The twenty best films of this decade were determined by polling all the major and continuing contributors to Reverse Shot in the publication's history.
Whale of a Tale
Damon Smith on Werckmeister Harmonies
“When you watch my movies, please don’t speculate. Just trust your eyes and listen to your heart.”—Béla Tarr
On a cold night in late February 2007, I made a pilgrimage to the Brooklyn Academy of Music to acquaint myself with the work of Béla Tarr, a filmmaker whose name had become emblematic of formidable intellect, exhaustive running times, and a rapturously grand vision. This was mostly due to the proselytizing of Susan Sontag and other critics smitten by Tarr’s seven-and-a-half-hour magnum opus Sátántangó, a legendary, see-it-if-you-can rarity reportedly on par with Rivette’s equally elusive Out 1. It hardly mattered that, on this particular evening, everyone in my immediate social circle was gathering at various domestic outposts to revel in a very different kind of cinematic celebration—the annual bestowal of gilded homunculi on Hollywood’s mandarin class. The Academy Awards have their allure, but I was in a heavy mood, more pensive than depressive, and at a certain hour I determined that my time might be better spent sinking into whatever otherworldly textures and immersive folds of time this notoriously headstrong Hungarian had in store with his arcanely titled Werckmeister Harmonies, about which I knew very little. The scarcity of Tarr’s films on U.S. screens added to my interest, as did BAM’s boldly counterintuitive programming, which seemed directed as much by hope (behold a true master of cinema...please?) as it did pure spite (fuck the Academy and its night of narcissistic self-congratulation!). To my surprise, the theater was not barren: fifty or so kindred spirits sat quietly (and for the most part, alone) as if anticipating a private ceremony that demanded solemn reverence rather than ecstatic conviviality. Did these anonymous patrons know something I didn’t? Two and a half hours later, I was newly baptized in Tarr’s dark, majestic vision and mesmerized by this waking nightmare of restive agitators, quasi-mystical visitations, and oblique prognostications of social and cosmic upheaval in post-communist Eastern Europe, and my conversion was complete.
Since then, I’ve caught up with other Tarr films, but that evening—in particular, the enduring shot of a determined mob filing in unison down a sloggy road, the camera drifting languorously over their heads, then swooping down among the silent marchers to map the intensity of individual expressions—is etched into my brain. Reading others’ accounts of their first encounter with the melancholic Magyar has deepened my appreciation of his artistry and technique. No review of Tarr’s ethereally gorgeous black-and-white masterworks, Sátántangó and Werckmeister Harmonies, fails to mention the director’s predilection for extended long takes, or his ability to build bravura single-shot sequences that can pass the ten-minute mark without losing a gradient of fascination or visual fluidity. And they’re quite right: time is elemental in Tarr, and I’d venture to say that no living filmmaker works more assiduously or successfully in such a concretely chronographic register, harnessing the sublime power of uncut duration to maximize the dramatic impact and metaphysical aura of filmed reality. It is, as he has said, “the logic of life” itself. That this admittedly unusual demand on the viewer’s concentration has proved to be the source of Tarr’s alleged “difficulty” and marginalization from the centers of film culture (at least until his 2007 Palme d’Or nomination for The Man from London) is mere philistinism in the guise of consumer-friendly guidance. Such feeble-minded admonitions have more to do with our prevailing habits of seeing (machine-gun cutting, increasingly shorter attention spans) than with the scenarios he stages, which he allows us to ponder for long stretches in the seemingly weightless confines of his viewfinder.
But if Tarr’s style boiled down to his preference for sculpting monumental swaths of time (something he achieves in close counsel with his longtime editor and wife, Ágnes Hranitsky, credited as co-director on Harmonies), there would be little reason to hail him as a visionary, a term too often applied to hip myth-makers (Charlie Kaufman, Guillermo del Toro, Tim Burton) and flashy, utterly banal roustabouts (Danny Boyle), or those whose work simply evinces qualities of imagistic abstraction or avant-garde technique. Tucked into the behemoth body plan of Werckmeister Harmonies, by contrast, is a distressing spiritual-political parable that resists allegorical interpretation even as it solicits such readings, a quality that gives it the hieratic pose and magisterial grandeur of high modern poetry. Whatever affinities might be found between Tarr and Tarkovsky, Janscó, Angelopoulos, or even David Lynch, his closest analogues in the realm of artistic practice might be midcentury novelists like Bruno Schulz (whose hallucinatory realism, especially in Street of Crocodiles, feels bewilderingly sui generis) or Thomas Mann.
