Dir - Béla Tarr
Viewed: From the Balcony and the Couch
"Great Mountains of Refuse are Everywhere"
I first heard of the Hungarian director Béla Tarr on a random trip to Harvard Film Archive on a lonely Wednesday evening in January. School was on break, friends were away, and the promise of a nine-dollar double feature (in B&W no less) seemed to be the ideal antidote to the winter blues. All I knew before seeing Damnation and Werckmeister Harmonies (gleaned from the HFA blurb) was that Tarr was a favorite of Susan Sontag and that he had once made a seven-hour movie. Perfect.
And it was. Though Damnation may be a more realist expression of life in a small Hungarian town, and its themes more suited to Tarr’s minimalism, I decided to review Harmonies because it is Tarr’s most recent and accessible work. Both movies are a must see for anyone interested in exploring the relation between beauty and sadness—and why the former is impossible without the latter—but I think Harmonies’ use of deeper symbolism and narrative make it the best introduction to Tarr.
The movie begins with a stunning one-take shot of the film’s protagonist Janos organizing a group of drunken men into a recreation of the movements of solar system. As he begins to position these men into the sun, Earth, and moon, Janos gives us his philosophy of life by way of a metaphor to a solar eclipse; that even when we feel at our darkest, when the sun’s rays have only hidden behind the moon and that there is hope on the horizon.
Janos’s optimism will be severely tested however, as shortly after departing the bar, he sees the arrival of the “Great Whale” and the “Prince”, two freaks of nature that will be exhibited in the town square. There have been rumors that the Whale and Prince had sewn discord in other cities and that the Prince is something of a prophet of doom, causing destruction wherever he goes. The Prince, as soon confirmed, is evil incarnate. The Whale’s morality, however, is more ambiguous. Janos’s uncle summarizes this nicely in a cryptic language that is a recurrent element of the film:
“Some say the Whale isn’t a part of it. Some say the Whale is the cause of it all.”
Whatever the cause, the concerns about destruction are justified as the Prince’s arrival begins to attract a sea of shiftless and desolate men who spend their time warming their hands over enflamed trash barrels and wandering around the enormous truck that houses the Whale and the Prince. Janos moves in these circles occasionally to try to see the Whale, but is rarely acknowledged by the men (even though many are from the bar in the opening scene). Although a town square filled with idle men may seem threatening, to Janos, the only interest is the Whale.
Though Janos does get to see the great beast—he tells a local “How great is our lord, that he creates such creatures for his amusement,”—his failure to recognize the threat of the crowd, and of the Prince, will ultimately lead to destruction. As the threat grows, Janos continues to assure everyone in town that things are fine and that there is no need to worry. But Janos’s small Hungarian town is on the verge of an apocalyptic eclipse, and there is doubt whether the sun will rise again.
These later scenes, in their account of destruction and (partial) rebirth in the town, are some of the most powerful I’ve ever seen but I can’t describe them here without revealing too much of the plot. Though Tarr’s signature style is the extended take, his amazing power is to capture a sense of realism with such a formulaic style. The first time I saw the movie, I did not realize there were so many extended takes, and it wasn’t until seeing the Netflix blurb that I knew the entire movie (2 ½ hours) was done in just 39 shots. I’m sure film scholars could talk better about how Tarr’s style informs his themes, but for me, the style is so integrated in the material that it seems essential; the lingering camera as character.
One reason Tarr is able to stand apart from similar minimalist directors (Sean mentioned Gus Van Sant as one), is that he is fortunate enough to work with the novelist Lazlo Krasznahorkai, who provides the delicate language of both hope and despair that create the tension of the film. While Tarr may give us a number of “slow” shots, he also is smart enough to recognize great dialogue, and doesn’t allow the camera to intrude when the characters are speaking. Tarr is unmistakably his own artist, but his genius is to merge Krasznahorkai’s art with his own.
