Wednesday, June 18, 2008
I finally sat down for my first film by Hungarian auteur Bela Tarr, and I feel like I just peered into the eye of a dead whale. Werckmeister Harmonies is ambitious in its attempts to understand the world, hypnotizing in its stylish execution, and demanding in its philosophy. I couldn't recommend it more.
"Show us," the local barflies beg of a well-liked, soulful kid named Janos Valuska in the opening scene of Werckmeister Harmonies (a tracking shot beyond ten minutes), and that is exactly what director Bela Tarr does. He barely explains the title, he flies by the deeper meanings, and he leaves us a bit puzzled. But you can't say he didn't show us, with Werckmeister Harmonies comprised of only 39 lush black-and-white shots that total two and a half hours of rapture.
The barflies want Janos to illustrate a solar eclipse, for one is nigh, so he arranges them in an elaborate dance to represent the movements of celestial bodies. The planetary dance of the barflies is an enchanting opening symbol, and Janos embodying the chaos that anticipates the return to sunlight is our first glimpse of the harrowing alleys ahead. Also due to bring darkness to the quaint Hungarian town: the traveling circus, whose main attractions are The Whale, an enormous stuffed carcass, and The Prince, a shadowy dwarf figure.
Upon leaving the bar, but before the circus arrives the next night, we follow Janos through his daily routine, meeting his Uncle Gyorgy, an elderly musicologist, and his Auntie Tunde, recently estranged from Gyorgy. Auntie Tunde brings ill omens: "It is certain that something is to come," she says ominously, compounding Janos' prior warnings from a crazed innkeeper.
Meanwhile Uncle Gyorgy explains the title, an unfamiliar concept to this non-musicologist. In music, there are two temperaments. The just temperament occurs naturally, with two notes separated by rational numbers, but the same scale may not apply to every instrument. So 17th century music theorist Andreas Werckmeister sacrificed the natural harmony of the just scale to develop the well temperament, which standardized the natural scale and eventually replaced it. Werckmeister believed he had uncovered the measurements that govern not only music but all natural occurrences, including the movements of planets. In short, a man-made institution overcame the natural one, sacrificing harmony for equality. Sounds a lot like communism invading Hungary.
But Bela Tarr claims his films are not allegorical. Werckmeister Harmonies is not the story of postmodern Hungary, but rather the story of young Janos Valuska trying to comprehend the universe. As he beholds the spectacle of The Whale, he is awestruck, staring into its inscrutable gaze in an attempt to understand God. Janos believes the whale is an example of God's limitless creativity--for who would create such an oddity--but God appears to be his mind's method of coping with nature.
In the next room, The Prince, seen only via his shadow one night as he eclipses the lamplight, represents The Whale's antithesis. He is dynamic where the whale is sedentary, he is sinister where the whale is spectacular, and in his only scene, he manages to incite a man-made force that overcomes the natural harmony of the village.
The interplay of dark and light on a story-level is beautifully paralleled in the cinematography, one memorable sequence revealing the heavenly whale is doomed to an afterlife in a corrugated iron box whose walls are ordered arrays of lines. Even more than the compositions, the sympathetic performance of Janos, faced as we all are with just how much we can never comprehend, and the indelible score of Mihaly Vig, Bela Tarr's tracking shots draw you inexorably toward the end. I cannot fathom watching the opening planet-dance without needing to see where the story goes from there, dark omens or not.
Watching, as we often do, Janos navigating the town's roads on foot for minutes on end, we reflect on the relationship between his course across the town and the sun's course through the sky. Janos' regular routine is not so different from the orderly orbits of the solar system. But interrupt the natural harmony for even a moment, and the world hurls toward entropy. Only when the sun reveals itself to us again are we enlightened, so to speak, if temporarily, and life resumes.
I realize Werckmeister Harmonies is not at heart a work of political allegory, although it's not surprising how often it's taken as such given how well the themes reflect Hungarian history, but I am nevertheless reminded of political philosophy. In order to leave a state of nature, we sacrifice true freedom for order and security. Finding the balance is the key to a group's prosperity, but the larger the group, the greater the tendency toward the middle. The ultimate success, it seems, can only come from an individual in nature, but enlightenment is so tenuous, so fragile, so easily broken that we settle for the best we can do within the institution. We accept Werckmeister's scale and seek the purest harmony allowable, happy to reside on this side of man's potential, content not to face our limits in the boundless, overwhelming possibility of nature.