Pulling the Strings: Tarr & Hranitzky’s Werckmeister Harmonies

Published on: September 14th, 2003

Harmonies

Werckmeister Harmonies bears all the hallmarks of a serious, adult art film:

1. Arcane title

Exotic, alluring, referring (we’re told at one point) to the musical theories of one Andreas Werckmeister, whose researches concentrated as much on the gaps between notes as the notes themselves.

2. Unusually long running-time

For a film to run much beyond two hours these days, it must either be a bloated Hollywood epic (Pirates of the Caribbean, 141 minutes) or its diametric opposite, i.e. a serious, adult art film. Then again, 145 minutes counts as very nippy for Tarr Bela (in Hungary, surnames are given first), whose Satantango clocks in at 450 minutes. His films tend to far sprawl beyond the two hour-mark because of his fondness for…

3. Unusually long takes.

The opening sequence, in which after-hours drinkers in a rural bar are arranged to simulate a lunar eclipse, sets the tone at around ten minutes. Later, the camera follows two men as they walk down a street, keeping pace and showing them in profile. We get the whole of their long walk down the street, roughly five minutes without dialogue. Tarr has even been referred to as “the master of the long take.”

4. Black and white.

Dream-like, hypnotic monochrome courtesy of regular Tarr collaborator Medvigy Gabor. (although, according to some sources, no fewer than seven different cinematographers worked on the movie).

5. Subtitles.

The dialogue is, unsurprisingly, in Hungarian – although in one scene two ‘characters’ speak an unspecified, untranslated language which sounds vaguely Russian. And two of the main actors are dubbed from German, their presence reportedly a condition of international co-financing arrangements: Lars Rudolph, who appears in almost every scene of the movie as innocent villager Janos, and Hannah Schygulla, as his sinister ‘aunt’ Tunde.

6. Obscure plotting.

We’re in an isolated town in the middle of the Hungarian plain. It’s the depth of winter, and the ‘circus’ arrives. Except, as another critic has so succintly put it, this is “the kind of circus where nobody has any fun.” The ‘circus’ mainly consists of a dead whale-carcass transported around in a huge corrugated metal container. The main attraction, however, is ‘The Prince’ – apparently some kind of legless genetic freak who is never seen (except in shadow-profile), but exerts some kind of bizarre demagogic power on all who hear his scratchy metallic voice.

The mood of the town is bleak and threatening: shabbily-dressed men-folk congregate dourly in the main square, and the forces of law and order – Aunt Tunde and her police-chief lover, decide that something must be done. They rope in Tunde’s former husband, Mr Eszter (Peter Fitz), for whom Janos operates as a part-time carer, to head a fascistic-sounding ‘Clean Town Movement.’ The townsfolk are eventually moved to violent action – though it’s unclear whether this is a result of Tunde’s nebulous movement, or because of the actions (or inactions) of the ‘Prince’. They storm the local hospital, as the horrified Janos looks on.

7. Portentous dialogue.

From the that opening bar-scene, with its sonorous talk of eclipse, the characters seldom simply talk to each other. Instead they converse, exchanging ominously dark warnings and philosophical prognostications. These include a discourse on various harmonic theories – including Werckmeister’s – by the learned Eszter.

8. Portentous pauses.

Usually accompanied by characters staring at the camera, at each other, or into space.

9. Intense, apocalyptic, politically-charged subject matter.

It’s probably dangerous to attempt specific interpretations of a film so wilfully oblique as Werckmeister Harmonies, but the basic thrust seems to be that the Hungarian peasantry, cast adrift after the end of Soviet-bloc communism, are easy prey for reactionary, proto-Fascistic forces. Whatever the film’s events are supposed to represent, it’s clear that the world we see is poised on the brink of some terrible cataclysm. But when dealing with such a work, any assessment of ‘meaning’ is very much in the eye and mind of the beholder – as is, indeed, are the merits of the film and its maker(s).

As Variety magazine’s Derek Elley noted in his review of Werckmeister, when it screened at the 2000 Cannes Film Festival, “Tarr is a highly acquired taste, a messiah to his fans and a major bore to his detractors.” Elley’s position, however, is clear, describing the film as “another hypnotic meditation on popular demagogy [sic] and mental manipulation. Tarr is one of the few genuinely visionary filmmakers left on the planet.” Writing in the Sep/Oct 2001 Film Comment, Jonathan Romney was no less effusive, commending his “patient, stark lucidity” and hailing Werckmeister as an “extraordinary bleak phantasmagoria.”