The best example of the Tarr/Krasznahorkai relationship occurs during a monologue by György, Janos’s “uncle.” György, who is one of the most respected men in town, spends most of his days locked in his office trying to uncover the moment when humanity lost its way. While he talks into a Dictaphone, Janos brings lunch into the room and sets it down in the background of the shot. He lingers on the outskirts of the frame for a while, listening to György along with the audience, but ultimately gets bored and departs. The audience, however, must stay, and Tarr’s camera is so close that it is impossible to avoid concentrating on the words. The basic conclusion of the speech is that the 12-tone musical scale, or harmony, perfected by Andreas Werckmeister, obliterated the “natural” sense of tuning instruments that had previously existed. If we are to find our way, György argues, we must return to this sense of tuning, before the rational and the “well tempered” took control. In almost any other setting, this naked analogy to the crushing weight of modernity would be too much, but the language in which it is given is so opaque and so wonderfully constructed, and the camera so sincere, that it doesn’t feel forced.
The modern world has not been kind to a lot of people—Hungarians chief among them—and the tolls of twentieth century can be seen in the dark creases and hard faces of the town rabble. When the spoiled, nasty children of the town police chief repeatedly scream “I’ll be hard on you,” at Janos, it is not hard to see this comment as coming from the world itself and directed to all but its most fortunate inhabitants. Like Janos, however, Tarr is not a pessimist, and there exist moments of such beauty and power in this movie that you cannot believe he is willing to give up on humanity. Where this hope lies however, and when the sun’s rays will shine again, is another question.
Well, Paddy, I owe you one. I think I may have known even less about Mr. Tarr than you did going into Werckmeister. I knew about his influence over van Sant and had seen him mentioned in articles -- and to tell the truth it was always in a way that is usually reserved for filmmakers that broke ground in the 60's and 70's so that's where I thought he was coming from. The black and white didn't help that impression, and so it wasn't until after watching the movie I checked out his IMDb page that I realized he was a modern filmmaker. This makes him all the more brilliant and I'm surprised he hasn't gotten some wider recognition. I assume his movies are making their way into film schools for his use of camera movement alone, not to mention the obvious long-take thing.
I'll have to assume that you and everyone else I've read are correct about Werckmeister Harmonies being the appropriate first date with Béla Tarr. Like you said, the first scene really draws you in and from there you're helpless to try and shake off the spell this guy puts you in. Great, timeless story, perfect casting, and revolutionary camera work.
I know the long take, realist thing isn't every one's cup of tea -- I think the general response to van Sant's Gerry and Last Days (and to a lesser extent Elephant) was less about the superior acting and crafting of scenes and more, "Must we watch this guy cook mac n' cheese?" But in Werckmeisterthe similar shot of Janos cooking his can of soup has much deeper meaning than the fact that a box of mac n' cheese may very well have been Cobain's last meal. Every long take in this film has it impact in the story. Just when you might be itching, wondering if this shot's just being arty for the sake of it -- no, it hits you with meaning. While all the movies in van Sant's "trilogy" have their great moments, and I'll argue are all successes, they're more or less experiments while Werckmeister is a very assured, confident work and anything but an experiment. I know van Sant wouldn't compare himself to Tarr so I'll end this paragraph by saying I'd recommend this movie to anyone with a passing fancy in the art of cinema, I don't think they'd be disappointed or bored.
You could write a thesis on this film and it's different metaphores and suggestions -- so I'll just touch on my favorites. I love the whole idea of this towns obsession and fear of what is basically outsiders and the knowledge or ideas they might bring into their strictly structured town. You pointed out that the people in the bar are later seen among the crowd of eventual rioters. Here we have, at the beginning, people eager to learn; they're the people practically begging Janos to teach them what he knows about science. Drunk people, yes. Inhibitions are lowered and it's a fun game to learn about what's out there beyond the town lines. But when the outside world shows up it's a sobering event indeed. No matter how Janos' fancy learnings may play at last call, in the light of day there's no room for it. And when the helicopter shows up, well it might as well be the last scene of Close Encounters.
I also love the simple bit of making Janos a paperboy. It serves to give an explanation to Janos' knowledge and as a metaphor for his life. What happens when the news turns on the person who lives for it? Dan Rather will tell you that even when you're right you can be wrong. Practically Shakespearian.
Well, I'm definitely looking forward to Tarr's new film, which I believe is getting a showing at this years Cannes if I'm not mistaken. And from the sound of this one I'd say it's going to be another good chance for Tarr to to pick up some new fans.