It is said that Hungarian filmmaker Bela Tarr is talked about more than viewed. This is because some of his films run beyond 400 minutes. At two and a half hours Werckmeister Harmonies is manageable by comparison, but not an easy film to watch, even though it is gripping in its simplicity. It involves a small town where almost an entire population’s anger is boiling, and we don’t really know the exact reasons why. Impending destruction is inevitable, but the plot is not the point here. By suspending the need for full explanations, Bela Tarr allows us to drift into a series of events where time and space are as observable as they would be in real life.
- Director: Bela Tarr, Agnes Hranitzky
- Writer: Bela Tarr, Lazlo Krasznahorkai
- Cast: Lars Randolph, Peter Fitz, Hanna Schygulla
In a small Hungarian town, a young man named Janos (Lars Randolph) runs around town trying to make sense of growing hostilities and a circus arriving in town with a whale and a so-called “prince”. Meanwhile, as outsiders arrive into town and disorder seems inevitable, an underground “clean town” movement forms, attempting to raise funds that may prevent disaster.
There are two things that make Werkmeister Harmonies stand out as a film: Lars Randolph and the camerawork. With a deep set of eyes, Mr. Randolph’s face and overall performance provides each scene with a magnetic presence. The impending violence seems all the more intriguing as it is observed by a young man of relative innocence, his spirit being constantly tested. We see him care for others, communicating with a soft-spoken demeanor, and expressing a high regard for nature. In the films opening shot, we come to see that he also a great admirer of the cosmos. It is clear that he’s a young man of integrity and faith.
The entire film uses 39 shots, though I counted only 33 (I must have missed a few). Either way, this is an incredible feat considering that the film not only runs 145 minutes. While it is visually captivating for the most part, removing about 15 or 20 minutes may have been appropriate to still achieve its purpose, as one shot with defiant kids banging on drums comes to mind. But there are shots that required no less than a full month to plan, and it is in these shots that the film reaches its brilliance. Even when Janos does ordinary things such as tucking an elderly uncle into bed or eating in the kitchen, we are drawn to Janos and the rare opportunity to watch non-eventful activities unfold as they would in real life. In one long shot, Janos walks within and around a crowd of onlookers amidst a plaza, speaking briefly with some of the men while making his way to see the visiting whale display. The camera never loses focus of Janos (I can only assume a steadicam is to be credited). The pacing and music are mesmerizing, as the same shot follows Janos onto a large container where he walks around a giant whale and marvels at its physical immensity. Within the same shot still, Janos then walks back to the plaza where he expresses his awe of the whale to an elderly cynical man. It’s subtle and brilliant. In another notable shot near the end, the entire town storms into a hospital in a trance-like state. And here too the camera work runs from room to room like a passive observer as a feeling of helplessness takes over while destruction ensues.
Brief Words for Mr. Ebert:
I was intrigued to read your review and learn that Bela Tarr despised stories, as they mislead us into believing that something has actually happened. He goes on to say, “In fact, nothing really happens as we flee from one condition to another … All that remains is time.” I find this idea fascinating, and I think it is conveyed effectively in Werckmeister Harmonies. It would more effective if the film was even more dreamlike, with the plot-like elements entirely removed. Nevertheless, I agree that the long takes are compelling, and because they are not long for the sake of being long, they draw you into an “air of mystery”. You mention that people ask whether you just look at the shots when admiring a film like this. Interestingly, you point out that you do, since this is a film after all. However, unlike in other films, I too enjoyed being given enough time to enjoy each individual shot, and then getting lost inside of it.
Good, Bad or Great Movie: GOOD
Do you like Werckmeister Harmonies? Do you consider this film to be Good, Bad, or does it stand up as Great?
Next week’s review: Top Hat
Years ago, ScreenCrave contributor Jaime Lopez privately began tackling Roger Ebert’s “Greatest Films” list, an ever-expanding monolith of celluloid currently comprised of approximately 354 films. Lopez has set himself to put these remaining films’ “Greatness” to the test–reviewing both the movies themselves and Ebert’s response. By taking on Bela Tarr and Agnes Hranitzky’s Werckmeister Harmonies this week, he now has 293 under his belt and less than 100 films left to go.