11 November 2006

Werckmeister harmóniák
Béla Tarr’s cinema of involvement


There are only a few directors whose films have required – demanded – that the audience work along with the filmmaker in coming to an understanding of the topic at hand. Andrei Tarkovsky comes to mind immediately, along with Theo Angelopoulos – but there have been others. In my experience, no contemporary cinematic auteur belongs more in this category that Hungarian director Béla Tarr. His films, taken at their technical level, are things of great beauty: the long, painstakingly designed and executed shots; the naturalism of the actors, giving the audience the feeling that they are truly witnessing unrehearsed reality; the convoluted, non-linear storytelling method – all of these elements and more combine into a cinematic vision that is intrinsically unique and at the same time universal, its target not only the heart but the psyche of the viewer, and its aim . . . well, Tarr is pretty tight-lipped about that, but he has indicated that ‘involvement’ of the audience in his work is one goal – it’s something that the viewers have to work through in order to understand how and why it impacts them as it does. As strange as some of the images in his films might seem, Tarr eschews the term ‘surrealism’ – he counters that the camera can only capture what is real.

Werckmeister harmóniák (Werckmeister harmonies) is Tarr’s latest work, released in 2000. The title refers to a theory of musical harmonic relationships developed by 17th century German organist and music scholar Andreas Werckmeister. He believed that ‘true’ musical harmony and counterpoint were tied to the movements of the planets – his ideas were well-known to Johann Sebastian Bach, thus Bach’s The well-tempered klavier, referencing Werckmeister’s theories.

Cosmic harmony and disharmony are important themes in Tarr’s film, which begins in a shabby little bar in a provincial Hungarian town – one of the locals, János Valushka, is attempting to explain the celestial movements involved in a total eclipse of the sun to a number of men, all of whom appear to be more than a little intoxicated. The barman is impatient and ready to close up for the night, but his patrons ask him for a little time for János to help them understand. He selects a man to represent the sun, then another for the earth, and a third for the moon. Setting them is motion in a barroom ballet that is both humorous and imbued with a sweet and natural grace, he delivers a monologue explaining the planetary movements to them in terms of both strict science and universal harmony. This first scene is comprised of a single shot, the longest in the film at 11 minutes in length – it’s beautiful to behold.

As he leaves the bar, János is stopped in his tracks by a visual near-echo of the eclipse he has just staged in the tavern. The dark, desolate streets of the small town are lit by the headlights and resulting shadows of a tractor making its way laboriously along, pulling an enormous container that seems to be made of corrugated metal. The whining engine of the tractor and the creaking of the metal sides of the container are the only sounds disturbing the night. János watches, fascinated, as it passes – then, as he turns to go on his way, the camera takes in a poster glued to a pole announcing a coming exhibition: its only components seemingly the giant stuffed corpse of a whale and the appearance of a personality identified only as ‘The Prince’, who is later identified as a diminutive character who seems to have a sort of Svengali-like effect on those who hear him speak. Rumors abound in the town regarding the Prince, his intentions, and the potential for violence – there are already shortages of coal and food, and many of the shops we see appear to be boarded up. Men stand around fires built in the town square, idling and restless – conditions seem ripe for a spark such as the presence of the Prince to ignite the simmering unrest into full-blown anarchy.

One of János’s acquaintances (he actually calls him ‘uncle’, but he calls so many people ‘uncle’ or ‘aunt’ in the film that it’s hard to tell if they’re actually relatives or if this is some sort of informal honorific indicating close friendship or respect) is György Eszter, a music professor who is out to disprove Werckmeister’s theories – he believes that the scales developed by the German have resulted in impure harmonies, thus invalidating every composition conceived since their acceptance. János goes to check on him in the night and finds the elderly man asleep in his chair – he helps him dress for bed, tucks him in, and makes sure that the heat is working properly before going on his way. The scene is made up of another single shot – almost 6 ½ minutes – the camera, from inside the house, picks up János as he arrives in the yard, watches through a window as he makes his way to a door, then turns to show the movements of the two actors through the rest of the scene. Nothing is compressed – everything occurs as seen, giving the viewer a rich sensation of experiencing what is being played out on the screen, deepening both the emotional and intellectual impact.

When János visits the city square the following morning, he arrives just in time to be the first one to be admitted to view the whale. The interior of the trailer is dimly lit, and only a little of the creature can be seen at a time – the sequence of János moving around the whale, inspecting it closely, marveling at it, is stunning, one of the most memorable cinematic images I can remember. He is visibly shaken by the experience of being so close to the great beast – he sees it as irrefutable proof of what he calls ‘God’s imagination’, a thing of almost indescribable beauty. He repeatedly attempts to convey his feelings to others as the film progresses – no one seems to understand how deeply it has moved him. His concern for the welfare of not only his closest acquaintances, but of the town in general, combined with his naïvité and wide-eyed view of the world, lend him an air of something of a ‘holy fool’ – a character type also utilized by Tarkovsky in several of his works (for example, the character of Domenico in Nostalghia).

