Based on the novel The Melancholy of Resistance by Laszlo Krasznahorkai, Werckmeister harmoniak (Werckmeister Harmonies) is the story set in a small Hungarian village during the era of communism and in a cold winter where a mysterious circus arrives from a neighboring town bringing concern to the locals. Directed by Bela Tarr, with additional direction from Agnes Hranitzky, and screenplay by Tarr and Krasznahorkai, the film is the study of a village dealing with a phenomenon as it serves as an allegory for many of the social and political turmoil the country was going through at that time. Starring Lars Rudolph, Peter Fitz, and Hanna Schygulla. Werckmeister harmoniak is a rapturous and enchanting film from Bela Tarr.
Set in the span of nearly two days in a small Hungarian village during the era of communism, the film revolves around a town during a cold winter as they get an unexpected visit from a mysterious circus whose showcase involves a giant whale and a mysterious figure. It is a film that explore a community of people who are baffled by this massive attraction in the town square as a local is intrigued by what is going on as it only leads to trouble and chaos within the town. The film’s screenplay by Bela Tarr and its novelist Laszlo Krasznahorkai, with additional dialogue from Peter Dobai, Gyuri Dosa Kiss, and Gyorgy Feher, is largely simplistic as it follows a newspaper-delivery man in Janos (Lars Rudolph) who often spends his time talking about the universe and its mystique to drunken patrons at a bar as he’s mystified by this large container arriving into the town square by a tractor as it’s revealed to be a circus with a large whale inside and an appearance from a man claiming to be a prince.
The town’s reaction is also one of intrigue but also a reaction that hasn’t made everyone excited where Janos also deals with family drama involving his composer uncle Gyorgy (Peter Fitz) and aunt Tunde (Hanna Schygulla) as the latter has gained political and social connections through her affair with the police chief (Peter Dobai). Janos finds himself in the middle of social unrest as the town is dealing with problems that is only escalated by the presence of this circus as well as the hype over the appearance of this prince who is never seen as it just adds to a lot of trouble with Janos watching it all.
Bela Tarr’s direction is definitely entrancing as it play into this period in time that is possibly set around the 1980s as it showcases a town that starts to unravel as it is shot on location in Baja, Hungary. With the aid of editor Agnes Hranitzky as the film’s co-director, Tarr would maintain a style that is simplistic where shots would linger for a long time as the film only contains 39 long-standing shots throughout the film’s 145-minute running time. Many of these shots often go on for minutes as it play into the settings and places that Janos go to as the opening shot that goes on for 10 minutes has Janos dancing with drunken patrons to explain the mystiques of the universe as the camera often showcases everything through a wide and medium shots during the course of this scene. With Hranitzky’s editing as she would create abrupt yet straightforward cuts to transition one scene to another, Tarr maintains that minimalist approach where the camera is often following characters through tracking shots including Janos walking around the town as he observes everything around him including the second act where this growing unrest at the town square starts to escalate.
Tarr also play into this idea of who the prince is as he’s an unseen character that is considered a radical who spouses rhetoric that leads to this 12-minute sequence in 2 shots with nearly 8 minutes devoted to the action in a psychiatric hospital where the locals just go nuts and destroy everything including assaulting hospital patients until they’re stopped by something that is indescribable as it forces these people to come to their senses. It is followed by events where Tarr showcases a world that is becoming undone with Janos in the middle as he sees horror and some revelations about what is happening that he had been oblivious to. Its ending with a 5-minute running time for its final shot is a reflection of the chaos that occurred with this whale being a symbol of disruption but also sadness of what this whale could’ve brought if people were more understanding instead of following some drunken fool. Overall, Tarr crafts a majestic yet harrowing film about a Hungarian town unraveling by the presence of a mysterious circus.
Cinematographers Milos Gurban, Erwin Lanzensberger, Gabor Medvigy, Emil Novak, Patrick de Ranter, Rob Tregenza, and Jorg Widmer do incredible work with the film’s black-and-white photography with its usage of shadows and lights for many of the exterior scenes at night as well as the usage of available light for the scenes in the day as it adds to this element of nostalgia but also bleakness to the film. Set decorators Sandor Katona, Zsuzsa Mihalek, and Bela Zsolt Toth do amazing work with the look of the bar in the film’s opening scene as well as the container where the circus is presented that includes the giant whale designed by Ivan Poharnok that is massive and almost life-like. Costume designer Janos Breckl does nice work with the costumes as it is mostly casual and ragged as it play into the period of the winter time.
Sound designer Gyorgy Kovacs does brilliant work with the way much of the recorded sound is presented including the hospital scene as the layer of sounds just add to the sense of terror in the film. The film’s music by Mihaly Vag is incredible for its rich and somber orchestral score with some melancholic piano themes that play into the air of intrigue of the whale but also the despair that looms throughout the town.
The film’s superb ensemble cast feature some notable small roles from Peter Dobai as the drunken police chief whom Tunde is having an affair with, Ferenc Kallai as the circus master who presents the whale to the people and claims of a prince to emerge, Alfred Jarai as Janos’ cobbler uncle Lajos, Iren Szajki as Lajos’ wife, and the trio of Janos Derzsi, Doko Rosic, and Tamas Wichmann as the three drunk men who take part in Janos’ universal dance. Hanna Schygulla is fantastic as Janos’ aunt Tunde as Gyorgy’s estranged wife who has gained political and social connections as she does what she can to clean things up but also with some ulterior motives for herself as it would later cause problems.
Peter Fitz is excellent as Janos’ uncle Gyorgy as a music composer and musicologist who wants nothing to do with politics as he’s aware of his estrangement from his wife where he finds himself having to be involved as it relates to Janos. Finally, there’s Lars Rudolph in an amazing performance as Janos as a newspaper deliveryman who is fascinated by the mysteries of the world including the universe and God as he deals with the chaos around him as he also ponders about the presence of this circus that is at the center of everything.
Werckmeister harmoniak is a tremendous film from Bela Tarr and Agnes Hranitzky. Featuring ravishing visuals, a minimalist presentation, haunting performances, an eerie music score, and allegories on political and social turmoil that bears a lot relevance to events in the 21st Century. It is a film that explores a small town that unravels by the presence of something mysterious that eventually play into the worst aspects of themselves during a tumultuous period in the era of Communist Hungary. In the end, Werckmeister harmoniak is a spectacular film from Bela Tarr and Agnes Hranitzky.
Bela Tarr Films: (Family Nest) – (The Outsider (1981 film)) – (The Prefab People) – (Macbeth (1982 TV film)) – (Almanac of Fall) – (Damnation) – Satantango - (The Man from London) – (The Turin Horse)
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