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Old 08-10-2009, 03:34 PM
Béla Tarr's and Ágnes Hranitzky's Werckmeister Harmonies

Werckmeister Harmonies (2000)

From the opening scene of Béla Tarr's and Ágnes Hranitzky's "Werckmeister Harmonies," you know you're in for a film that is out of the ordinary. A bar is about to close and the bartender is trying to get people to leave, but some drunks want a young man to explain about the upcoming solar eclipse. The young man has a drunk stand in the middle of the room, representing the sun, and another one rotating around him, representing the Earth. He brings out yet another to play the part of the moon orbiting around the Earth. He stops the three men when they are in the perfect set-up of a solar eclipse, then let's them proceed again, but this time, everyone joins in, rotating around the room, that is, until the bartender has had enough.

The young man, János Valuska (Lars Rudolph), lives in a small, unnamed town, in an unnamed country. He runs a paper route at night and also checks in on an elderly man, György Eszter (Peter Fitz), who is a musicologist studying such works as those of Werckmeister, a "technician" who tried to create the music of the gods. On one of his paper route, János stops at a hotel. He talks with a man worker there who has heard rumors of bad things that are happening and will happen, much like what he had heard at the newspaper shop.

There is unrest in the town. The people are ready to revolt at anytime and, on top of that, a bizarre circus is coming to town featuring a giant stuffed whale and an appearance from a mysterious character known only as "The Prince." Estzer's wife, Tünde (Hanna Schygulla), shows back up in his life, using János as a conduit to communicate with him. She wants György's help in organizing a committee to bring the town back to order, a committee which she wants him to be the chairman of. He reluctantly agrees to help form the committee after she threatens to move back in with him. Meanwhile, the potential rioters in the town square finally decide to make their move.

It's true that several of the scenes in "Werckmesiter Harmonies" go on for much longer than necessary, nor was there any reason the film had to be 145 minutes long, yet it manages to be strangely hypnotic in what it chooses to show us. There are several shots in the film that are unforgettable such as when János sneaks back into the town square to see the whale again. He gets into the truck holding the whale where there is a single beam of light aimed right at the whale's eye.

Another shot of the whale that is not easily forgotten is in the final scene of the film, as György finally goes to see the giant mammal amongst the destruction caused by the rioters. The whale is sitting wide in the open on the bed of the truck, surrounded by mist. He contemplates the whale, walks towards us, stops, then walks away.

János has a strange fascination with the whale throughout the entire film, always talking about it, and urging other to see it. He finds it fascinating that God would create such a creature and believes that it is symbolic of omnipotence. Then there is the other mysterious exhibit of this traveling circus, The Prince. We never see this character, but we do hear him talk.

Supposedly The Prince has followers, but we never learn what it is that he wants to accomplish exactly, nor do we learn this from the rioters that have gathered around him. This actually gives the film a very mysterious quality. Not only do we not know where we are, but we have no idea who is fighting or for what. All we learn of it is picked up in bits and pieces throughout the film.

At one point, we hear talk about dwindling energy supplies, which could be a possible spark for a riot like this, but it seems like there must be more to it to account for their actions later in the film than just that. These actions come as quite a shock when they carry them out. It starts with another really long take as we watch them march towards their destination, catching glimpses of the men's faces in close ups and long shots.

When they do finally reach their destination, we are shocked to see that it is a hospital. They tear the place apart, smashing everything in sight, as well as beating up the patients as they yank them out of bed. This goes on for several minutes until a few of the rioters discover an elderly man standing in a bathtub. Just as suddenly as it started, it stops. The men slowly file out of the hospital together as if they have suddenly realized how shameful and anti-productive their actions were.

The ending only adds onto the mysterious tone of the film as we see the result of the rioters’ actions. Things are never fully explained, nor do they have to be. We don't know which side is right mainly because we don't really know what is going on, but even when we do know all of the facts, it can still be hard to know which side is right. What we get with "Werckmeister Harmonies" is a film that doesn't feel the need to tell us any of these unimportant facts and instead chooses to show us this chaos through the eyes of a respected young man from this town who seems to know everyone.

This film is certainly not for everyone. I think Roger Ebert puts it best in his "Great Movie" essay when he calls the first 20-30 minutes of the film a test. If you've given up on the film before then, then it's definitely not for you, but if you've stuck it out for those 20-30 minutes, chances are, the film has you under its seductive spell. It's certainly one of the strangest films I've seen in a long time, and while I can't quite call it great, I still found myself hypnotized by its bizarre qualities. 3/4 stars.
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Old 08-10-2009, 11:12 PM
Yeah, Ebert's right on that one. I've sat down multiple people through this film, and shockingly, they all managed to love it.
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Old 08-11-2009, 08:13 AM
tarr is possibly the most unique director working today. his films will be appreciated more in years to come. i find his films quite disturbing
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Old 08-11-2009, 08:27 AM
Werckmeister Harmonies is absolutely brilliant; I agree that the pacing can be a bit challenging, but if you're actually into the movie it becomes a non-issue pretty quickly. Between this and Satantango, Tarr is a genius. In my book anyway.
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Old 08-12-2009, 11:54 AM
This is a GOOD MOVIE people should WATCH THIS MOVIE but they won't.
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Old 08-12-2009, 02:34 PM
/\ I salute sumgi for getting me into Bela Tarr. He would have languished on my "will see eventually" list for five years otherwise.
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