The Flesh Is Bleak

Béla Tarr's Werckmeister Harmonies, opening Friday at Anthology, is a totally sustained immersion in the magisterially bleak, voluptuously monochromatic, undeniably beautiful universe of muddy villages and cell-like rooms that the Hungarian filmmaker has created in collaboration with reclusive novelist László Krasznahorkai.

Three years in the making, this follow-up to the pair's epochal Sátántangó opens in a rural tavern frequented by stupefied sods. Just before closing time, young János Valuska (Lars Rudolph), the resident holy fool, uses some of the locals to dramatize a cosmological model of a lunar eclipse, with the moon hopping past the earth as the earth staggers around the twinkling sun. This intimation of celestial order is echoed by the film's title—it's named for the 17th-century organist and musical theorist Andreas Werckmeister, who divided the octave into 12 equal tones to create a system of major and minor notes. (Order is generally fraudulent in this world. We eventually meet a villager who wants to correct Werckmeister's "mistake.")

Voyeur eyes only: Reboux in Fat Girl
photo: Cowboy
Voyeur eyes only: Reboux in Fat Girl


Fat Girl
Written and directed by Catherine Breillat

Werckmeister Harmonies
Directed by Bla Tarr
Written by Tarr and Lszl Krasznahorkai, from Krasznahorkai's novel The Melancholy of Resistance
Anthology Film Archives
October 10 through 23

Like Sátántangó, Werckmeister Harmonies is a work of bravura filmmaking—mainly a series of extremely long, largely mobile takes, edited without the normal pattern of shot-countershot. (The entire tavern scene is a single 15-minute shot.) Tarr's camera style has its equivalent in Krasznahorkai's lengthy, convoluted sentences, although the results are quite different. Werckmeister Harmonies is largely taciturn and anything but literary. Because the narrative is assembled from chunks of real time, the most banal incident can be expanded into something epic. Each cut is an event. The first has János walking home through an empty town illuminated mainly by the sickly glow of a single truck creeping along the street. This vehicle is the harbinger of the mysterious circus that has come to town, its attractions including an uncanny prince and a stuffed whale advertised as "the great sensation of the century."

The foggy morning finds the market square filled with clusters of grim, grizzled men. János is the first to buy a ticket to the circus and is properly fascinated by the leviathan's great scarred torso. Meanwhile, another mysterious presence, "Auntie" Tunde (Hanna Schygulla), has returned home and recruits the increasingly crazed János as a messenger-boy spy in the service of the political movement she's establishing in cahoots with the local police chief. There seems to be a prerevolutionary atmosphere, or maybe a growing panic, as the prince's appearance is announced and canceled and the square becomes the site of threatening bonfires.

"See how much trouble you've caused," János whispers to the whale. Before long, the rabble is marching through the town, advancing on what appears to be the local hospital, dragging out patients and smashing everything in a prolonged, clattering paroxysm that, already extraordinary for its choreography, seems all the more violent for being completely wordless. As in the market square, the townspeople seem to communicate by telepathy. The outburst is resolved (or not) by the arrival of an occupying army. Although Tunde may be in command, János is warned that his name is on the execution list.

The sight of tanks in the muddy streets and choppers hovering over the puszta hardly dispels the movie's 19th-century quality. The final image has the great sensation of the age lying in the center of the debris. Mournful and sardonic, Werckmeister Harmonies ends in the baleful light of a postapocalyptic morning after. The movie invites allegory even as it resists it.

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