(Note: I guarantee this post will contain several spoilers. It is primarily an analysis of Bela Tarr's Werckmeister Harmonies, which I have previously reviewed, but in retrospect is a rather weak encapsulation. Therefore, if you haven't seen the film, well, that's quite unfortunate, because you'll get nothing out of this post. Or you could just scan the images, in which case you will likely want to see the film.)
After viewing Hungarian director Bela Tarr's 2000 release, Werckmeister Harmonies, I couldn’t shake the fact that it was a monolithic achievement; it was closer to reality than to a movie, and therefore I felt it had the uncommon capacity to alter my perceptions of art, the world, and ultimately of myself. The film is, in my opinion, Tarr's most enticing, for there is always a strong sense of menace lurking right around the corner, which is an emotion that is usually absent in Satantango and Damnation, in which the hell of their worlds has already erupted and is there to stay. Werckmeister Harmonies treats me to everything I find sublime about cinema: exceptional high contrast black and white cinematography, languid tracking shots, lack of conventional narrative, abstract symbols, gorgeously somber music, unique characters, dominant use of elements such as fog and fire, and thoughtful musings. Its rhythms are as eerily similar to a fever dream as those in David Lynch's Eraserhead, another film which I believe to be genuinely masterful. I have now returned to the atmosphere of Werckmeister Harmonies three times and feel its more than worthy of a closer look.
Instantly, Werckmeister Harmonies is substantially unconventional and anti-commercial. In fact, it’s in a league almost entirely on its own in current cinema (only paralleled by Tarr’s other work). It’s a methodical dreamscape of a film depicting a small town in Hungary that encounters an odd circus show amidst a prophetic time. Tarr puts paramount emphasis on atmosphere rather than plot. Each image cannot be taken at face value; considering most shots are supremely lengthy, one is forced to assess the connotation of each individual black and white composition. Every unbroken shot represents a single scene, of which there are a minimal 37. I was stunned by Tarr’s sophisticated bare bones technique, this being the first time I witnessed such a minimalistic style. The fact that the film is continually enticing is in itself enough of a mystery when placed aside modern media’s propensity to lasso the attention of viewers with rapid juxtapositions of often times technically manipulated images. I couldn’t help but associate these minimalistic visuals with unadulterated reality, because no one can dismiss the fact that life frequently moves slowly and mysteriously.
An indelible impression was also made on me due to the metaphysics of each scene. Granted, Tarr would deny the presence of any allegory in his work, but there’s no doubt that Werckmeister Harmonies is the most symbolically tempting film in his career. As a starting point, the film perhaps makes the suggestion at times - with ample references to the universe and landscapes - that nature is far more powerful than humanity. It is so powerful in fact that it can drastically shape the behaviors of people, a notion that is stunningly on display in the film’s bravura opening sequence, an approximately ten minute long waltz around a drunken display of the cosmos as directed by the protagonist Janos Valuska. If one views the circus as an obstruction to the natural flow of things, as is mirrored in the film through the pantomimic display of an eclipse and Uncle Eszter's microphone discussion of the natural tones that composer Andreas Werckmeister disrupted through his creation of a musical scale, nature’s effect on people is disastrous: violence, depression, reclusiveness, and angst all ensue because of it. (Also, as Eszter posits, the onset of harmonic dissonance and the lack of pure music.) The simple image of the massive circus truck entering the town through a barren roadway is a magnificently lucid portrayal of the coming of catastrophe; one hankering slab of metal signifies the moon beginning to cover the Sun, Werckmeister's orderly thought process setting in motion centuries back, and Hungarian Communism taking full stride.
Aside from a commentary on nature's powerful abilities, Werckmeister Harmonies can be read in a spiritual manner, or - given Tarr's willingness to deny the possibility of proving God's existence - lack thereof. Twice there are undertones of this sentiment. Janos raves about the whale being a creation of God's omnipotence, withholding a stirring sense of the great beyond. He determinedly tries to show it to Eszter but there is never an opportune moment. Angry circles of bearded men surround the whale in its metal tomb, a way of imprisoning good in evil. The whale can be viewed as God Himself, withering away unseen, owned by savage men and used for squalid entertainment. Tarr could be making the case that God has no impact on destitute situations, except perhaps to one soul (Janos) that can't seem to make his or her case known. Later on, in the masterful hospital sequence, the shocking exposé of a bare and fragile old man in a damaged hospital takes on a staunch religious connotation. A slice of incandescence is emitted on him, also giving him the implication of God, however, surrounded by a crowd of hostile men in a shadowy room, a deceased God. The sight of him turns the tides on the havoc being wreaked, but there is no hint of the man ever bettering himself upon their departure. Once the hospital has been ravaged, there's no hope for his survival. Meanwhile, on the other end of the spectrum, the dwarfish Prince is utter evil. He drags malevolence with him and contains the whale, suggesting him as Satan. He also speaks Slovakian, an enemy of Hungary during World War II, and his spurts of anger towards his co-employees sound only a notch or two away from Hitler. Although his size may impress upon him less power, his mysterious enigma attaches hordes of zealots to him. Tarr is depicting a classic clash of power - good and evil - which does not end in uplifting triumph, but rather an exertion of the evil so ruthless as to extinguish itself. What results is the optimistic soul of Janos being stuck in a bleak mental hospital with a loss of hearing, and the stately whale left worthless in the foggy market square.
In conclusion, I feel that Werckmeister Harmonies can be digested in three different ways, none of which are superior. The entire rise and fall structure of the film could owe itself to a projection of Hungarian history before, during, and after Communism, grounds that Tarr has showed interest in, most notably with Satantango. With this mindset, Tarr views each period as equally hellish, as one could imagine of pre-apocalypse, apocalypse, and post-apocalypse. The film also flirts with more cosmic terrain, resulting in a more profound religious interpretation. In this scenario, Earth as a whole is hopeless in its void attempt at finding help from a supernatural force. Thirdly, Werckmeister Harmonies could just be an indictment of the "ignorance of society", as my good friend put it, in which case we are simply viewing the fragility of a mass of people in the face of something new to a community (the circus). However, this hearkens right back to the political message: when times get confusing, people get violent. It is possible that Tarr was touching upon each of these, and it is also possible that he had none of this in mind, which would match his own words - "I just wanted to make a movie about this guy who is walking up and down the village and has seen this whale. And, you know when we are working we don't talk about any theoretical things." His vagueness suggests an artist truly concerned with the intriguing, multivalent integrity of his work. However you interpret the film, it is certainly an experience that washes over the viewer with the type of symphonic force that only tremendous art can offer.