A small town. A drunk room; a rather dreary bar with two big lights hanging from the ceiling. Village simpletons falling all over the floor with an overdose of drinks. “You tubs of beer”..the bartender calls them! At closing time, a wide-eyed, gaunt, but seemingly popular young man walks in. He is Janos Valuska (Lars Rudolph). He uses the drunks at the bar as props and demonstrates the Solar Eclipse and the effects of this phenomenon on the behavior of the mortal beings of the earth. The scene lasts for the first 10-12 minutes and ends with a melancholic, haunting score by Mihaly Vig. This single scene is so beautiful, it sets the tone for what’s to come.
There is a shroud of ambiguity over Hungarian filmmaker Bela Tarr’s “Werckmeister Harmonies” (co-directed by Ágnes Hranitzky). There is communication that is very vague. Things are spoken about something bad that happened before and something terrible that’s perhaps about to happen. And in some towns, they say it has already begun. Is it the advent of the apocalypse?
At the center of this mystery is a stuffed giant whale, a part of a “circus” that has arrived in town. This circus also features the enigmatic “Prince”. With the coming of the whale and the Prince there is suddenly a ‘lack of harmony’ within the quietude of the town. Foreigners have started encroaching. There are stories that they have started rioting and looting. The whale is perhaps the reason. Most people seem to regard the whale as an abomination. Only Janos sees it as a bounty of nature, a miracle of God…Janos is clearly an optimist. Or is it the Prince who is behind all the turbulence? There are all kinds of stories. The dead whale and the Prince are somehow responsible for creating ripples in the otherwise still waters of the quiet little town. They have already spread their wings on other parts of the country. But are all these just urban legends?
One of the main characters, György Eszter (Peter Fitz), speaks about how the musical intervals and harmonies as we know them over the centuries are “false” and the result of a huge scandal brought about by a certain Andreas Werckmeister. The title alludes to the harmonies or lack thereof owing to some funny business brought about by Werckmeister as a result of an “unhinged arrogance” that wished to take possession of the natural harmonies of the Gods! This one scene and the philosophy within has a strong connection with the overall theme of the film…lack of harmony and how it is brought about!
Eszter’s former wife Aunt Tunde (Hanna Schygulla) has an agenda of her own…she is out to initiate a “clean town” project with the help of her current lover, the Police Chief, for which she needs her former husband’s help. “Our Janos” (as he is referred to by all townsfolk who like him) is entrusted the task of convincing Eszter to use his command and popularity to get support of the movement. Eszter reluctantly agrees. “I've paid for it and I may pay for it all my life”, he says. But what exactly? Tarr doesn’t think that is important. We never get to know. He clearly loves ambiguity.
Tarr also loves extremely long takes, stark Black and White cinematography (beautiful at that), a somber mood, melancholic score, a languorous pace, bleak imagery and an overall sense of doom and despair. There are long philosophical monologues which are almost poetic and need to be heard at least twice to grasp. There is a distinct “meditative” feel to the proceedings. It is not difficult to spot the heavy Andrei Tarkovsky influence here, just as in other films of his. But Tarr’s pictures are less abstract than those of the great Russian filmmaker. “Werckmeister Harmonies” is mostly materialism heavy but there certainly is some symbolism embedded in the narrative. The “Prince” who travels with the whale, for example, is a mysterious faceless creature who seems to have immense powers. A clock that was dead for years started ticking again as he went past! And he apparently also incites rioting. He doesn’t believe in any greater power or authority either. Is he then the “Prince of darkness” with a thirst for destruction?
Tarr demonstrates his ability to create a powerful impact through the marriage of visuals and sound. On one hand there is the scene in which Vig’s soulful music accompanies, like Janos appreciating the whale and being awestruck by its enormity. And then there is the scene in a newspaper factory. Long monologues and ambient sounds serve as a background to Janos’ mundane activities being filmed, and later the camera slowly pans to the person delivering the monologue! Then, of the several long tracking shots, a particular shot of Janos and Eszter walking adjacent to each other in an almost synchronized march of their feet (with only the sound of their feet and a lunch box providing the sound…carrying on for a good 2-3 minutes!) can’t help but bring a smile on your face. Apparently, for one other scene, in which a lot of people are marching together to reach a destination, Tarr was asked why the scene is that long. Tarr simply answered “that’s how long it took to get there!”