that it is the rotting carcass of the world’s largest giant whale. When Janos goes to examine it, he stares deeply into its dead eye, not feeling sorry for it or angry about what has been done to it, but simply in awe of such an amazing creature, dead or alive.
The narrative quickly takes a disturbing turn; the whale is property of a mysterious figure named The Prince, who is heard but never seen. He is an evil, nihilistic, dangerous figure, who manages through his thoughts and words to make the townspeople commit unspeakable, destructive acts. In one astonishingly long take, all the people of the town except for Janos and his friends, walk down a street in complete silence; these are hundreds, thousands of people walking down a road in the darkness, and not one of them makes a peep. They are transfixed, in a trance, to do nothing but kill and destroy. They go to a hospital, and in a scene reminiscent of Michael Haneke’s early film The Seventh Continent, they destroy absolutely everything in the hospital, including the sick people staying there. Janos is powerless to stop them; he simply observes it all, horrified, and his attempts to flee have shocking, saddening consequences. No, he is not killed. I won’t say what happens to him.
Bela Tarr is a director known for long takes. This is a two-and-a-half hour long film, and there are only 39 shots. That means an average shot length of around 210 seconds, or three minutes and 45 seconds, compared to the average shot length of movies today, which is only a few seconds. His takes are not at all pointless. He allows events to unfold in real time; we see characters walking, and Tarr simply observes them walking. It is not boring; honestly, it is beautiful, because of his skills with a camera and the fantastic cinematography, which allows him to fill the screen with images of such surreal beauty; one reviewer even pointed out that Gus van Sant’s 2002 indie movie Gerry, my love of which I’ve spoken of many times, is essentially an American remake of the film, as both have very similar cinematography styles (but ostensibly different plots). The shots range from a length of thirty seconds to ten minutes, perhaps longer, I’m not quite sure. Tarr also shoots his films in black-and-white, to give them more purity and a sense of the time and place in which they’re set. If you’d asked me a few months ago whether I preferred movies in colour or black-and-white, I would’ve said colour, for sure. But now seeing Werckmeister Harmonies, I’ve changed my answer to black-and-white.
Of all the film’s beautiful scenes, there is one that sticks in my mind, one that stays perhaps longer than the rest. It is the final scene, which is so simple and yet so heartbreaking. It shows one man walking through the town square, which was once full of people but is now empty. There is destruction everywhere; in the centre of it all is the dead whale. He slowly and solemnly walks up to it and regards it. Then he walks away and the credits abruptly roll. This, I believe, was when the tears started for me; it wasn’t because I pitied the whale and felt angry for its situation. No, it was simply because the whale represented perfectly everything that had happened in the film. It is one of those pieces of destruction, one of those broken things that a hurricane might leave in its wake; a dead thing that no-one cares for anymore, if they ever had. It was stuck lifeless in the centre of a ghost town, dead but still lonely, and the man that walks past it sees all this and passes it on in that one glance. This town had never been beautiful, but once it had been content with the state it was in, and now the air was thickened with the lingering stench of chaos that had now passed but still lingered, a haunting reminder of the darkness that once found it.
Werckmeister Harmonies is now one of my ten favourite films of all time.