In the same article, however, comes a line that gives the reader considerable pause: “Tarr has denied any political echoes.” If this statement is accurate, does Tarr align himself with those (like, to take perhaps the most extreme example, Leni Riefenstahl) who see their art as floating above, and thus free from, any political considerations? Looking at Werckmeister, with its crowds of wordless, undifferentiated proletarians marching through the night, such an assertion seems – at best – arrogantly disingenuous.

And the scene in which we see the police chief’s two young children is symbolism of the clunkiest kind: while daddy raves drunkenly in Tunde’s bedroom, his kids are left unattended at home. One of them wears his father’s uniform and boots, jumping up and down on a bed clashing toy cymbals. The other threatens Janos with a drumstick, and shouts “I’ll be hard on you” into a standing fan that’s made to resemble an old-style radio microphone – the fact that this phrase is repeated what seems like a dozen times isn’t the least subtle aspect of a horribly over-emphatic sequence.

The film itself contains other indications that Tarr may not be quite the cinematic master his admirers claim. The end credits – which, incidentally, clearly state that the film is codirected by Tarr and Hranitzky Agnes (who also serves as editor) – include a remarkable section stating that Werckmeister Harmonies was made between 1997 and 2000. So what? Why feel the need to tell us this information? Are we supposed to be in awe of a film simply because it took a long time to make? Perhaps Miike Takashi should put a similar note at the end of his movies : ‘Ichi The Killer was made between September 28 and November 2, 2001′ for example. It’s the same with Tarr and Hranitzy’s favoured long shots – is the simple fact of their length an indication of merit? For some observers, the answer is apparently yes: a fallacy taken to its most ludicrous extreme with the elevation to auteur status of Aleksandr Sokurov on the back of his one-shot gimmick Russian Ark.

Many of Tarr and Hranitzky’s long takes are, indeed, impressive: an early shot of Rudolph walking down a road intermittently lit by streetlights; a slow zoom through a wire partition at a postal sorting office, as a woman gossips about ‘the Prince’ to the eerie rhythmical accompaniment of an unseen machine. But Tarr and Hranitzky’s “mastery” of the form is no more striking than that of, say, Victor Erice or Jacques Rivette. When a Hollywood director like Brian DePalma pulls of a crazily audacious long take, he’s often attacked for pointless showing-off. When Tarr and Hranitzky does it, the critics fall prostrate at Tarr’s feet (Hranitzky, oddly, seldom gets a look-in).

And while Werckmeister has moments of visionary strangeness that occasionally make it seem like the visual equivalent of an early Fall album – many of them boosted immeasurably by the judicious use of Vig Mihaly’s music, Tarr and Hranitzky are’t entirely free of clich√©. Perhaps they really does think they are the first directors to cut to a piece of wood resting on a chopping-block, then instantly show the axe splitting it in half.

The real clincher, however, comes during the hospital sequence – which features some very inept and fake-looking fight-arranging between the silent proletarians and their prey, the patients. This undermines the impact of what is clearly intended to be a harrowing depiction of political (fascist? anarchist?) violence. And it all comes to a sudden halt when the attackers come across a naked, wizened old gentleman standing alone and vulnerable in a bathtub. Apparently this spectral vision I enough to convince the rioters that enough is enough, and they withdraw – again, of course, in silence. (In the world of Tarr, Hranitzky and Krasznahorkai Laszlo [on whose novel The Melancholy of Resistance the film is based, and who collaborated with Tarr on the screenplay], only the middle and upper classes get much opportunity to speak.)

The appearance of the painfully thin old man is jarring – but for all the wrong reasons. It’s rather like the moment in Carlos Reygadas’ Japon where the ancient farm-woman disrobes in the climactic sex scene: whatever thematic point the directors are trying to make is outweighed by the embarrassment we feel for the aged performers, who are reduced to the level of pawns, stick-figures, by the ‘puppet-master’ director(s). As Elley puts it (admiringly) in his Variety review, the actors are “essentially marionettes in the maestro’s hands.”

But there is rather more substance in Werckmeister Harmonies than in Japon, and it’s unfair to dismiss Tarr and Hranitzky as pretentious charlatans – their witty use of ‘the Prince’ (who, although never actually shown, is among the most memorable of recent cinematic creations) does indicate some awareness that ‘magus’ figures are quite often cynical confections designed to hoodwink the ignorant populace. In the end, though, regardless how much Tarr and Hranitzky themselves resemble their Prince, it’s all too tempting to compare their film to the circus’s whale – huge and strange, but decidedly lifeless and, in all probability, a meticulously-constructed fake.

Neil Young
14th September, 2003 (seen 12th September : NMPFT, Bradford)

Werckmeister deciphered: another view by Sheila Seacroft.