Werckmeister Harmonies

2000, Movie, NR, 145 mins


Named by none other than Susan Sontag as one of the few contemporary filmmakers who matter, Hungarian auteur Béla Tarr is the perfect director for those who like their cinema long and hard. His 1994 magnum opus SATANTANGO runs a whopping seven-and-a-half hours, and while this bleak, black-and-white fable is far more accessible, it's still fairly intense going; it runs a mere 145 minutes, but consists of only 45 shots. The setting is a frozen Hungarian village that seems to be teetering on the edge of an apocalypse: There's a severe coal shortage, the electricity's out, headstones have vanished from the cemetery and entire families have simply disappeared. The creeping malignancy seems tied to the imminent arrival of "The World's Largest Giant Whale," an enormous stuffed leviathan that's been touring the countryside, accompanied by a mysterious figure known only as the Prince. The awful display, housed in an cavernous tin shed, is rumored to be a cover-up for something far more sinister; the Prince is said to have three eyes and to preach a blasphemous gospel geared to incite wrack and ruin. The only townsperson eager to visit the attraction is Janos Valushka (Lars Rudolph), a young man of cosmological bent who pays his 100 forints to gaze into the dead eye of one of God's strange creatures. Meanwhile, Tunde Eszter (Hanna Schygulla) seeks to regain the respectability she lost when she abandoned her musicologist husband, Gyorgy (Peter Fitz), by forming a "clean town movement" to restore order. First, however, she needs Valushka to convince the influential Gyorgy to throw his support behind the effort. As Valushka goes about his task, the town square begins to fill with nervous, agitated people, many of them strangers who've followed the whale from distant villages and are now waiting for the Prince to speak and the gathering storm to break. Based on Laszlo Krasznahorkai's 1989 novel The Melancholy of Resistance, Tarr's film presents a terrifying vision of a world cut loose from any sense of order and all sense of security, fearful and vulnerable to the first demagogue who blows through town. The film could easily be reduced to a parable of post-Communist Eastern Europe, but the allegory digs deeper into the very order of things, exemplified by 17th-century musicologist Andreas Werckmeister's arbitrary imposition of a "tempered" tonal system over naturally occurring tunings (the "Werckmeister harmonies" of the title). The only truth, argue both Gyorgy and the Prince, lies in chaos and disorder, and very little in this dark and unsettling film suggests otherwise. leave a comment --Ken Fox

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