Making a surreptitious visit to the trailer in order to view the whale again, János overhears a conversation from an office inside between the Director of the exhibition and a man who is apparently a translator for the Prince. The Director is fed up with the increasing demands of the Prince – it’s also clear that he’s also fearful of the repercussions from the violence that the little man seems to inspire. As we see his shadow dramatically projected onto a wall of the room, the Prince, through his translator, launches into a tirade decrying practically all aspects of what most of us consider to be ‘civilization’, announcing that ‘The whole is nothing. Completely in ruins. What they build and what they will build, what they do and what they will do, is delusion and lies. Under construction, everything is only half complete. In ruins, all is complete.’ He threatens to make rubble of everything – and from past incidents, the Director knows what violence the Prince can inspire. He informs the Prince that he will have no more part of him, that he will not be responsible for unleashing ‘bandits and thieves’ on the population.

All of this troubles János deeply – he exits the trailer and makes his way through the crowd to leave the square – when he’s gone just a couple of blocks, he hears the noise of the crowd behind him grow louder and louder, followed by explosions. The camera finds the mob, moving from the town square, and follows them, hovering just above head level, looking into their determined faces as they march toward some as yet unknown target of their anger and hatred.

This shot of the advancing crowd – another relatively long take at around 4 minutes – is all the more disquieting for its relative silence: they advance resolutely, some carrying clubs or crowbars, toward their goal, the only accompanying sound their footsteps on the pavements. This take is married via the audio track of their relentlessly marching feet to an even longer shot depicting them reaching their destination – the local hospital – and the ensuing mayhem. Disturbingly, the silence continues, intensifying the impact of their violence. The camera follows them from room to room, ward to ward, pulling patients from their beds and beating them mercilessly – their victims do not even cry out. The soundlessness of the cruelty and destruction has the effect of magnifying the horror. Only when the mob enters a room and pulls back a plastic curtain to reveal an old, shriveled, helpless man standing naked in a bathtub does the brutality of their actions appear to sink in to their consciousness. They disperse, still in silence.

János comes upon this scene just in time to see the aftermath of the mob’s work – and he is understandably traumatized and psychologically damaged by it. The camera stays on his face for a good bit – and the viewer can almost feel the thoughts and emotions racing through his mind as he attempts to comprehend what he has witnessed, to understand how human beings can inflict such violence on other humans. In the next scene, he sits in the morning light on the floor of the wrecked hospital, reading from a pamphlet he has found – a printed version of the Prince’s manifesto of destruction – and the words resonate more desolately than before, after we have seen the horror they have inspired.

Through his many long takes (I haven’t personally counted them, but I’ve read that there are only 39 shots in the entire 2h25m film), planned and choreographed with such precision and care, Tarr compels the audience’s attention to linger on the characters as well as on the entire mise-en-scène – allowing all aspects of the film to deeply permeate both the conscious and subconscious of the viewer. The actors he has chosen – in this film, as in all of the works I’ve seen by him – masterfully convey the emotion and thought processes of the characters they portray. The sparse, strangely beautiful music is a perfectly utilized element, and the rich black-and-white cinematography adds greatly to the atmosphere.

This is the third film on which Tarr has worked with writer László Krashnahorkai (the previous two being 1988’s Kárhozat (Damnation) and his 1994 magnum opus, the 7h15m Sátántangó). Other members of the team include Ágnes Hranitzsky (Tarr’s life partner and editor), cinematographer Gábor Midvigy, and composer Míhaly Vig – Vig also appears as one of the lead actors in Sátántangó, and Tarr utilizes other actors in multiple films as well. On-screen credits show the films as collective efforts – and in interviews, Tarr has repeatedly stressed the contributions of others. Everything about his work comes together to truly make the whole greater than the sum of the parts – it has to be experienced for the true impact to come across.

His films are only now becoming more widely available in the US – Facets has released six of them, with Sátántangó scheduled to appear in a 3-disc edition at the end of November 2006. Now and then one will turn up in an art house theatre here and there – but it’s rare. Hopefully, Tarr’s work will become more widely known, and that will change. Nor will you find these films at Blockbuster or any of the other chains – look for them in your local rental outlet that specializes in foreign and out-of-the-way cinema . . . or take the plunge and check on-line to purchase them. I can almost guarantee that if what I’ve written tweaks your interest even remotely, you’ll wind up watching them over and over.

1 comment:

Caitlin said...

I read it! It doesn't sound bad at all, in fact I really like it. I love your style, and I wish everything I read for educational purposes could be as engaging and interesting.

Also, I wanted to take the chance to let you know that you really are the best dad I could ever ask for, and I love you. Very much.