More art movie madness, a grim and mysterious
Hungarian effort that will be best appreciated by film buffs with a lot of
Bela Tarr is
one of the world’s most uncompromising filmmakers, known for extremely
long takes and pacing of the somnambulant variety. He also has a preference for
black-and-white film stock and highly elliptical, uneventful narratives.
WERCKMEISTER HARMONIES (WERCKMEISTER HARMONIAK), from 2000, contains all those
elements, but is more accessible overall than most of Tarr’s work. It’s been
dubbed his “arthouse breakthrough,” meaning it was the first of Tarr’s films to
(barely) play on the American arthouse circuit. Most of the others--which
include 1988’s DAMNATION and the seven-and-a-half-hour SATANTANGO from 1994--are
too arty for arthouses!
secluded Hungarian village a traveling circus arrives. This circus consists of
jars full of medical anomalies, a dead whale (which is never shown publicly) and
a malevolent figure known as “the Price” (who is never seen). Valuska is a
laid-back guy prone to barroom showmanship and nocturnal walks. Upon the
arrival of the circus he immediately senses that something’s wrong.
That sense grows as the townspeople become increasingly seduced by the
circus, gathering around it each day in large groups. Tunde, a crafty old
woman, tries to use the situation for her own ends, inducing Valuska to spread
her revolutionary gospel each day. But Valuska finds himself irresistibly drawn
to the whale enclosed within the circus trailer.
The atmosphere, meanwhile, is becoming increasingly dark and foreboding.
It all culminates in a mass attack on a local hospital, as the Prince, speaking
in a different language, incites the townspeople to violence.
Anarchy reigns. Valuska goes mad and becomes a vegetable. Even the circus
isn’t spared, as in the end the trailer is wrecked, leaving the whale carcass
beached in the town square.
this film will never be mistaken for HAPPY GILMORE. It’s weird, contemplative
and relentlessly elliptical. Just what it all “means”--the significance of the
Prince and the whale, the reason the townspeople choose to ransack the
hospital--is left open to interpretation. The glacial pacing and unerringly
grim narrative trajectory will further alienate viewers looking for conventional
Yet there are some profoundly impressive elements. Tarr, working with his
usual collaborators--co-scripter Laszlo Krasznahorkai, editor Agnes Hranitzky (Tarr’s
wife) and composer Mihaly Vig--perfected his technique in this film, creating
luminous images that rank among the most stunning you’ll see (notably the
magnificently eerie shot of Valuska staring into the giant eye of the dead
whale). Tarr’s mastery is also evident in the bravura staging and photography
of the assault on the hospital, a masterful eight minute sequence done in a
Make of WERCKMEISTER HARMONIES what you will, but it is a stunningly lensed
work of gothic beauty.
WERCKMEISTER HARMONIES (WERCKMEISTER HARMONIAK)
Goess Film/Von Vietinghoff Filmproduktion
Director: Bela Tarr
Producers: Mikoos Szita, Franz Goess, Joachim von Vietinghoff, Paul Saadoun
Screenplay: Bela Tarr, Laszlo Krasznahoraki
(Based on a novel by Laszlo Krasznahoraki)
Editing: Agnes Hranitzky
Cast: Lars Rudolph, Peter Fitz, Hanna Schygulla, Ferenc Kallai, Janos Derzsi,
Djoko Rosic, Tamas Wichmann, Ferenc Kallai, Mihaly Kormos, Putyi Horvath