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Werckmeister Harmonies

The first shot in Werckmeister Harmonies is an incredibly intricate several-minute-long take set in a bar. It's closing time but, before everyone leaves, one of the dissolute faces calls a young man named Janos out into the middle. Clearing the floor, Janos chooses two men from out of the crowd. One of them will be the sun (he signifies the shining rays by flitting his hands), the other the earth. Next Janos chooses a moon, and it becomes clear that he's trying to demonstrate how a solar eclipse takes place. After a minute, other men join the demonstration, and soon a dozen moons, earths, and suns are revolving, rotating, and shining on the dingy tavern floor. Form, such as it is, has devolved into chaos, and the result is baffling, extraordinary, and strangely moving.

Those are apt descriptions for all 145 minutes of director Bela Tarr's magnificent meditation. The story takes place in a small Hungarian village, but it could be any place in the world where poverty saps the spirit, where the rational and superstitious collide, where order struggles against chaos and darkness.

Janos (played by Lars Rudolph) is a bright light in the town, even though he doesn't quite seem to fit. After leaving the bar, he goes to a near-by house where he helps an elderly man get into bed. Then he cheerfully heads to the local printer, where he picks up newspapers to deliver. He chats with various people on his rounds, many of whom are nervous about a circus that's coming to town. But Janos is upbeat, despite his grim surroundings. When he finally reaches his house, however, just as the sun is rising, he has an unwelcome visitor. A lady dressed in finery has an errand for him to run, something about organizing a "committee for order and cleanliness." She won't take no for an answer, and the exhausted Janos has more work to do.

The next 36 hours will re-define Janos's life. The feared circus does come and, with it, an enormous dead whale that symbolizes God's creation. But also tagging along is the Prince, a disfigured orator (whom we only see in silhouette) who spouts fascist slogans like "Fury Overcomes All! We Will Destroy!" and incites his unemployed followers to riot. Janos is overcome by the whale and the mob (though for different reasons), and soon the menacing order of the wealthy woman seems a reasonable alternative to the chaotic violence that erupts.

This description is not exactly faithful to the film--it makes it appear that Werckmeister Harmonies has a linear narrative typical of other movies, and nothing could be further from the truth. Bela Tarr is much more interested in mood and tone than plot and story, and his exquisite black-and-white compositions are genuinely stunning. There are numerous shots of Janos and others trudging through the bleak streets at all hours of the night. These long takes are incredibly evocative, as we are transported into Janos's apparently meaningless existence. His struggle to believe in a universe where God places the stars in their places and creates whales for their sheer beauty is mightily undermined by the aimless men around him and the ever-present greed and disorder. As with all great films, Tarr confronts us with the question, "How should we then live?"

Even if these philosophical questions aren't your normal cup of tea, Werckmeister Harmonies has pleasures to spare. The cinematography by Gabor Medvigy is spectacular. The film is full of five-to-ten-minute long-takes using elaborate camera movement. His use of light and darkness is revelatory. An early scene when the circus rolls into town is an amazing contrast between white and black. There are also a number of silhouette shots that echo throughout the film. And one long take of Janos looking back on the town as fire and explosions break out is just breathtaking. The score by Mihaly Vig is simply one of the best of the year. Haunting and elegiac, it complements the story and visuals in gorgeous ways.

The acting styles tend to be excessively stoic, but that fits with the film's tone. It also has the effect of emphasizing the moments of lunacy, giving them an even greater force. A long take of two children jumping on a bed and screaming "I'll be hard on you" is genuinely frightening, and the Prince becomes an almost demonic figure.

The most impressive aspect of Werckmeister Harmonies, though, might be how it works on so many levels. It provokes thought on our own current balancing act between security and freedom, explores the nature of rationality and its excesses as well as superstition and insanity, casts an indictment on amoral greed, ponders God's creation and wonders at his apparent absence, but also contemplates the emptiness of a universe without God. "He who is afraid knows nothing," one man snorts, but that response strikes a hollow chord, and I am left to wonder, as the movie's final shot fades to black, how true the writer of Proverbs was: "The fear of God is the beginning of wisdom." 

J. Robert Parks  12/22/2001

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