To invite comparison with such high-minded European literary forebears might seem a stretch until one considers that the source text for Werckmeister Harmonies is The Melancholy of Resistance by the celebrated Hungarian novelist László Krasznahorkai, one of Tarr’s closest collaborators (along with Hranitsky, composer Mihály Vig, and cinematographer Gábor Medvigy) who’s scripted all the late-period dramas, from Damnation to The Man from London. These are grandly scaled films that feel enriched by ideas about history, philosophy, and postwar politics, even if the emphasis has shifted from Krasznahorkai’s long-winded ruminative style to the experiential impact of Tarr’s monochromatic images, where such ideas—even in the way people speak to one another—are abstracted. It was in the late Eighties that Tarr developed the signature style (marathon takes, precision-orchestrated camerawork) and tone (brooding, depressive, enigmatic) upon which his critical reputation now rests, transmuting the downbeat, hard-bitten social realism of his early work into the exalted miserablism of his current mode.
Harmonies unfolds in a dreary, mud-soaked village (Tarr’s locales and mise-en-scène are almost uniformly gloomy) where the arrival of a giant dead whale and a shadowy, sinister ideologue named the Prince stirs fear and unrest among the townsfolk. Tarr’s prior emphasis on observing blue-collar types leading gritty, dead-end existences (or fumbling through a pitiless marriage like the young couple in Prefab People) didn’t sit well with the Communist censors, which might explain his sharp turn into the fantastic. Either way, Tarr is a seeker who’s managed to fuse both traditions into something wholly unique. Devoutly naturalistic yet averse to reason or by-the-numbers exposition, Harmonies envelops us in a hermetic universe that’s both mysterious (the Prince, who only appears in silhouette, rasping demagogic drivel, has the grotesque physiognomy of a Boschian goblin) and mundane (a man tediously filling a soup pail, interminable walks), creating an uncanny, vaguely archaic life-world that exists in no easily discernible historical period. The ominous appearance of a police helicopter near the end seems to indicate that the time frame is present day, but the entire film has the feel of a gothic fable set in alien latitudes.
Spectrally handsome German actor Lars Rudolph plays János Valuska, the impressionable rube through whose eyes we witness the events that overtake the town’s inhabitants. A modern update on the Shakespearean fool, János is a gentle-hearted postman whose avid, Asperger’s-like obsession with the movement of celestial bodies elicits the bemused interest of a group of bedraggled drunks in the film’s magnificent opening scene, a masterly ten-minute-plus choreography of actors and gliding camera movement. Responding to their entreaties as he enters a bar at closing time, János arranges the wall-eyed men into a living orrery, a stagger-footed mockery of a solar eclipse, sententiously spouting gibberish about the “impenetrable darkness” of the cosmos before the barkeep finally sweeps them out. (Tarr and Hranitsky apparently timed the shot to end seconds before they ran out of room on their Kodak reel.) János’s fixation on astral movement is echoed, in a sense, by his uncle, Gyorgi Eszter (Peter Fitz), an aged musicologist who spends his days ruminating on the theories of Andreas Werckmeister, the 17th-century composer whose influential ideas about counterpoint derived from the ancient notion of “the harmony of the spheres.” Both men are thus aligned with notions of heavenly order and disorder (János is a naive believer in the majesty of “God’s work,” epitomized by the whale, Gyorgi a doubter and revisionist who’s retreated from world affairs into esoteric study), and each figures in the cathartic chaos that will engulf the foggy backwater hamlet and drive Tarr’s feeble-minded protagonist into a catatonic state.
