“Space travel makes you realize just how small we really are. When you see Earth as a tiny blue speck in the infinite reaches of space, you have to wonder about the mysteries of creation. Surely we’re all part of some great design, no more or less important than anything else in the universe. Surely everything fits together and has a purpose, a reason for being. Doesn’t it make you wonder?”
“I wonder what happens if you throw up in zero gravity.”
– Calvin and Hobbes
As a culture, we don’t pay much attention to the movement of the planets. Earth’s orbit and axial tilt account for the seasons, while it’s rotation defines our daily routines of work, outdoor time, and sleep, but our focus tends to be more on clocks and calendars than the heavens. We look at constellations and different phases of the moon as interesting trivia or pleasant photography subjects, but see them as ultimately irrelevant to our everyday lives. As long as the earth continues to be in near perfect orbit and distance from the sun, and all the other planets stay out of our way, we can take continue taking all their music and harmony for granted.
But what happens when the order is upset? This is the central premise of Béla Tarr’s 2001 black and white feature, Werckmeister Harmonies.
Before seeing the Hungarian art film, my experience with independent, experimental pieces was very limited. I knew the stereotypes of the genre, but only in a negative sense. Art films weren’t exciting; they were slow. They weren’t emotional, they were bizarre or pretentiously aloof. They didn’t have engaging dialogue, if any at all, and the camera would usually sit, motionless, twenty feet away from the actors, who would stand quietly and do nothing.
How very wrong I turned out to be.
The film begins at a bar full of drunks, late at night. They invite in a young man named János (Lars Rudolph), who proceeds to direct them in acting out the movements of the sun, earth, and moon in order to explain a coming solar eclipse. János describes the darkening of the sky in all its terror and despair, leaving the whole room in silence a few moments before telling them, “But, no need to fear. It’s not over.” The dance of the stars resumes, with the whole crowd staggering around in drunken celebration. The bartender promptly tells everyone it’s closing time, to which János replies, “It’s still not over,” before leaving.
It takes a village to raise a child and, although he’s in his mid 30s, János seems to be the lone youth of his small town. As he walks the cold, desolate streets, running errands and delivering papers in the dark hours of the morning, everyone inside calls him by name, and he refers to them as aunts and uncles. He takes care of a decrepit composer named György (Peter Fitz), who philosophizes about overturning the tonal system of Andreas Werckmeister and returning to a “natural” music system that isn’t tied to the orderly movement of the planets. Unfortunately, the changes he makes to his piano sound grating and ring of discord.
As he stops to make deliveries, János keeps sitting down to read the paper, but is constantly distracted and interrupted by townsfolk passing ominous rumors of impending darkness. The circus has taken over the town square with a giant, dead whale, a shadowy figure called “The Prince” (who is never seen on camera), and a mob of followers.
When János visits, he weaves through the scattered crowd of almost motionless men, inspecting them like a curious child, while they turn to stare at him, silent and foreboding. None of them care to see the whale but János, who circles it in wonder, seeing parts of it through shadows and rays of light, not unlike the Indian parable of the blind men and an elephant. His fascination with the whale as a grand and strange part of God’s creation remains a unique perspective for the remainder of the film.
György is coerced into promoting a fascist political movement and spends the day handing concerned citizens over to the coming, new order. At sundown, János urges him to see the whale before the day is gone, but György pushes it off, dismissing it as an entertaining product of evolution. They part ways at a fork in the road, walking off towards different horizons, and very different endings.
As tensions in the town heighten, János is tasked with putting the police chief’s children to bed, but finds them spinning chaos while their drunk father is away. One bounces on the bed, clashing cymbals in relentless discord, while the other keeps János at bay with a stick, screaming threats at him through a fan and adding to the mad noise long after János retreats. This dismaying scene of organized insanity is a fitting precursor to the turmoil, violence, and darkness that the Prince (perhaps, “of the power of the air”) is about to unleash on the town after sundown.
Although director Béla Tarr insists that he never uses metaphors or symbolism, I suspect that this is primarily an attempt to dissuade those who would boil his stories down to allegories and think they have mastered the art, rather than exploring the themes of the film as one explores the themes of life. What I offer is that the film, like its protagonist, is reaching between the grounded, gritty material of physical life and the unseen, sublime mystery of the immaterial. If viewers open up to this experiment, then, in the words of János, “We’ll have an explanation that simple folks like us can also understand about immortality. All I can ask is that you step with me into the boundlessness where constancy, quietude and peace, infinite emptiness reigns. And just imagine that in this infinite sonorous silence, everywhere is an impenetrable darkness.”
