Werckmeister Harmonies (2000)

Dir. Bela Tarr
Starring: Lars Rudolph (Janos), Peter Fitz (Gyorgy Eszter), Hanna Schygulla (Tunde Eszter),
90/100 (original score: 74/100

I’d guess that Kevin might like this (but it’s hard to say). Penny would find this interesting, although I’m not sure how much she’d like it. Ditto Grace and Mitchell. I’m not sure if Chris and Tony would like this, but I’d cautiously recommend it to them. No to Marc, Don, Jill, Joel and Larri.

This is an Hungarian film that is more about ideas than a story (i.e. an art film). A traveling sideshow is coming to town featuring a giant whale and a mysterious person called, “the Prince.” There is a unrest among the townspeople stemming from some vague sense of dissatisfaction (related to economic instability). Janos is a childlike man who investigates what is happening while his Aunt Tunde works with the local police to prevent disorder and crime.

Really, there isn’t much of a plot. The film is more about ideas, which I’ll talk about in the next section. I must also caution that the pace is very slow. The film feels like a collection of paintings that move in time, if that makes any sense. I would compare the filmmaking to something like 2001: a Space Odyssey, or Sokurov’s Mother and Son

This next section will be my notes on my interpretation of the film (which may constitute a spoiler(s)). I’m going to discuss the content or ideas first, and then briefly mention the form or style of the film.

The Content
OK, what is the film about? To put it simply–and in some ways I feel like the point of the film is simple–the film deals with humility and hubris and the way hubris–specifically, the failure to recognize the limitations of human beings–has lead people to establish civilization on a foundation that is inherently unstable–i.e. will lead to ruin and destruction.

Here is a key speech from Gyorgy Eszter (Janos’ uncle and a pianist/aristocrat):

“I have to make it clear that not even for a moment is there a doubt that it is not a technical but a philosophical question. So that the tonal system in question through researches, has lead to us inevitably to a test of faith, in which we ask: on what do we base our belief that this harmony, the core of every masterpiece, referring to its own irrevocability, actually exists or not. From this it follows, that we should speak of, not research into music, but a unique realization of non-music which for centuries has been covered up and a dreadful scandal which we should disclose. Hence the shameful situation that all the intervals in the masterpieces of many centuries are false. Which means that music and its harmony and echo, its unsurpassable enchantment is entirely based on a false foundation. Yes, we have to speak of an indisputable deception, even if those who are less sure, a little moderate, babble on about compromise. But what kind of compromise, when for the majority pure musical tonality is simply illusion, and truly pure musical intervals do not exist. Here we have to acknowledge the fact that there were ages more fortunate than ours, those of Pythagoras and Aristoxenes, when our forefathers were satisfied with the fact that their purely tuned instruments were played in only some tones, because they were not troubled by doubts, for they knew that heavenly harmonies were the province of the gods. Later, all this was not enough, unhinged arrogance wished to take possession of all the harmonies of the gods. And it was done in its own way, technicians were charged with the solution, a Praetorius, a Salinas, and finally an Andreas Werckmeister who resolved the difficulty by dividing the octave of the harmony of the gods, the twelve half-tones, into twelve equal parts. Of two semi-tones he falsified one, instead of ten black keys, five were used and that sealed the position. We have to turn on this development of tuning instruments, the so-called constant tempered, and its sad history and bring back the naturally tuned instrument. Carefully, we have to correct Werckmeister’s mistakes. We have to concern ourselves with the seven notes of the scale but not as of the octave, but seven distinct and independent qualities like seven fraternal stars in the heavens. What we have to do then, if we are aware, is that this natural tuning has its limits and it is a somewhat worrisome limit that definitely excludes the use of certain higher signatures.”

What is Uncle Gyorgy talking about? I’m not entirely clear on every point, but, in general, I believe he’s speaking of music in a metaphorical sense. The heavenly harmonies refers to ideas and goals that are beyond the reach of human beings. An example would be the creation of a utopian society where everyone shares their belongings and gets along with one another. The deception or false harmonies–the problems ultimately “solved” by Werckmeister–refers to the ideas from great thinkers and theorists through history who have tried to create the ideal society–a society created and built strictly on the efforts and ideas of human beings, sans God. It is an approach that is arrogant because it dismisses the limitations of man’s ability and knowledge–thinking that man can bring heaven to earth.

