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Hungarian director Bela Tarr’s Werckmeister Harmonies begins with the image of a flame being doused out. This is significant, because in this political drama, the conflict between light and dark provides much of the thematic fodder. In an astonishing opening scene, the camera smoothly zooms and pans around a dilapidated pub, as János, the film’s hero and an amateur astronomer, uses his drunken compatriots to demonstrate a solar eclipse. Although Tarr never cuts here, he manages to show close-ups, varying angles, and establishing shots by elegantly transitioning from one to another. His 1994 masterpiece Satantango was technically accomplished, but not quite so polished as this film is. The credits list six cinematographers (the film was shot, like Satantango, over four years) but there is a unified look to the film that is breathtaking. When János leaves the pub, into the darkness that waits outside, we sit absolutely dazzled.
The rest of the film doesn’t quite live up to the majesty of this opening sequence, but it hardly falters either. The plot follows János as he interfaces with his family members and watches the town around him grow steadily uneasy at the prospect of a sideshow attraction coming to their town. Similarly to his Satantango, Tarr uses the solemn intoning of the church bells to suggest to forthcoming apocalypse. The townspeople aren’t so much xenophobic as wearied by the inevitable prospect of yet another revolution. Rumors of the destruction it brings travel faster than the sideshow itself, and as such the villagers are “sure that something is to come”, and feel its suffocating presence looming on the horizon as surely as a farmer can feel the oncoming rain. When the massive truck carrying the giant whale that is the sideshow’s main attraction arrives, it seems to dwarf the town, stopping the light from reaching anything that it passes by.
Charged by his Aunt Tünde, who is shacking up with the chief of police, to spy on the surroundings in the town square that the attraction sets up in, János goes to see the whale, which resides in the Town Square. As the mammoth case containing the beast opens, a flock of birds flies away, suggesting what lies inside is distinctly unnatural. János finds the giant beast a wonder of nature and a fluke on the evolutionary scale, even though the other townspeople regard it suspiciously, viewing its existence as a “test of faith.” The Prince, an advertised side-attraction, rumored to be born with three eyes and standing three feet tall, is nowhere to be found in the dark trailer, however.
The film’s title gains meaning when János overhears his uncle György, a cooped-up music theorist, talk about tonal scales. He explains that the Werckmeister scale, upon which the musical octave is based, is a false construct, and is not true to natural sound since it cannot convey the full range possible in nature. He elaborates, stating that since all music is based on this faulty foundation, it is all inherently false. With his description of these musical concepts, György seems to tap into the film’s undercurrents. Certainly, the defective musical scale is roughly analogous to the broken political state of the country that the film is set in. His suggestion that all music is unnatural seems to set up a competition between the natural and unnatural (light and dark) that runs throughout the work. That he’s driven his wife Tünde out of his house with his obsession toward his out of tune piano doesn’t bother him in the least.
Tünde feels differently, however. She threatens to move back in with her husband if he doesn’t support her “Clean Town Movement”, an organization she’s devised with the town’s police chief to rid the area of the vagrants that the sideshow has attracted. He uses his influence to collect money to support her cause, despite her flagrant infidelity. That the town is filled with the rumors of civil unrest and chaos in the Square increases their willingness to contribute to the fund. That they can’t be bothered to investigate the rumors themselves (“Being careful never hurt anybody,” says one) is perhaps the harshest indictment of their indifference.
Tünde celebrates her success by dancing with the police chief as he waves his gun in the air callously and by ordering János, who we see as a fire stoker, suggesting he sees the true nature of things, to look after the chief’s children. The children are shown with disdain, mimicking their elder’s taste for discordant music and war toys. It’s downright frightening the way that one boy is shown defiantly attacking János and repeatedly bellowing, “I’ll be hard on you!” into a fan, distorting his voice into something that must surely sound closer to his father’s.
When János returns to the Square, he finds a veritable cult has gathered around the attraction. After sneaking into the truck where the whale is stored, he overhears a disturbing tirade from The Prince. “What they build and what they will build is illusion and lies. What they think and what they will think is ridiculous,” he says in his mechanical voice. He continues, saying that he likes things that fall apart, seeing “construction in the ruins.” It’s a veritable call for the destruction of the town, but it’s notable that János flees before we hear it delivered to its proper audience. Instead, Tarr shows us a shot of János running away in the night until he realizes that the insurgents have set the town aflame. The implication here is that we don’t know exactly what caused the riot to break out. It could have been the result of The Prince’s speech, but it also could have been the result of Tünde’s plotting, or the bursting of the millennial tension that had gripped the town.
Whatever the cause, the result is the same. The unnatural presence of The Prince and the whale seems to seep into the people as they begin to tear the town apart. Tarr shows us only the destruction of one building, but the impressionistic and highly stylized way that he shows it (using choreographed moves and a tracking shot so that we can connect all of the damage that we see) suggests that these same events have occurred everywhere. When Tarr trots out a powerful image that makes the men literally see the light, the group mentality folds as quickly as it had sprung up, causing an embarrassed retreat. János, the witness to all of this destruction is moved stunned by it, and ironically implicated in it (made doubly ironic by the fact that he was actually a spy for his technically law-abiding aunt). When we see Tünde again, the film seems to suggest that she has gained power from this uprising, despite her detestable behavior. In an angry bit of rhetoric, Tarr punishes all who attempted to see things as they really were, and next to last moment, which shows the roles of caregiver and receiver of care switch once again harshly suggests this is a cycle doomed to repeat. At the film’s end, the beached whale remains in the Town Square, a monument to the unnatural occurrence of a political uprising born from a broken system.
Tarr tells his tale with a stunning amount of economy. Instead of a clutter of metaphors, he opts for a few, and exploits them fully both visually and textually. The questions asked by the film are far more universal than they might originally appear and are unlikely to shrink in relevance. The only questionable moments in the film come when Tarr uses a score to underline his emotional impact. Since the film argues all music is inherently false, the score seems to be used ironically, at best (unless I am just tone deaf and it was meant to come from György’s specially tuned piano). In any case, Werckmeister Harmonies is a more accessible, less rambling work than Tarr’sSatantango, and if it’s ultimately not quite as encompassing, because of its technical prowess and its thematic conciseness it certainly deserves equal amounts of esteem.