Friday, November 01, 2013

Werckmeister Harmonies (2000)

Werckmeister harmóniák, Hungary/Italy/Germany/France, 145 minutes
Directors: Bela Tarr, Agnes Hranitzky
Writers: Laszlo Krasznahorkai, Bela Tarr, Peter Dobai, Gyuri Dosa Kiss, Gyorgy Feher
Photography: Patrick de Ranter, Miklos Gurban, Erwin Lanzensberger, Gabor Medvigy, Emil Novak, Rob Tregenza
Music: Mihaly Vig
Editor: Agnes Hranitzky
Cast: Lars Rudolph, Peter Fitz, Hanna Schygulla, Janos Derzsi, Djoko Rosic, Peter Dobai

Werckmeister Harmonies is the usual study in contradictions for a long and difficult art film, or at least for one that grows better with familiarity—bewildering but mesmerizing, confusing but lucid, slow and ponderous yet frequently nimble-witted. It opens on a strange and elaborately staged barroom demonstration of an eclipse, with drunkards standing in as the heavenly bodies. It finds its narrative focus (around which it stalks sideways fashion) in the arrival of a traveling circus, so called, to a small city. The circus features a whale exhibit and "The Prince," some sort of charismatic cult figure. The town, seen mostly through the eyes of its overnight newspaper delivery person and would-be litterateur Janos (Lars Rudolph and his haunting, fearful face), is in fragile condition, wracked by unknown forces politically, emotionally, existentially.

These elements are as carefully chosen as everything else in this movie, which is nearly as deliberate as it is possible to be. Whales carry portent that stretches back to the bible, revived again in the advent of the New World. "The Prince"—who is likely the strangest and most mysterious character in a movie stuffed with them—grounds it deeply in European experience, bearing the colossal burden of everything from Machiavelli and Saint-Exupery to the feudal estate itself. In many ways the opening scene works as prologue, because the narrative arc, such as it is, most closely resembles an eclipse, the single most cinematic natural event that occurs (aside from perhaps only tornadoes), ending at that moment Janos himself describes in his barroom exposition: "Everything that lives is still. Are the hills going to march off? Will heaven fall upon us? Will the earth open under us? We don't know. We don't know, for a total eclipse has come upon us... But... but no need to fear. It's not over. For across the sun's glowing sphere, slowly, the moon swims away...."

And so we proceed, across a night, a day, another night, and dawn. Evidently set in the post-Soviet aftermath, shot in a dour yet evocative black and white, it feels modern and ancient at the same time. Roger Ebert famously pointed out that Werckmeister Harmonies consists of 39 tracking shots, chained into a movie that runs 145 minutes. Indeed, this is much of what makes it work. It goes from place to place, it is always moving, probing, if slowly, and strange things happen and are seen all around it—bonfires raging on the town square, a mad police chief and his madder children, "The Prince," seen only as shadow and understood only via a translator, and the moments of sudden aggression that well up continually.

The experience of it is something like riding a subway and observing dramatic scenes at each station—a sensation of hurtling forward into light, followed by slowing and a stop and color and action, and then moving forward into darkness again. If occasionally impatient with how slow and random the journey feels, one also feels in the hands of forces that know what they are about, a firm sense there's a destination and it will be reached.

Director Bela Tarr is so coherent and yet so organic about the way he conceives his scenes that, as with Andrei Tarkovsky, an obvious antecedent, it is often fascinating just to watch the way it moves, even if the movements don't necessarily appear to have immediate point. It is somehow always insanely compelling. Tarr is remarkably good at using people walking to ground the pace in human dimensions, here and in his other pictures too (on this, he has an obvious heir in Darren Aronofsky, among others). There are many long shots of people walking, shot from cranes overhead, shot in profile tracking, shot from immediately behind, from further behind, from way far behind, from in front, in and out of darkness and shadow. But it is taken to a whole new level here with a nighttime shot of a very scary, very silent mob moving to attack—walking, walking, walking, staged much in the way of mobs in Metropolis. It is a scene of tremendous power.

Similarly, when Werckmeister Harmonies strains for notes of chaos, as in the hours before the riot, which eventually must be put down by the military, it can hit and sustain them quite well. Much of this element revolves specifically around the police chief (Peter Dobai), whose mistress Tunde (Hanna Schygulla, who is about perfect) is significant in Janos's life. We first see the police chief drunk and ranting at Tunde's, followed immediately by the scene at his home, where his two preteen boys are left without minders. They are jumping on a bed, playing a marching record at top volume (in fact, the same one the police chief plays at his mistress's), pounding on drums, screaming into a fan for the effect on their voices—dismayingly out of control. Janos, who has been sent there to put them to bed, finally just leaves.

More on notes strained for: Andreas Werckmeister is a real historical figure, a music theorist of the baroque era whose writing on counterpoint influenced Bach. He invented a tuning system, the "Werckmeister temperament," which makes some appearance here via a scholar in town whom Janos knows and admires and may even be related to, "Uncle Gyuri" (Peter Fitz, whose craggy impassive face balances Lars Rudolph's anxiety nicely). It is music theory well over my head, based on planetary movements, underlining again the eclipse theme. There is some element in the way music is used here that works constantly to blur the line between music and natural objects. Mihaly Vig's score is often poignant and swelling but even the sound effects, as in industrial interiors, have a musical quality.

Ebert also makes a point about the reveries produced by long movies, which of course Werckmeister Harmonies is also playing to, again very deliberately. At two and a half hours, it's not as long as Tarr's Satantango, but it's long. And watching it very much becomes a hypnotic experience, particularly as one comes to know it better. Each scene is practically like a short film itself, with beginning, middle, and (of course) ambiguous end, some of them quite remarkable: the arrival of the whale in town at night, that marching mob and riot, one outrageously long (and very funny) shot of Janos and his Uncle Gyuri walking side by side in profile. Like an eclipse, Werckmeister Harmonies feels momentous and yet without adequate explanation but still, somehow, tremendously satisfying too.

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