Werckmeister Harmonies

Werckmeister Harmonies (2000) movie poster

(2000) dir. Béla Tarr, Ágnes Hranitzky
viewed: 01/02/07

This was one of those Netflix recommendations, and a weird one, too.  It’s just that I am pretty wordly in knowing my directors and I had never heard of Béla Tarr, much less the Werckmeister Harmonies.  Heck, I didn’t even know who Werckmeister was.  Turns out that Andreas Werckmeister was music theorist and composer in the Baroque era.  There is an interesting diatribe by one of the characters about how Werckmeister got it all wrong and ruined music by establishing rules about harmony and the like.  Hey, I have never taken music theory so I will just have to say, “sure”.

It also turns out that Béla Tarr is a pretty masterful cineaste.  Werckmeister Harmonies, filmed in black and white, is made with only 39 cuts, so each scene lasts several minutes and features a beautifully choreographed roaming camera perspective that is an entity unto itself, at times part of the crowd, at times above the crowd.  But the camera is so elegantly utilized that often one is just pulled in along with it, not always aware of its movement and its presence as the source of vision.  Some of the crowd scenes move so beautifully, so naturally, that you don’t think automatically of how choreographed it must be.  The camera just moves among the people, around the square.

The film itself has a slow pace that is a bit challenging on television, which is a shame.  The narrative is strange and not explicit, with several characters and mini-narratives that it’s strange and hard to follow.  I don’t mean that in a bad way.  It’s a stream-of-consciousness dream that unfolds slowly and yet inevitably.  Though the film is very different, I was reminded of Aleksandr Sokurov’s Russian Ark (2002), which also utilized long scenes (it had no cuts at all) and tracking characters as they walked.

The movie has a Surrealist temperment, with the strange stuffed whale and the mysterious “Prince”, who incites violence and psychosis, reminding me of the devil in Mikhail Bulgakov’s The Master and Margarita.  The mysterious van pulls into town and with its mere presence in the cold, foggy square, turns the world to chaos.  It’s a dark and pessimistic tale, and it is very surprising and visually rich.  Certainly a good movie to start off the year with.

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