In our continuing series of ’47 Films to see before you’re murdered in your dreams’, we look at Bela Tarr’s Hungarian caper movie The Werckmeister Harmonies.
The Mist has 1227 shots in it. Inception is closer to 2000. Based on László Krasznahorkai’s 1989 novel The Melancholy of Resistance, Bela Tarr’s The Werckmeister Harmonies has only thirty nine shots and each one is a beauty unto itself.
Set in a remote town, the film starts with kicking out time at the local bar and a simple minded young man János Valuska (Lars Rudolph) teaches the patrons about the total eclipse of the sun by getting them to enact it in a solemn shuffling dance. The camera too participates and the music by Mihály Vig is heartbreaking and gorgeous at the same time. His uncle is a composer and he talks about aesthetics and harmony and the yearning for some kind of completion. Meanwhile, a circus ominously trundles into town with a large stuffed whale and the mysterious performer Prince. A revolution is afoot, and troops are supposed to be arriving. Things will quickly become dangerous, with the local hospital getting trashed and Jànos in fear of his life. Is this another kind of eclipse and will the warm sunlight return? Or is this chaos the way of the world and will the damage be irreversible?
The word poetic is often misused when talking about films, but Bela Tarr is doing something genuinely different with film here. Forcing you to sit back and study the shot as it moves and reveals itself without the insistent hammering grammar of television. The allegory for Eastern European politics and pre- and post-Eastern Bloc malaise does not need to be fully understood, as with all strong allegories the story should be good enough to survive its initiating topicality. And here it is the black and white photography, the mood of the piece, the music and atmosphere which is worth luxuriating in and enjoying. For deep within the film, magic and the sublime lurk.