Werckmeister Harmonies

Werckmeister Harmonies ★★★★★

With the weight of this movie pressing down on me, I find it easy to accept that we live amid a misguided understanding of harmonies, and that hope is an alien creature that we stare at without understanding. I don’t accept these things for long — I’m an optimist at heart — but what an impact.

Yes, 39 shots. Each one is almost a complete movie. At first they alternate, inside and outside, always with Lars Rudolph as János at the center. Around a third of the way in, though, the pattern breaks down just as the civitas of the town is fragmenting. Eventually we lose track of János as well.

Many of the shots stick with me. One terrified me: the men marching down the street for an eternity. I expected Tarr’s camera to be static and heavy, but it never was, even here. While the men march, he dips and focuses and pulls back, showing us both the individual hatred and the deep sea of collective rage. 

When we find János again he’s huddled in a corner, unable to understand or process what he’s seen. He couldn’t stand in the way, either. It’s a bleak movie; Tarr thinks we’re all complicit.

I contemplate the overlapping patterns of control when I think about complicity. Auntie Tünde, played by Hanna Schygulla, is complicit. The army is complicit. But so is the never-seen Prince who stirs up the initial unrest. It’s not as simple as a metaphor for fascism or communism; there’s always an excuse to riot and that riot, in turn, is always an excuse to crack down. What’s missing is the genuine revolution and I’m not sure Tarr believes that’s possible.

What a monumental act of creativity. What acting! I talked about the beauty and power of the images, because everyone does, because you have to. I’ve got to linger on the performances as well. Schygulla in particular is as quietly powerful as ever, still one of the best European actresses of her generation. Rudolph… that first scene, where he’s helping his drunk friends act out a total eclipse from beginning to triumphant end? That’s an act of hope, and he has to spend the rest of the movie losing his hope as his world goes to shit. He’s great. Everyone’s great. Everything’s doomed.

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