Werckmeister Harmonies (2000)

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Sometimes you see movies, and sometimes you see films. It seems like nothing more than a minor linguistic distinction, but the rope that ties the two together can also stretch for miles. And so, with Werckmeister Harmonies (2000, Dir. Béla Tarr) we encounter, at least I’d say, the far end of the “film” rope. A film which seems to eschew general cinematic convention, a film so primordially focused on the ability of film to show us images, that it asks you to encounter and relate to the film in a completely different frame of mind.

One not focused on aesthetic entertainment, images designed to purely amuse and impress on you a highly glossy view of the world. A different kind of filter is applied, one which reflects the jagged and coarser edges of the world around us. And the film’s images then ask you to see the beauty in them, rather than demand your awe in the presence of its well sculpted god-like actors, the elaborate and dazzling fantasy landscapes, the endless obliterating action sequences which command you to be overwhelmed.

No, this is a different kind of cinema for sure. And your response to it will be guided by whether you can move into a harmony with its’ rhythms.


János (Lars Rudolph) lives in a desolate provincial Hungarian town. A circus has come, with a giant whale and a mysterious figure called the Prince. Trouble is brewing. The context of the films wider landscape, something never explicitly alluded to, was originally lost on me. Set during the Hungarian communist regime, it’s a film whose history is everything to those who know it and very little to those who don’t. For life here seems on the edge of the world, one consumed on a knife-edge by isolation and loneliness and small folk life. In the 21st century interconnected network of existence, Werckmeister Harmonies speaks to a time and atmosphere which almost no longer exists anymore, one where life was not connected to the globe, but only to the surrounding miles of land around you.

As a result, the tone and rhythm of this film’s life seem almost alien, especially filtered through the vision of Béla Tarr. 39 long and detailed shots make up the entire running time of the film, and the fast paced interactive editing style of today is inverted on its’ head and smashed underground.  Shots don’t just breathe, they seem to gain life and evolve through delicate camera tracks and pulls. The world is presented to you as a quiet, mute observer who stands in the shadows of these village places, presented with the faces and bodies of people who have lived long and died longer. The whole place evokes a haunted town, one populated by ghosts drifting into the space of life only to fall out of it again just as quickly.

And everything in this film feels ethereal, its entire presence seems like it’s completely removed from the experience of our world, of conventional cinema. The wraith-like auras of its actors, Lars Rudolph eyes carrying what seems to be like centuries of experience. It’s score (by Miháli Vig) does some absolutely moving work.

I don’t know, you know. I honestly don’t know what or how to feel about this film. It seems to invert language and speech about it, it’s a film which feels difficult to talk about. It feels like it’s so natural to try and analyse it and intellectualise it, but it also feels so deeply like that is missing the point. It’s a film which rides such a wavelength of just quiet, ponderous experience. Not thought, not conversation, just raw stylised experience that you end up submerged in. It’s hard to talk when you’re under the water. And this is not just me getting so wrapped up in how much I love it that I can’t even begin to explain it, in fact the film sometimes grated and annoyed me as to its own peculiar idiosyncrasies. It’s not a film I could come out boldly and stake my flag in the ground to defend it to the ends of the Earth.

But I can’t deny its overwhelming spectral presence. It’s a film which truly earns the moniker film, because it feels like something made in that cinematic mold not to entertain, but to show something greater. And so much of the film is not shown, people and places and events alluding to a terrifying off-screen darkness which surrounds them. It feels like a film with a heart of darkness, one which beats through its very core but also hides inside the films’ exterior body. What do you do when confronting a film like this? A film which is deeply hidden, who’s parts are not on display for you to easily pick up and inspect, analyse and critique at your leisure.

For me, it was an encounter with a cinema which is hard to love, but easy to respect. There is no doubt that what Béla Tarr does here in this film is impressive. The haunting tale of man waiting for a circus, an obsession with a great whale, and a nightmarish village is told with such bold unconventionality, that at the very least the experience of it feels like bringing your head above an icy bath, even though at times watching it you can feel like you’re morphined to fuck. The rhythms of this film, polyvocal and atonal, are ones which are difficult to grasp and hang onto as they fly into your experience.

But they are deeply, deeply worthwhile to encounter. They can give you the gift of perspective, which is rare. And like the closing shot of this film, they can give you a profound sense of the abysses of experience we can sometimes live in.

-Alex

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Werckmeister Harmonies (2000)