In this way, the natural tones refers to a state of mankind where human beings accept their limitations, accept that there are some things beyond their capacity to control or understand–a region that is strictly the province of the gods. It’s this state or mind-set that we must return to–one that is not only truly humble, but also capable of believing and respecting a higher power; to be filled with wonder and awe at that which is beyond our understanding. (Janos might represent this position.)

Now let me go into some of the metaphors and symbols in the film that I think are crucial. In the film, the arrival of the whale and Prince represent a choice given to the people. They can choose the whale–which represents a recognition of a higher power and thus requires a degree of humility–or they can choose the Prince, who is a kind of rabble-rouser and harbinger of destruction. To choose the Prince signifies a failure to humble one’s self and continue the status quo (which will lead to destruction and ruin).

Actually, I tend to feel the whale is a kind of Christ-figure (similar to the way Bresson used the donkey in au Hasard Baltazar). It has a grand entrance in the fillm (that inappropriately reminded me of the star destroyer sequence in Space Balls); the people’s lack of interest in the whale (except for the childlike Janos); the whale lying on the ground after the destruction of the town (like the crucified Christ); Gyorgy’s sad and maybe startled expression after staring at the whale–which may signify sorrow at the inability to repair Werckmeister’s mistake.

At the same time, the Prince seems to represent the Devil or an anti-christ figure. He deceives, beguiles and incites the people to riot and destruction. The people choose the Prince and the city is destroyed. (The film suggests that the destruction stops by the old man in the hospital, who could represent God, the Father.)

Despair and perhaps a warning that could be read as hopeful are at the end of the film. Gyorgy says, “Nothing counts” in the hospital room while Janos sits, shell-shocked. But then he goes to the town square and sees the whale. The message I got was that we have to turn back to the whale–to be humble and recognize the limits of people and embrace or accept the mystical.

Let me try and summarize the film. The circus comes to town and this represents two options for humanity. To continue the status quo which will lead to this inevitable cycle of destruction and rebuilding or to choose a humbler, simpler approach that recognizes the limitations of humanity and turns to God or a higher power with humility and awe.

Form or Filmmaking of the Film

I don’t have time to analyze the various scenes in the film, but I just want to mention the general approach of the film, which I find noteworthy and original. (One caveat: this is the only Tarr film I’ve seen, so my reaction may be more enthusiastic as I haven’t seen any of his other films.)

In brief, I think Tarr is trying to make his films more like paintings–or more specifically, paintings that have movement in them. There are many long takes where little or nothing seem to happen. This, along with the composition of the scenes, make me think of paintings or photography. Sokurov’s Mother and Son also does something similar, but these are the only films that I’ve seen that have taken the approach this far.

Hopefully, I can talk about some of the specific scenes and analyze them later.

(Note: I originally wrote this at V-I in February 2011. I have made a few revisions in this current post.)

10 Responses to “Werckmeister Harmonies (2000)”

  1. Reid

    Since I believe this is a strong candidate for one of the greatest films of the decade, I feel obliged to offer some reasons for this. Here are a few off the top of my head:

    1. As I mentioned earlier, this is the only Tarr film I’ve seen, so maybe this will feel less impressive, less original, when I watch the others. Still, I think “painting-like” approach is fairly original. I also think it works for the most part. (The other description I had for the film was a graphic novel, and I think it works in that way, to some degree.
    2. The structure of the film is interesting and it works in conveying the ideas of the film–which I find interesting and compelling (partly because I happen to sympathize with them.) In terms of narrative, there isn’t much going on, and the structure seems fairly odd. But in terms of conveying the ideas I discussed, I think the structure works fairly well. (I’m not sure about the meaning of some of the scenes, though.)
    3. The technical aspects are quite good, if not exceptional. (The dvd I had didn’t seem like it was the best quality, though. It’d be great if the film got the criterion treatment.) The compositions and mise-en-scene of the various scenes are well-done.
  2. Arlyn

    I watched it a second time, not all the way through, and I still didn’t know what I was watching. I couldn’t take my eyes off Lars Rudolph, who plays Janos. Those eyes.

