Saturday, November 16, 2013
Netflix Finds: Bela Tarr's THE WERCKMEISTER HARMONIES
Hungarian filmmaker BélaTarr has made something altogether wonderful in The Werckmeister Harmonies, a film in which a lot is going on but still doesn't have a lot of plot, a film which is meant to be watched and listened to and absorbed and yes, probably argued about, but not necessarily enjoyed for the narrative.
I would undersell it to describe it as a two and a half hour music video, but in some ways that's what it is, and what the title might almost make one expect; the work of Baroque era composer and musical theorist Andreas Werckmesiter is alluded to (negatively) but is not present in the soundtrack, replaced by Strauss' Radetzsky March, Bach's Prelude No. 8 in E-flat minor from The Well Tempered Clavier and, most importantly and thoroughly, a gloriously beautiful and haunting score by Hungarian composer Vig Mihaly, in which a simple and repetitive piano motif is amplified, possibly canonically (I'm no music theorist myself) by beautiful string arrangements that alternately meditate and weep and amplify the film's stateliness (if the film grabs you) or glacial slowness (which you'll complain of if it doesn't).
What story there is concerns a tiny village on the Hungarian plain, the kind that seems suspended in a strange 20th century timelessness until the spell is broken toward the end with the brief appearance of a modern helicopter in a vaguely (and slowed down) North by Northwest-ish chase scene. It's winter, or the start of winter, and the mercury has dropped to way below freezing; the season of "nothing to do but drink and fret" has begun. To liven things up of an evening, our sort-of-hero, Valuska János (Lars Rudolph) takes it upon himself to arrange the drunks in the town's only cafe into a living, staggering orrery to explain an upcoming eclipse (which, violating Chekov's gun rules, does not occur in the film except maybe in a very metaphorical sense).
But soon more interesting entertainments are on offer: a traveling circus! Tarr both does and does not partake of the "sinister carnival" motif we see so often in film with this: the circus consists of just two "acts": a taxidermy whale and a nasty non-character called "The Prince", alluded to but never seen, who allegedly has the "power of magnetism" but seems principally to exercise that power in the form of hate speech that has startlingly violent consequences.
All of this unfolds in 39 long and languid shots, sometimes several minutes long, that will either madden or entrance the viewer. The taxidermy whale arrives slowly in a giant corrugated metal crate and we watch its ponderous arrival in real time with János as the light ripples along the crate's surface. János puts one "uncle" to bed and prepares his house for nighttime, then goes out on a newspaper delivery "run" that's really more of a stroll. He pauses with another "uncle" (I think maybe "uncle" is an honorific for your elders in Hungary?) who expounds on his theories that Andreas Werckmeister's tuning theories have distorted the Music of the Spheres (which idea János sort of demonstrated in the cafe) and are why everything has gone wrong in the world. He meets with the theorist's estranged wife (Hanna Shygulla), who insists on János drafting the old man into doing something about the growing disturbance in the town the circus has touched off. A group of cudgel brandishing men slowly march to the facility they will do their best to destroy. Etc.
Really, for me, it's all about watching the light play on Shygulla's beautifully aging features, on the shadows and hollows created in Rudolph's face, and the rhythm of the film's dancelike movements to Vig Mihaly's amazing, amazing score.