Bela Tarr Retrospective: Werckmeister Harmonies (2000)

Introduction

As has become customary for winners of the Ingmar Bergman Lifetime Achievement Award at the BAM Awards, I have begun a Bela Tarr retrospective. The introduction and initial short film post can be found here and here.

Werckmeister Harmonies (2000)

So it’s been a little longer than I wanted it to be before I returned to this series and gave my first closer look at a title but here it is.

With Werckmeister Harmonies not only do you have Tarr fully embracing his new aesthetic but you also have him creating the trajectory of his remaining films. What can be found here is the opening salvo in the ongoing dialogue of his cinema. Some of the themes both visual and otherwise start here and you can feel them echoed in later works.

For example, the film begins with a shot of a piece of wood being added to the fire on an oven. Now, as it turns out here this is just the opening frame of a lengthy tracking shot, but the motif of wood-burning ovens, flames through the grate and things of the like reappear, most notably in the Turin Horse.

The opening shot is an intricate and quite a famous one. It is perhaps the most we will hear out of our protagonist. However, interestingly this protagonist is one whom for the most part is just a vessel with through which we can be shown the story, such that it is.

Werckmeister Harmonies (2000, Facets)

There are two significant and long speeches in the film and much like the only dialogue of consequence in The Turin Horse, the temptation to disregard it rather than trying to ferret out some semblance of meaning is compelling but erroneous. The first such extended piece of dialogue is right there in this opening tracking shot wherein Janos describes to bar full of inebriates the workings of the solar system. I read of a God Complex in one essay but the way Janos walks around observing the whale, being transfixed by it and assigning it no special significance, save for the wondrous work of God that it is, doesn’t quite mesh. I think the intent is likely to define Janos here for we will see little else throughout that does. He listens and does what he is told most of the time. Whether or not he does that to a fault is debatable, but what this is establishing is that he thinks on a simple matter and sees the wonder of it, much like a child would, and seeks to share his wonder. The barkeep lets him go on only so long before kicking him and everyone else out.

The second dialogue passage of significance is when the title the Werckmeister Harmonies is disseminated. It is a rant on musical theory on how the tuning of instruments and the regimentation of notes and octaves created something far more mechanical and less artful and organic than existed prior. On the surface it has nothing to do with anything else, save for the fact that it is this old man’s, Gyuri Eszter’s, obsession. However, it’s not the explanation that matters, but how he feels about it. He likens it to man tinkering with the work of God and here, yet again, we have a theological reference. Now, God here is being invoked in a more existential and cosmic way, rather than in a dogmatic way. It’s seemingly invoked as a larger ideal rather than a denominational claim, much like the the whale and the so-called prince, a dwarfish shadow-figure whose face is not shown threatens the natural order in the minds of many in the town, are.

As in much of Tarr’s work when he stayed shooting in black-and-white, moved the camera more and created a course the film is about decay. It’s about how we as human beings are always teetering on the edge of devolution and anarchy.

Werckmeister Harmonies (2000, Facets)

The sound of church bells in this film, much like in Satantango are ascribed and ominous connotation; similarly to that film a broken clock in a church starts working anew rather mysteriously. Much in the way many of the people, except Janos, interpret the whale in their own way. The allegory of the whale is perhaps the most powerful in Tarr’s filmography because for as large and imposing as it is, as much of a spectacle as it is, it can’t do anything. It does not do anything and neither does the feared Prince who evokes passion and creates followers. However, the people believe they can and do and that’s what causes them to react the way they do. The people want no change, in spite of its constancy, and when something threatens that they lash out.

The order the enraged mob seeks to be restoring is an illusion. It’s as much an illusion as film is, which could be why Tarr in this instance brought in two German actors, the wide-eyed, childlike Lars Rudolph as Janos and the formerly omnipresent Fassbinder vamp Hannah Schygulla; and had them speak their lines in German and then had them dubbed, and not necessarily in a way that syncs perfectly, because something it always off.

Uncle Gyuri Eszter, in his diatribe about the Werckemeister harmonies, states that what the struggle is as follows “the octave versus the note; the natural tune versus the manmade construct; the heavenly versus mundane; human hubris versus divine gifts.” And that’s much of what the struggle in this film is.

There are still mysteries to be unraveled. Many can assume, since we did not see him through much of the assault on the hospital, that Janos was not there. However, that long and significant tracking shot ends on him looking terrified after the violence stops upon the site of the frail old man who no one wants to harm. So one can wonder did he just witness it all, unable to stop it; or was he a party to it. Similarly is the account he reads in the church one he found or one he wrote himself. The film leaves them purposely vague. However, I think it correlates more with both his passivity and his folly that he was merely a witness. What is left unsaid the end that he was inactive in the assault and not the author of what he read.

Werckmeister Harmonies (2000, Facets)

When all is said and done he’s the perfect scapegoat. The society back to its so-called sense and must now restore order and the most logical scapegoat is Janos. They, meaning all the citizens, recognize neither God nor Man, so he must leave. The end of the film is uncle Gyuri Eszter going to see the whale. It is left out in the square on display where the madness began passive and immobile as it always has been.

It’s a film that’s really not about what happens, but why it happens and that answer is not nearly so nebulous people have willed it to be. They’ve assigned meanings based on their fears and ignorance and punished the guilty. In almost an eschewing of genre toward the end there is a helicopter, maybe verifying early rumors of military involvement, hovering in the sky behind Janos. It circles him quite bit, but it’s not going to try and barrel him over like the cropduster in North by Nothwest. It’ll just watch him and let him know that he’s targeted. He’s the odd man out because he embraced the whale and got the finger pointed at him and now he must go down the train tracks and out of town.

All that remains is delusion and lies, he’s told once and that’s the way it stays. It’s merely an illustration of that statement is what the film is. The people fear, they know nothing. They do not move on. The Prince is gone, the circus is burnt, the whale lies alone; an abandoned blasphemy and things go on unchanged.

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