The Nightmare of Werckmeister Harmonies
Haunting, eerie, and like a shadow it clamps onto your mind long after you have awakened from the nightmare.
Béla Tarr’s Werckmeister Harmonies (2000) is such a film. It is a work of art, no doubt, but to appreciate it requires a state of mind that is uncomfortable and difficult to ascend to from that of our daily consciousness.
The plot is simple. A circus descends upon a small Hungarian town, bringing with it a giant whale and a special guest, “The Prince.” Along with it, an unnatural, indefinable sense of dread and impending doom engulfs the town and that of its people. Rumors spread. Violence ensues. Evil prevails. Chaos inevitable.
What is the director trying to say? Perhaps nothing at all. He holds long shots of black and white images, allowing us to observe life, not simply its ripples of actions, unfold. This can be boring, no doubt, if one is looking for an answer, an explanation, a theory of what they are seeing. That’s why I think it tends to infuriate and bore people, because so much of our daily lives are revolved around the search of those ideas. We go to movies after seeing a trailer, which is a summarized story. Our minds are not geared to simply absorb without demands.
But once you allow the demands to quieten, Béla Tarr’s images will start to seep into your consciousness. Black and white images are especially powerful when used in this fashion: long, unwavering shots. There is a sense of timelessness in its lack of color, a purity in its depiction of reality. Concurrently, the very essence of a long, unbroken black and white shot evokes the closest feeling of time and space that is possibly observable.
Consider this shot of the massive circus truck passing by Janos (Lars Rudolph). Its ribbed sheets of metal stretch on for minutes, and the columns, to me, seemed almost like units of time.
The difficult thing, with long, unbroken shots, is to be aware of the changes and flow of framing, which gives rhythm to the emotion of the scene. I was fascinated by the precision of the framing in this film, which uses simple lights and shadows to convey a sense of existential crisis at many moments. Look at the photo above, it’s the 11 minute opening scene of a human sun eclipse, and at the end of it the camera moves up steadily until the fluroscent light fills the frame, holding it, and then down until it’s out of sight. There is an elegance of unspoken proportion there.
I also must confess that at moments I found the film unbearable to watch. There is the scene with two unruly children wrecking havoc in a room, refusing to go to bed. The audience started to chuckle, but the chuckles slowly faded as the scene dragged on, and on, and on. The clanging noises became pounding, and the simply yet sheer glee of the children expanded like a cloud of something sinister, and I had to look away until it was over.
Another is the helicopter sequence. Look at the photo above, does it frighten you? It shouldn’t. But it will. When you watch it, in simple, repetitive movements, and you see Jano’s face and his sense of dread, you will be afraid.
This is not an easy film to watch. It is not even pleasant. It is, however, magnificently shot, hauntingly beautiful, and despairingly interesting. I confess that I wasn’t even really aware of the details of the plot, the Hungarian dialogue had the melodic quality of a chant, and often I found myself just drifting in and out of reveries, immersed in the black and white haunts of it all.
Is this entertaining? No. What was Béla Tarr trying to say? Perhaps nothing. Perhaps everything, through nothing. Perhaps he wanted you to decide for yourself, through a dream or a nightmare. That was enough for me.