Signs of impending turmoil come early: Under cover of night, a massive truck trundles into town hauling the immaculate carcass of a preserved cetacean—an evolutionary marvel that first intrigues János when he spots a handbill touting “The World’s Largest Giant Whale”—as well as a barker (Ferenc Kállai) in cahoots with the Prince. Portentous rumors and hearsay circulate about the traveling circus; János overhears a female postal worker claim that the Prince’s “godless, monstrous speech” in a nearby village has provoked looting, rape, and violence. Later, he arrives in the town square and slips into the darkened trailer holding the creature whose visit has fired his imagination. As he gazes into the whale’s massive eye, Vig’s plaintive violin-and-piano leitmotif swells, adding poignancy and a nearly unbearable sense of foreboding to the mammalian interface. “It’ll lead to trouble,” a man says to János as he exits, “these strange creatures.” The warning bells peal again with the appearance of Aunt Tünde (plump-faced Fassbinder muse Hanna Schygulla), Gyorgi’s estranged wife, who gently informs János of her intention to form a new municipal government with the police chief (Péter Dobai) in the interest of “cleaning up” the town. Order must be restored, she intones, and asks János to convey a message to Gyorgi, who’s deeply respected by the locals for his intellect and wisdom: Either assume the chairmanship of her committee or she’ll move back into their home.
Tarr builds tension in layers (the arrival of outsiders, the slow spread of fear), finally unleashing it in the film’s most harrowing set piece: club-wielding rioters invade a bleak hospital ward presumably abandoned by caretakers and proceed to bludgeon patients in their beds, destroying equipment and ransacking the care unit’s medical infrastructure room by room. The pandemonium finally ends when the mob enters a shower stall where they find a shriveled, bony, heartrendingly feeble old man standing naked, bathed in celestial white light, a spiritually abject vision of human vulnerability and suffering. Wordlessly, they retreat. Perhaps Tünde’s power-grabbing opportunism (Schygulla’s bedroom dance with the inebriated, pistol-wielding constable is one of Tarr’s finest black-comic touches) has converged somehow with the Prince’s demonically menacing harangue (“Fury overcomes all! ...Terror is here!”), unleashing the senseless destruction. Tarr’s epic fantasy certainly hints at political gamesmanship and mass manipulation as the source of this violence, but he never connects the dots, except in oblique and indeterminate ways. We are never sure what the catalyst for the hospital rampage is, or whether János has played a role in the mayhem beyond simply witnessing the event (Tarr’s never-ending tracking shot through the infirmary, a roving eye peering into rooms and whirling around corners, finally comes to rest on a close-up of János’s haunted face, half-shrouded in the darkness where he’s hidden). In the end, János’s Candide-like utopianism has been shattered, and his childlike obsession with the great whale (a symbol of embalmed divinity) rendered as ineffectually solipsistic as Gyorgi’s private monologues on Werckmeister’s mistakes, delivered into a tape recorder. By the time the army has descended upon the town under Tünde’s supervision, the air of malevolence has lifted and authoritarian directives are issued, a martial state of affairs from which Tarr wrings one final note of grace.
It’s difficult to capture in mere words the awesome expansiveness and consummate visual artistry of Werckmeister Harmonies, or the strangely beautiful environments it conjures (each of the film’s 39 shots could be sectioned out and screened as its own phantasmagoric short film), or the sense of wonder and accomplishment (six years in the making) it leaves in its inscrutable wake. My mind was quaking as I exited the theater after that first viewing. Stunned by the film’s technical mastery and shaken by the discomfiting emotions it had roused and left unresolved, I wandered home in a fugue state, pondering the pavement as well as the night sky with renewed interest, hoping the spell would last. Those few who see only pessimism and elegiac pretension in Tarr’s fable of madness and spiritual decay (a charge better lobbed at Tarr’s humorless Schopenhauerian disciple, Fred Keleman) have failed to “trust their eyes.” Nothing's funnier, for instance, than János’s futile attempts to tuck in the constable’s overstimulated, bed-bouncing children. (One of the little tyrants puts his face up to a whirring fan and shrieks “I’ll be hard on you!” The currents distort his voice, of course, which makes him sound even more comically severe.) Harmonies certainly commands the eyes to attention; when it comes to the heart—well, this is harder to determine. Such sublime vision doesn’t arrive often enough on our movie screens to find a passionate audience, perhaps, or to leave an inviolable impression. But maybe once a decade is enough.