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Werckmeister Harmonies

It's the whale what done it

Jonathan Romney
Sunday 20 April 2003 00:00 BST

As a title, Werckmeister Harmonies doesn't quite roll off the tongue, so it's a shame that Ghosts of the Abyss was already taken by James Cameron (see Nicholas Barber's review). Watching this extraordinary Hungarian feature, you really feel as if you're suspended in some black, bottomless chasm, and its characters are less like humans than wandering phantoms. The director is Bela Tarr, whose reputation as an enigmatic new maestro has been brewing for some time, partly on the strength of his majestic but demanding Satantango, which clocks in at nearly eight hours. Anyone who saw his 1987 film Damnation – belatedly and rather recklessly released in Britain – may have wondered what the fuss was about. But Werckmeister Harmonies is leagues beyond that, and confirms that Tarr is one of the few current European directors with a genuine claim to visionary status.

Werckmeister Harmonies is ostensibly set in a present-day reality, but might as well be taking place on some desolate distant moon. The locale is a small Hungarian town, wind-blown, mud-sunk and short on cultural life: in the extraordinary 10-minute opening shot, Valuska (Lars Rudolph), a gently crazed postman, arranges the shambling clientele of a dreary tavern into a working model of the cosmos. Everything in this film seems to operate at once on a cosmic scale and on the shabbiest level of mundanity. An eclipse is looming, rumours of social collapse are rife, and the town square is filling up with a silent mob of ragged, extremely disgruntled-looking men. Then along comes the circus – a huge corrugated metal truck containing a preserved whale and a mysterious "Prince", who has been stirring up mob unrest with his inflammatory harangues.

Janos, meanwhile, tends to an elderly musicologist, Mr Eszter (Peter Fitz), who is obsessed with proving that standard musical tuning – as refined by the composer Werckmeister – is a pernicious lie, deafening us to the true harmonies of the spheres. But Eszter is wrenched away from his studies by his ex-wife Tünde (Hanna Schygulla), who wants him to head her organisation to promote order – or else. Cataclysm follows – but why exactly? Is it because of Tünde's authoritarian movement, or the capitulation of good-natured but ineffectual souls like Eszter and Janos? Is it obscurely caused by the presence of the whale, a mouldering, inert titan with an inscrutably staring eye? Or by the Prince, seen only in silhouette as a homunculus ranting in a metallic tongue? Or it is that, in some imponderable way, the universe, truly, is out of joint?

It's hard to say what Werckmeister Harmonies is really about, and that's why it's so compelling a fable – genuinely as enigmatic as Kafka, or Eraserhead. The original novel by Tarr's co-writer Laszlo Krasznahorkai – on which the film is based in a radically reduced measure – was published in 1989, and could be read as a speculative fantasy about Hungary after Communism. Tarr's film can certainly be seen as a vision of political terror, with a resentful mob caught between a nihilist demagogue and the subtler manipulations of Tünde, who in some ways is the film's most terrifying figure. Anyone who remembers Hanna Schygulla as the silky vamp of Fassbinder's films will be startled by her transformation into a stocky babushka, though the sexual slyness is still intact. If Eszter won't support her cause, she mutters with gentle coquettish menace, she'll simply have to move back in with him.

Tarr steers the film between stretches of solemn dead time, like Valuska doggedly doing his rounds, and ominous visions of narrowly contained hysteria, such as a chilling scene in which two small boys create an ear-splitting parody of grown-up militarism. Events culminate in the gathered crowd's ransacking of a hospital, with patients brutalised in their beds: the apocalyptic horror is heightened by the fact that it all takes place without a single cry either from aggressors or victims, and that the whole incident is covered in one of Tarr's characteristic long, slow takes, the camera gliding ghost-like through the chaos. The first time I saw the film, this sequence simply looked like a brilliant, incongruously poetic depiction of extremity: suddenly, following the hospital lootings in Iraq, it looks uncannily prescient, in the way that art can sometimes, quite fortuitously, appear to be. Certainly Tarr is depicting an unpleasant truth about the way that social anger can erupt into self-destructiveness after times of great repression. I never thought a Tarr film could be timely: Werckmeister Harmonies seems to float inscrutably outside the contingency of world events, and yet it has taken on a distressing currency you wish it didn't have.

Tarr's uncompromising approach – the severe black-and-white photography, the slow-fuse narrative – has little interest in seducing the viewer. But the slow, rigorously patient moves, which unfold space and elasticate time, make a far richer and more resonant use of the camera's mobility than the dazzling but hollow one-take feat of Sokurov's current Russian Ark. Tarr roots you to the spot like a malevolent hypnotist, but, unlike Sokurov's portentous grand statement, his film makes no claims for itself.

Werckmeister Harmonies simply is what it is – in other words, all you see unfolding on the screen, without rhetoric or commentary. It contains any number of images to give you sleepless nights, not because it contains any graphic extremity, but because it genuinely captures the texture and rhythm of nightmare. Not least haunting is the angular face of Lars Rudolph's doomed holy fool Valuska, a wild-eyed witness to catastrophe (some film-maker ought to adapt Crime and Punishment purely to cast Rudolph as the perfect Raskolnikov).

Werckmeister Harmonies is a film which seems to bear an absolutely marginal relation to the way that cinema is usually conducted: it seems as alien and abstracted as Valuska's cosmological ponderings. Yet Tarr's film offers a breathtaking example of cinema's enduring ability to sound the murkier abysses of the human condition. It's a vision as dark as pitch, and for my money, an out-and-out masterpiece.

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