Donald Clarke

Whingeing about cinema and real life since 2009

50 years, 50 films: Werckmeister Harmonies (2000)

We enter the new millennium with a sombre classic from Hungary’s greatest contemporary film-maker.

Fri, Mar 7, 2014, 19:48


I ran into trouble here. There has been, in this series, an informal attempt to tick off certain directors who matter. We’ve seen a Todd Haynes film, a Martin Scorsese film, an Ingmar Bergman film. And so on. The new millennium presented us with two superb pictures from two undeniable geniuses. If those film-makers don’t register here they may not register at all. I’m talking about Bela Tarr’s Werckmeister Harmonies and Wong Kar-Wai’s In the Mood for Love. Aware Tarr has recently retired, I’ve plumped for the characteristically sombre, slow masterpiece from the Hungarian master.

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Bela Tarr’s films have, rather unfairly, come to be seen as a sort of endurance test for those pretending to proper interest in “serious cinema”. They are more gripping than such facetiousness pretends. Still, he does come across as an austere fellow. He usually shoots in black and white. He famously uses enormously long takes. Not only does he rarely offer pounding narratives, he pretends to positively loathe story. ”I despise stories, as they mislead people into believing that something has happened. In fact, nothing really happens as we flee from one condition to another,” he once said. Well, that’s pretty unambiguous.

There is something of a story to Werckmeister Harmonies. Indeed, you might argue that it makes Sátántangó, his earlier, more enormous masterpiece, seem like Pulp Fiction in that regard. Based on László Krasznahorkai’s novel The Melancholy of Resistance, Harmonies hangs around the arrival of a circus to a town battered down by boredom and political oppression. Like a great deal of art about tyranny, the film is so laden with metaphor and subtext its surface narrative becomes almost irrelevant. If you didn’t already grasp that strategy, Bela hammers it home through his characteristic use of hugely long takes. Reviewers enjoy playing silly comparative games with Tarr’s films. Roger Ebert noted that, whereas the average shot in The Bourne Supremacy was 1.9 seconds, the average shot in Werckmeister is 3.7 minutes. So, Bela Tarr holds the camera 116 times longer than Paul Greengrass. Does that make him a greater director? Of course not. Tarr’s technique is very much to a purpose. For all his resistance to story, he likes to give us shots that — rather than fitting into a furious montage — tell their own tales in structured fashion. Just watch the arrival of the circus. It’s quietly beautiful, but its slowness also allows the viewer space to ponder.

The film is most famous for its treatment of the circus’s stuffed whale and for the often oblique allusions to ethnic cleansing. Tarr wouldn’t like to hear it. But the extraordinary final shot can be enjoyed as a sort of (ever so slightly) animated painting. Indeed, every sequence plays as a an independent gem in its own right. This is, however, to a greater purpose. Throughout the picture, hints are offered as to the wretchedness of human beings and the pointlessness of tyranny. For all its apparent blankness, this is a properly political film.

It doesn’t make for a cheery watch. But, while wallowing in Tarr’s fictions, one finds oneself savouring the creation of an entirely original aesthetic. Yes, they may seem a little like endurance tests. But worthwhile prizes are offered to those who survive the ordeal.

For 2000, we also considered The Captive, A One and a Two, Requiem for a Dream, Amores Perros, Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon, Memento and — of course — In the Mood for Love.