“Beauty of whatever kind, in its supreme development, invariably excites the sensitive soul to tears.”
-- Edgar Allan Poe
Hungarian filmmaker Béla Tarr's grandly surreal Werckmeister Harmonies is a picture that slowly grows with such emotion and transcendence that its ultimate effect is curious and rare -- it manages to be subtly shocking. It’s also beautiful and ugly, dreamlike and grounded, celestial and primal. And it features a waterless whale.
Drawing viewers into its black-and-white world of a decaying city amidst various forms of intrigue, it's the perfect synthesis of image to subject. To say the film is beautifully shot is understatement. To say it’s quietly bizarre is oversimplification. To attempt gleaning any easy meaning cheapens its epic eccentricities.
The movie is horrifying and heavenly, and has resonated within me for years, not with a sledgehammer, but with its magic and mystery and music and faces and frames and its beautiful construction of the long shot -- shots that would make Max Ophuls swoon. The exquisite cinematography famously boasts numerous extended shots held for so long, that they nearly appear to morph into one another, even if nothing has changed on screen. Or, everything. It’s all in your perception. In a form of reverse ADD, I feel like I could look and dissolve into the screen while watching Tarr, and I think more viewers should activate this part of the brain. With so many flashes of information, clips, blurbs, blog posts, twitters, quips, pictures and whatever else swimming through our minds, often without rhyme or reason, it’s imperative one sits down, sits still and simply watches.
Setting off one of the film's principal themes -- that of humankind's placement in the solar system and how people, good or bad, feel and react throughout it -- town fool Janos Valushka (Lars Rudolph) humorously choreographs a bunch of drunks in a bar as the sun, Earth and moon. Janos conducts these lost souls circling one another in an odd celestial dance that, though funny, feels oddly in drunken tune with the universe. Janos is trying to sort out the confusion in this scene, a confusion that will later lead to obstructive actions within his town. Enter a curious circus that boasts a whale as its main attraction. Set up in the square of the barren Eastern European village, local men congregate to gaze at the huge mammal, bizarrely displayed amid the rubble.
Janos is captivated by the whale and its silent purity. But to Janos' uncle, purity is impossible. He detests 17th-century German theorist Andreas Werckmeister's godlike theory of the musical octave, proclaiming, "Pure music tonality does not exist -- unhinged arrogance wished to take control of all harmonies." I think he's right.
As the picture continues, discordant actions of a godlike militaristic fashion occur, led by Janos' aunt in alliance with the town police chief. Janos becomes her spy, bewildered and joined to a cause that grows in its revolutionary fervor. Though the picture is timeless, one senses a comment on Eastern Europe before and after communism, though it doesn't carry any overt, manipulative political message.
In the movie''s most terrifying scene, Janos witnesses an angry mob wreaking havoc on a hospital filled with sick men. They barge into a lavatory, where an elderly, bony man stands naked and shivering in a bathtub. The image is held for so long it shakes the soul. In its invasiveness the viewer feels a little of what the mob feels: Perplexed. Look, stare, can’t stop looking. What to do?
Janos' fearful face mirrors the question, and as the picture continues, you can feel, almost in a tactile manner, his lost innocence. It breaks your heart.
And yet, beautifully so. Mihaly Vig's brilliant score and Tarr's use of the musical in everyday life -- a walk down the streets, the clatter of boys banging away on instruments they can't play, a waltz between two people in which one holds a gun -- coats the picture with gorgeous uncertainty. Cinema can be an amazing illusion, as Tarr so well understands. He also understands the power of human emotion, something many cinematic stylists are frequently and wrongfully accused of missing – as if the beauty or style of a moment cannot connect to feeling. Tarr echoes Keats -- his images “will never pass into nothingness.”
Werckmeister Harmonies is cinematic hypnotism, only, its images and soulfulness deeply embed in your memory, long after the lights go up. Or, more fitting for Tarr, long after the fingers are snapped.