Saturday, November 15, 2014

Werckmeister Harmonies

Man, I love long takes. Here is the ten-minute masterpiece of a take that opens Béla Tarr's Werckmeister Harmóniák (Werckmeister Harmonies) (2000):

I love everything about this scene. I love how it plays out like a theatre performance captured on film, without compromising its film format. I love how the shuffling of feet roots the viewer in the scruffy bar setting while the character Valuska waxes on about heavenly bodies. Even in this single scene there is a crescendo when the camera rises above the lamp and rests on the tableau of drunkards enacting a solar eclipse. I love how deftly the camera moves around the merry-go-round of staggering dancers. And how many times, you wonder, did the film crew have to rebuild that fire after it had been extinguished?

Werckmeister Harmóniák is shot in 39 long, languid and elegant takes. Its narrative is so subtle that I'd describe the movie as a collection of abstract and beautifully shot scenes. 

Let's manage a synopsis anyway: The film is about a grim and dreary town that is on the brink of having a violent revolution. A circus show arrives in the town, its only attractions being the preserved carcass of a mammoth whale and a sinister dwarf-like figure called 'the Prince' - the arrival of both somehow triggers violent behaviour in people. The Prince is a mysterious figure who is only seen in shadow and whose voice sounds rather like a radio. 

Just as the opening scene illustrates the movements of our solar system, so do all the characters revolve around the central figure of Valuska. Valuska is a simple, gentle and dreamy young man who does the paper round, takes care of his uncle(?) György Eszter who has retreated from society to flesh out his theories on music, and seems to do the bidding of most people around him (though he isn't bullied into errands; he is well loved among the townfolk).

[I'm gonna pause here briefly to say that it's impossible to have 'spoilers' when discussing this film. It would be like having a spoiler alert for a poem; I could tell you what happens in the poem but it wouldn't diminish your experience of it.]

Valuska acts as a messenger between uncle György and his estranged wife Tünde. György is called upon by Tünde to take on a leadership role and calm the anxiety-ridden town, but Tünde is only persuading him to do this so that she may become a prominent member of society again. In the end, György is impotent to stop the violent momentum of the thuggish townfolk (and the thugs who arrive from other towns to see the whale).

The film culminates in another well-choreographed scene (above) in which the mob charges into a hospital and pulverizes its feeble inhabitants. This scene is bloodless, yet portrays the viciousness of man in all its mindless glory. The mob's momentum screeches to a halt, however, at the sight of an old, emaciated man naked in a bathtub - a reminder of humanity amidst brutishness. How quickly the emotion transforms from aggression into shame here.

Who knows what the whale symbolizes? The dignity of the ancients? The sublime? Somehow I feel like it doesn't matter. Maybe the whale simply acts as a witness to the doings of mankind. Its glassy inert eye is impervious to human suffering. Perhaps this is how Valuska and the whale are similar; they are both innocent witnesses who get damaged along the way, but Valuska carries the heart and hope of the film. Valuska is captivated by the whale and possesses an astute understanding of what is happening to his town on a psychic level.

The images in Werckmeister Harmóniák are indeed memorable. I think Béla Tarr manages this not only by composing his shots well, but by lingering on them so that they burn into one's memory. I've heard this type of filmmaking described as a 'cinema of patience'. But you don't read a poem for a punchline, do you?

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