    Like some paintings or photographs, you can’t always explain why you feel a certain way and this film is like that. I can’t really explain what it was about. But I felt it as a work of art.

    For reasons not so obvious, I would nominate this as one of the best of the decade.

    I’d be curious to see other films by Bela Tarr.

  3. Reid

    So did my explanation make any sense, or did you want to process the film more before reading my comments (which I would totally encourage)?

    Btw, I just saw Turin Horse last night via netflix streaming. I really liked that one, but I’m still thinking about it.

  4. Arlyn

    I read your write-up after I saw the film the first time. Some parts seemed more like a graphic novel, as you mentioned, like when he was running with the helicopters. The scene where he was in the bar and had some of the people re-create the sun and earth was like I was watching a play.

    The filmmakers were able to take us to this world (like Sunshine) and tell us this amazing story. Not sure if amazing quite describes Werckmeister. More like timeless.

  5. Reid

    Funny you should mention those two scenes, because I want to write about them. At this point, I think they’re connected. I view the bar scene as Janos’ wonder, awe and humility and the forces of nature. His mindset indicates that he’s open to powers beyond humanity. The helicopters echoes this earlier scene but instead of the the planets circling the sun, we see the helicopter–which represents the arrogance of humanity–circling Janos. This indicates retrenchment in the status quo–i.e., reaffirming Werckmeister’s harmony–instead of getting rid of them as Uncle Gyorgy calls for. I’m not sure if this reading is correct, but that’s what I got so far.

    There are some signs that don’t really fit with my interpretation, though. For example, do you remember the scene with the policeman (or some gov’t official) hugging the lady in the kitchen? That scene went on for a while, and I’m not sure about the purpose of the scene. There’s also another with Uncle Gyorgy and Janos walking. We just see their profiles while they walk, and this goes on for a long time. I have no idea about the reason for the duration. Any thoughts on these scenes?

  6. Arlyn

    The officer symbolizes corruption or a corrupt official which supports what you said about the “arrogance of humanity.”

    Uncle Gyorgy and Janos walking. Janos is looking for answers and walks with his uncle in hopes of answers. The town looks to Uncle Gyorgy for leadership in controlling the unrest. They separate, going in different directions. The scene symbolizes hope.

  7. Arlyn

    When did you change your rating from 74 to 90? Good analogy of the whale’s appearance to “Jesus’ triumphal entry into Jerusalem.”

  8. Reid

    I’m not sure when the change occurred, but I gave the 74 rating a little after I had seen the film–and I didn’t fully understand the film at that point. I gave the film a 90 sometime after I interpreted Uncle Gyorgy’s speech.

    The officer symbolizes corruption or a corrupt official which supports what you said about the “arrogance of humanity.”

    That makes sense.

    Uncle Gyorgy and Janos walking. Janos is looking for answers and walks with his uncle in hopes of answers. The town looks to Uncle Gyorgy for leadership in controlling the unrest. They separate, going in different directions. The scene symbolizes hope.

    Hope because they’re both searching for answers? Going their separate ways doesn’t seem very hopeful.

    Your interpretations make me want to watch the movie again.

  9. Arlyn

    As long as the uncle was around it meant hope to Janos. Janos felt secure and hopeful even after separating, not knowing that even his uncle couldn’t control what was about to happen.

    The shot of Janos and his uncle walking also portrayed extreme cold during this time. Desperation for heat and food would have set off the town’s unrest. Perhaps the riot may not have happened in warmer weather?

  10. Reid

    But you think the way Tarr shoots the shot–including the duration–convey hope and establish the cold? I remember them walking side by side in profile, so maybe this suggests the support that Gyorgy gives Janos. (I’ll have to watch the scene again.)

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