The sleeping beasts of Werckmeister Harmonies

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Thus opens visionary Béla Tarr’s Werckmeister Harmonies. The innocent hero Janos orchestrates a model of the solar system inside a bar. With this hypnotic scene the viewer is pulled into the frozen [though snowless] terrain of a poor Hungarian town. Based on The Melancholy of ResistanceLászló Krasznahorkai‘s 1989 novel, Werckmeister Harmonies is a journey through the bleak lives of some rather unhappy people among whom a romantic has the misfortune of existing. People whose sadness, suppressed anger and animal nature need but a trigger to explode into a hurricane of frenzied destruction.

When a circus claiming to have with it a whale carcass and a prince arrive in town square, suspicion and hysteria emerge. As if on queue, townspeople gather around like a pack of hungry dogs, no one daring to actually see the show, their collective agitation growing louder. Curious Janos is the first to enter the exhibit which turns out be no more than an enormous crate just big enough to hold the whale. He’s enthralled by the sight of the sea creature, enamored with its construction. We see his continued attempts to expose his cantankerous neighbors to the mystery and beauty of the world and be treated with patient condescension in return. Rumors about the prince spread, tension inflating until the unforgettable breaking point.

Werckmeister Harmonies is compiled of only 39 shots, some perfect, some downright tedious. It’s hard to know whether this tedium is intetional in every scene – personally I would have preferred certain parts be cut shorter, simply because the story seems to lose track of itself with some of the lingering footage. Nonetheless, the script and Gyorgy Kovacs’ score are brilliant and the culmination is so powerful that I’m willing to forgive a few questionable editing choices. The sound design in general is wonderful, the music is sparse, swelling and subsiding in sometimes sudden bursts. Part fable, part nightmare, especially when considered as visual poetry, this film will remain with its audience like a sort of distant heartache. I look forward to watching it again.

5 Responses to “The sleeping beasts of Werckmeister Harmonies”

  1. Skerror Says:

    LOVED this film! It’s definitely one where you need to really take a deep breath and relax your mind before you go into it…definitely tries your patience. Very worth it though…there are moments and shots that are going to stick with me for a long time.

    @Zo…I think most of the tedium is fully intentional. I felt like it let us get lost with Janos very effectively. I don’t think we were meant to ever really get into the story…cuz then what the townspeople were doing might start to make sense to us. Shortening the shots might have corrupted Janos’ purity as a dreamer. Maybe Bela Tarr is guilty of covering himself too much…like maybe 8 beats of tedium would do the same job as 10 :)

    This is the only Bela Tarr movie I’ve ever seen. I heard that he made one that was like 6 hours long that makes the tedium in Werckmeister Harmonies feel like child’s play. Anyone seen it/know what I’m talking about?

  2. Zoetica Says:

    Skerror – I think you’re talking about Sátántangó which is 450 minutes long – I’ve yet to see it but I intend to…one day.

  3. Skerror Says:

    Yeah…prolly doesn’t really work if you wanna watch it on the installment plan either. That’s the sort of film you have to have a long-term plan for…like, “Four Sundays from now, I’m going to cut out all distractions and no bullshit spend the day watching one giant art film.”

  4. q gauti Says:

    though i had previously seen this film in fragments, i was somewhat unprepared for its conclusion. it was very pleasant to see it in your company and i’m hoping we can give Satantango a try one of these days — i think i actually own that one, and it would be worth seeing just to observe the reactions of those watching it with you.

  5. William Neal Says:

    Thanks for posting….where’s the novel!! I must read that. Guess later I’ll get around to searching through Netflix and ordering the film…(I’m a big Tarkovsky fan and long shots etc. don’t bother me.)…but, you know, a writer first…I’d like to see the transition…see how it was made…maybe guess at why this or that or the other was/was not done.
    Thanks again for the posting.