Let me try to explain what happens in Bela Tarr's "Werckmeister Harmonies." First, there's a village in the dead of winter. Sinister things are happening there, and some terrible cataclysm seems to be looming on the horizon. The primary harbinger of doom seems to be the arrival of a mysterious circus, the star attraction of which is a giant stuffed whale in a corrugated metal shipping container. The whale is accompanied by a figure known as The Prince, who intends to give a "blasphemous" speech that has incited terror and destruction in other places.
However our main character is not The Prince but a young man named Janos (Lars Rudolph), a resident of the village who bears silent witness to many of the strange events that are to follow. Janos's elderly Uncle Gyorgy (Peter Fitz), a pianist, may hold the key to the film's story. Gyorgy has a theory that past mistakes by certain musical theorists inadvertently caused all music on Earth to become out of tune with the greater, purer celestial harmonies. Perhaps this is why darkness has descended on the village, like the eclipse that Janos illustrates in the film's opening sequence by creating a model of the solar system with a trio of obliging bar patrons.
Have I mentioned yet that the film is shot in black and white and is in Hungarian? The black and white part doesn't faze me in the least, but the Hungarian part does, because I know nothing about Hungary or the Hungarian culture. Without that context, I can't tell if Janos is supposed to be a simpleton or if his interactions with the other villagers, usually addressed as Auntie or Uncle, is normal. I'm not sure what year it's supposed to be, whether the helicopter that appears near the end of the film is supposed to be viewed as an anachronism or if it's perfectly contemporaneous with the more dated-looking tanks and hospital equipment we see earlier. I don't know if the violence that erupts in the village is a reference to something in the local Eastern European history, or perhaps it's meant to be a more allegorical event.
And then there are the musical references. The title refers to Andreas Werckmeister, a 17th century composer who developed a tuning system called the Werckmeister Temperament. I know a little about musical theory, but not enough to fully comprehend Uncle Gyorgy's criticism of Werckmeister's work. Music is certainly important in the narrative of the film itself, especially the haunting string and piano theme that recurs throughout the film at its most important moments. If the music of humanity being in discord with the music of the heavenly spheres caused the events that occurred in the film, does this mean that the situation was corrected by the ending? Was this something that could have been avoided or prevented, perhaps if Werckmeister had caught his terrible error? Or was it predestined, like Janos's eclipse?
And speaking of Janos, his fate may be the most confounding part of the whole film. What happened to him? At one point we see him running, being chased by unknown forces. Then there's a quick cut to Janos at a later point in time that reveals his ultimate fate, but nothing to explain how he got there. Exposition is often sacrificed for mood in the film, and the lack of information adds to the atmosphere of unease. It's a fine artistic choice, but left me grasping for straws. Janos's fate is echoed in the fate of the stuffed whale, a massive physical and psychological presence in the film that also seems to represent something important, though I'm still struggling to figure out what it is. I have a dear Hungarian who friend who often makes jokes about Hungarian navigators, a great irony since Hungary is utterly landlocked in all directions. Surely it's the last place on Earth that a whale should ever find itself. But what does it all mean?
"Werckmeister Harmonies" is a great film. I find myself unable to write a traditional review of it, because I haven't been able to process it yet. It has all these mesmerizing visuals, composed entirely of long, long shots that can last several minutes apiece. I found myself having strong emotional reactions to what I was seeing, even though I couldn't understand what was going on or what it was exactly that I felt. The famous hospital sequence where the dread and violence reach their peak is a stunning piece of filmmaking. I'm fascinated by the way director Bela Tarr finds images of beauty in unconventional subjects - an old man, a room full of drunks, a shipping container. I only wish I could figure out how everything fits together - or maybe the point is that it doesn't. I just don't know.
This post has been pretty incoherent, but I guess that's a testament to the film itself. "Werckmeister Harmonies" left me confused, frustrated, emotional, and very impressed.