Monday, May 22, 2023

A restortation The Werchmeister Harmonies opens Friday

This is a repost review from the very early days of Unseen

Werchmeister Harmonies is Bela Tarr's much heralded work of great beauty and unease. It is a film best viewed, like all of his films, in a dark room with limited interruptions. It is a film that will hang with you and dance about in your head in odd ways. I'm not sure it's quite the classic that some people have proclaimed it but I do think that its worth seeing.

The film focuses on Janos, a young man living in a small village in Hungary. He is clearly smarter than the people around him. One need only see the opening set piece where he explains eclipses to a bar room full of people, to know that he is much more clever than everyone else. Janos takes care of one of his uncles who is a sick intellectual trying to work of the philosophy of music (the title comes from that).

One night while delivering newspapers he watches as a tractor pulls a huge trailer into the town square. Inside of its stark metal walls are the seeds of dissension and destruction for many in the small village, including Janos himself. More specifically inside the trailer is the stuffed carcass of a whale and the home of The Prince, some person of small stature who is rightly viewed with suspicion because it is said the things he says spur evil (and how right that is).

As night turns to day and the trailer opens its door for business, events are set in motion that will take a terrible toll on everyone in the small village.

Say what you will, once you've seen a Bela Tarr film you'll be able to recognize them a mile off. For some filmmakers a recognizable visual style is often a kind of death kiss, in that you get to a point where you know how things are going to go. An example is one of my favorite directors Peter Greenaway, whose recent films often descend into a static image in image style that comes off as a laziness to anyone who's familiar with the other films he's directed. Tarr, as far as I've seen has never run into that problem. Yes he shoots his films in a moody black and white that seem to place the films in a weird world on the edge of reality, but where that is is always changing. The "here" of the film is not like any other film, except that many of his films are set in the villages of his native land. Additionally his use of long extended takes, there are no quick cuts, the camera moves about within a scene, almost never gets tiring because more times than not the technique puts us into the action; we are there with the people in the scene and not some truly outside observer.

This is a film you fall a nightmare. From the opening off kilter explanation of planetary mechanics onward to the haunting final images of an almost deserted village square this is a film draws you in and takes you along as the nice orderly world goes mad. Unlike Janos' explanation that the moment of darkness in an eclipse will give way to light, this is a film where that moment of darkness becomes something else entirely. It is the end of the world in many ways.

The evil at work here is insidious. For much of the film I listened to all of the stories of terrible things going on and I figured they were just stories because, like Janos, we really didn't see anything. Then then, slowly things begin to go amiss, people begin to want things and to step outside of the order of things... things go off kilter. This is thanks to the words of the Prince, a character we hear but never really see. He is a beast of the worst sort, a madman who does terrible things, not for any reason other than he can. Read what you will into it.

Actually read what you will into much of the film. This is a film rife with enigmas and potential meanings. Little is explained, things just are. We are given enough that we can follow along and make inferences and speculate, but there isn't enough to fully have concrete answers. If one looks this film up at IMDB and elsewhere one can easily find multiple meanings and explanations. Its a head trip of the best sort.

I like this film. I'm not one of the people who rave about it and think its one of the greatest films ever made, but I do like it a great deal (personally I like Tarr's earlier Damnation better). I like the dream like quality of it (even if it is a nightmare). I like that you fall into it and it takes you to some place very different than you're used to. Mostly I like that the film makes you think and takes it for granted that the audience has a brain and can work out any meaning on their own.

And I love the images. The stark black and white images, including the stereotypical one of Janos gazing into the whales eye (see above), are the sort of things that stay with you just out of view. Basically this is one of those films you want to hang on your wall and let play just for the art of it.

It's a beautiful dark nightmare of a film that is worth taking the time to see.

Recently restored, the restoration begins playing in theaters starting Friday

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