Saturday, 12 May 2007
Werckmeister Harmonies (2000) dir. Béla Tarr
Starring: Lars Rudolph
I have to thank two kind and informed readers who brought to my attention the cinema of Béla Tarr. Tarr is Hungary’s finest filmmaker, an art house director known for enigmatic metaphysical films which have only been accessible to theatre audiences through film festivals. Since his 1979 debut feature “Family Nest” Mr. Tarr has kept his output sparse – 8 films in 18 years, and only 3 films in the 90’s and 00’s. But next week Tarr will premiere his latest film (“The Man From London”) at the Cannes Film Festival.
Tarr was brought to my attention in the discussion this week of ‘The Greatest Long Tracking Shots in Cinema” – a lengthy and detailed commentary produced a breadth of films I need to discover including the films of Béla Tarr.
“Werckmeister Harmonies” is a masterful film and the highest achievement of artistic cinema. In a small secluded Hungarian town we are put in the shoes of a young man named Janos (Lars Rudolph), who delivers newspapers around the town. He’s probably never left the city limits, and so he has a youthful curiosity to him, like a sequestered genius trapped in a world too small for his ambitions – think Jim Carrey’s character in the “Truman Show”. In the 9mins long take opening shot Janos demonstrates to the local townsfolk the concept of the orbit of Earth in the solar system using the people as planets moving them around each other. It's a wonderful moment.
One night a traveling circus-type attraction arrives into town - a taxidermed display of a giant blue whale housed in a large truck. The added attraction is the arrival of an enigmatic “Prince” whom the townsfolk describe as revolutionary-type of motivational speaker (though we actually never see the Prince, he is just referred to in conversation). With the arrival of these visitors brings fear and paranoia into the village. Fear of the influential words of the Prince causes a split in the town between radicals and traditionalists. Janos is caught in the middle as he is roped into spying for a local police task force seeking to find village subverters. The Prince makes his speech and incites a village-wide riot.
Story and traditional narrative is secondary to Tarr’s magnificent visual design. Shot in stark, high contrast deep focus black & white, the film evokes a bleak, barren and depressing mood to the town. The film is likely a metaphor for the downfall of Communism in the previous decade. The revolutionary fervour and the xenophobic paranoia, I’m sure parallels the atmosphere of post-Communist Hungary. After watching this film I’m convinced Tarr is indeed the master of the long take, his slow steadycam and tracking moves are reminiscent of Andrei Tarkovsky and Stanley Kurbick. Each scene is crafted in a one or two shots, lasting 5-10mins each. The riot in the hospital which featured dozens of actors demolishing everything in site was captured in one magnificent steadycam move. The other magnificent scene is Janos’ tour around the Whale – the shot starts in the courtyard, follows Janos into the truck and around the gigantic beast. It’s wondrous and poignant ecological and biblical metaphor.
And so, I have to ask, Béla Tarr, where have you been all my life? Perhaps it’s because his films have rarely seen the light of day in North American. Béla Tarr as a cinema master is a word-of-mouth filmmaker, we’ll never see his films in multiplexes, at Blockbuster, or at the Oscars. But thanks to Chicago-based distributor Facets, his films are now available on DVD.
I put this film in the order of Fellini’s and Orson Welles’ best work. Every shot in the film is a work of art. It’s a slow meandering film, which is purposely oblique and excessive lengthy and requires much patience. Tarr lingers on shots to the point of uncomfortableness, which elevates the film from entertainment to pure art.
I HAVE to see the rest of Tarr’s work now. Tarr is the ‘crystal meth’ of filmmakers, one film and you’re hooked. I have 7 other films to watch of his, including his latest – “The Man From London” - which will premiere at this year’s Cannes Film Festival. Enjoy.
Buy it here: Werckmeister Harmonies
Here’s the brilliant opening: