In the late hours of the evening, the owner of a local tavern attempts to scuttle his lethargic, inebriated patrons out of the establishment in preparation for store closure, only to be derailed by their request to allow an inquisitive and obliging young man named János (Lars Rudolph) to illustrate the process of a solar eclipse through the dynamics of the moon’s geocentric orbit in relation to earth’s simultaneous heliocentric orbit, a rare phenomenon of celestial alignment that has historically caused confusion and uncertainty – and irrational sense of ominous, apocalyptic inevitability – among its discomposed, naïve witnesses. The foreboding image of intersecting light, obstruction, and shadow projection carries through to an extended take long shot of caravan headlights as the lumbering, heavy tonnage vehicle projects a slow, ethereally sweeping swath of light onto the façades of the town’s unilluminated and seemingly depopulated buildings on its way to the main square. A posted flyer on an electrical pole reveals the reason for the curious spectacle unfolding before the slumbering, unsuspecting town: a traveling circus that boasts the appearance of the world’s largest whale and an intriguing, seemingly prophetic personality known as the Prince.
At daybreak, János attends to his ailing uncle György (Peter Fitz), a music theorist who has been researching the tuning system developed by Andreas Werckmeister in the belief that the German composer’s flawed scale has led to the proliferation (and standardization) of impure musical harmonies. Unable to elicit the attention of his uncle, János decides to head to the town square alone to view the attraction before heading home, and is soon visited by György’s estranged wife, Tünde (Hanna Schygulla), who enlists his assistance in goading György to obtain signatures on a petition for her nascent political movement in the hopes that his respected social standing will encourage other prominent townspeople to support her cause. Increasingly drawn into Tünde’s covert machinations and the surreal presence of the whale, János returns to the town square at twilight, where the fusion of alien carnivalesque spectacle and indigenous political agitation contribute to a volatile concoction of ignorance, restlessness, and displaced anxiety that leads to an evening of chaos and violent upheaval.
Adapted from the novel The Melancholy of Resistance by author László Krashnahorkai in collaboration with Béla Tarr and Agnes Hranitzky, Werckmeister Harmonies is an elegantly composed, seductively lugubrious, and haunting cautionary tale of moral ambiguity, lawlessness, petty self-interest, and inertia. From the long take opening sequence depicting the orbital singularity of a hypothetical eclipse, Tarr establishes the parallel for the townspeople as self-contained microcosms behaving according to inherent, pre-programmed natures that, when particularly aligned according to a prescribed set of circumstances, will collectively result in chaos and uncertainty. Visually, Tarr employs images of fire, directed light (most notably in the night-time arrival of the circus caravan that transitions to a shot of János’ sun-bathed morning walk and later, in the raid of an institutional housing), and obscured, expressionistic shadows that reveal an intrinsic polarity to human nature. Through György’s research on the seeming propagation of false harmony in the development of music theory, the film provides an incisive allegory for the corrupted evolution of an ideal that, not only serves as an analogy for the failure of Soviet communism, but more broadly, the systematic estrangement from the pure ideal caused by the flawed (or perhaps intentionally perverted) application of theory (note György’s assertion that the imperfect tuning has irretrievably moved musical composition ever further away from the harmony of the gods) – a blind and autonomic allegiance to seductive false idols (such as the charismatically maniacal Prince or the messianic Irimiás in Sátántangó) that lead to intolerance, barbarism, and human cruelty. It is this ephemeral implication of following a detracted path to a tragic and inevitable conclusion in the absence of true enlightenment and existential purpose that is captured in the surreal parting shot of the immobile whale in the town square that, like the dismantled statue of Lenin on a garbage barge in Theo Angelopoulos’ Ulysses’ Gaze, represents a lost, decontextualized idea – a curious, dislocated relic rendered irrelevant and obsolete by the erosive tide of repression, inhumanity, cultural isolation, and spiritual desolation.
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