The film is indeed dark, and quiet as space, save for the soft sounds, voices, and rare tracks of tragically hopeful music. This cold, desolate town may well be a flesh, wood, and cobblestone version of the cosmos themselves. People orbit one another, eclipse light from windows and streetlamps, and, in the case of János, meander through crowds like a wandering star. The camera circles and rotates to follow characters in lengthy, sometimes 10 minute, shots of patient observation. This recurring relationship between time and circular motion, which could otherwise be lost to completely static staging or linear progression of character movement, is even reflected in the short, two day duration of the film. Morning, afternoon, and night turn slowly, each scene taking us through a gradual change in light at relational pace with the passage of minutes.
If Béla Tarr is submitting a transcendent connection between the movements of the heavens and the daily lives of men, as espoused by János in the opening scene, then he’s given himself plenty of pushback. György, the figurehead of aristocratic intellectualism, an elder to János and one well respected by the townspeople, thinks the whale which captivates János to be almost laughable. “It would have been good to meet this excellent being to scrutinise him – a point on the evolutionary scale where I would have happily stopped; a meeting both pleasurable and entertaining.” He strips away the spiritual significance that János has dug up, making it an animal, but not a creature. Further, while János earnestly searches for meaning in creation and poetry in the stars, György follows the path of materialistic nihilism, trying to unseat music’s heavenly foundation of cosmic harmony.
In the end, György’s cynical “realism” threatens to win out. The town is ravaged, people are dead, martial law shifts power into the hands of the corrupt, and János has somehow lost his mind after being captured and released by the military. For György, little changes. He reverts his piano to its original tuning, thanks God for silence, and continues his reclusive work as a composer, pushed to the edges of his own house by leaders of the new police state. It’s back to normal, except that he takes care of the mentally impaired János, instead of the other way around. Unlike the tragically curious János, György kept to himself and survived. Not that he’s any happier.
When asked about the grim and bleak portrayal of the world in his films, Béla Tarr often explains that he’s simply reflecting his homeland and what he sees in it. He follows in the footsteps of the Italian neorealism movement, choosing to shoot the gritty, everyday life of the working class in an impoverished nation, convincingly brought to life by non-professional actors. The sheer simplicity in which the culture of a town is shown through the eyes of a young man with a simple goal is not unlike the 1947 film, The Bicycle Thief, which follows a struggling father searching the streets of Italy for his stolen bicycle.
While The Bicycle Thief urges for social change to solve its postwar economic problems, Béla Tarr has the benefit of hindsight and reflects the seemingly circular nature of corruption, going from war and holocaust to a supposed “salvation” under communist rule. Whereas Italy’s markets are filled with the noisy rabble of economic competition, Hungary’s roads are empty, with conversation only taking place inside, quietly and uneasily. The characters of Italy bang on the doors of unhelpful institutions, while those in Werckmeister Harmonies are just trying to stay locked up inside. History has taught them not to stick their necks out. At least, most of them.
On his way to the town square for the last time, János stops to speak with his neighbor, Uncle Lajos. It’s night, and as they stand just outside the safety of a shadowy doorway, watching something offscreen, Lajos gives a final warning: “Don’t go there, János, this is not for us. They’ll have to get the army in. There’s nothing we can do now.” As János reassures Lajos he’ll be fine and walks on, the camera turns to reveal the town square, crowded with unruly men, unchecked bonfires and smoke in the dark. It’s a hellish picture that Uncle Lajos was well justified in staying far away from. And still, János walks on, heading straight into the belly of the beast.
Whether foolish or brave, János is one of the first to venture out during the long night of madness, as well as the following morning, when soldiers are said to be looking for him. There’s something of the women and disciples who visited the tomb of Jesus in the way that he goes out after a tragedy, while others stay in hiding. His name, János, is a Hungarian variation of John, which might even remind us of the disciple who outran Peter in a race to the tomb. Werckmeister Harmonies doesn’t show us a resurrection and closes with its characters still under the shadow of fear and uncertainty, not unlike like the Gospel of Mark: “And they went out and fled from the tomb, for trembling and astonishment had seized them, and they said nothing to anyone, for they were afraid.” But, even as the story may seem to leave us under that shadow, János reminds us that “it’s still not over.”
Werckmeister Harmonies is no Christian allegory. It stands on the brink of hope and despair, leaning one way or the other depending on who pushes it. The virtue of the film, as it may be remembered by the fortuitous few who stumble upon it, is not in any answer it gives, but merely in the questions it asks. Because it’s not really fortune that leads someone to watch an obscure, Hungarian art film… is it?