Werckmeister Harmonies

May, 2003, Drama

Directed by:Béla Tarr

Starring:Lars Rudolph, Peter Fitz, and Hanna Schygulla

Hungarian director Bela Tarr has apparently been something of a mystical presence in the European film community for some time now, scrounging up the financing for a small body of work that has a fanatical following. He showed up at Cannes this year with this enigmatic examination of social disintegration in an unnamed village in Eastern Europe. Tarr's use of high contrast back and white lighting, coupled with shots that at times seem to go on interminably, make this movie often excruciating to watch, but its two hour running time contains so much powerful visual material, (and so much thematic content to chew on) that it's definitely worth the effort. 

Tarr opens the movie in a small, threadbare bar in an unnamed agricultural village in one of the countries of the former Communist bloc. Janos, (played by German actor Lars Rudolph) attempts to explain to the farmers present how a solar eclipse occurs by having the tipsy patrons physically rotate around the room, representing the sun, moon and planets. As the astronomy lecture continues, the audience learns that Janos is trying to set his fellow drinkers minds at ease--they have nothing to fear from a sudden disappearance of their life-giving sun; things always return to normal. Tarr's utilization of the saloon's patrons in this living solar tableau contains far more than a striking utilization of the camera.  He's really after something much more profound; the subtext of this apparently random scene suggests what the remainder of the film will demonstrate in ominous detail; we hate what we fear, and we fear what we don't understand.

Janos is one of those individuals any small town is fortunate to have; endlessly helpful, connecting one group with another in the conduct of daily life, and announcing, with the delight of a child, the arrival of a mysterious traveling circus with its stupendous main feature--a mummified whale, accompanied by a fortune-telling dwarf.

But this hamlet is also like many others; disparate individuals hunger to control it and competiting factions arise and shift alliances quite quickly. While tending to the needs of one of the village's important senior citizens, Janos learns that "unrest" is brewing, and must be immediately and aggressively suppressed. The actual presence of this nascent threat is never demonstrated, only referred to by those seeking to acquire a greater measure of control over their fellow citizens. But no matter; the allegations of imminent danger promptly generate a re-alignment of interest groups, growing unease about the strangers operating the visiting circus and a curious belief that the unseen dwarf is an oracle who can show the inhabitants the way out of the mounting chaos.

And so he does, in a frenzied harangue containing all the demagoguery found in the principal political ideologies of the 20th Century. This diatribe produces exactly what the aspiring power seekers need--an explosive riot to confirm the validity of their assertions of approaching calamity. After the speech, a mob forms and marches on the local hospital, where the perpetrators of the "unrest" are supposedly hiding. In a seemingly endless tracking shot, the camera follows the mob as it lurches through fog-laden streets and then storms the hospital, brutalizing everyone in it. Janos witnesses this horror, suffers a nervous breakdown and attempts to flee from the insanity around him--but he's tracked down by the new ruling elite,  captured and incarcerated for his own good….

Of course, no one ever demands that proof be offered to support the allegations of impending doom and no guilty parties are ever actually identified; the innocent suffer, the visiting circus and its unique whale are destroyed and a tense, surly mood engulfs this once peaceful town as completely as the fog which accompanied the riot. It's now a place no longer friendly, no longer trusting-- simply under new management.

This movie was adapted from the novel "The Melancholy of Resistance" by fellow Hungarian Laszlo Krasznahorkai, but Tarr's genius lies in his ability to create a frighteningly plausible examination of societal hysteria and societal breakdown with universal applicability. (Substitute "weapons of mass destruction", the "war on terrorism" and Iraq for the stuffed whale, the rabble-rousing dwarf, and the hospital; you have a neat allegorical commentary on current world events.)

Harmonies positively reeks of obscure images and inexplicable events that may refer to Tarr's earlier work--or prefigure his next effort. Some of this reflects the director's self-absorption, his insistence on imposing his iconoclastic views on his audience; but for all the Fellini-like self-indulgence here, Tarr succeeds in creating a vivid world that simultaneously gets on your nerves and under your skin.

 I'd bet he's pleased with that result.



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