Order of the Day

Temperance is a virtue: Lars Rudolph in 'Werckmeister Harmonies'
Menemsha Entertainment

Hungarian director Béla Tarr may be too avant-garde for the multiplex, but art-film audiences are beginning to embrace him. The acid test is his epic Sátántangó, with its glacial narrative and seven-and-a-half-hour length--with which serious moviegoers seem to be coping just fine, judging from enthusiastically received screenings in New York over the past few years. Given Tarr's rising reputation, I was surprised at how few people showed up for the Saturday-afternoon showing of his latest film, Werckmeister Harmonies, in Cannes almost two years ago. This may have been a result of its slot near the end of an overcrowded festival (and it's comforting to know that an earlier screening was well-attended and eagerly applauded). In any case, Werckmeister Harmonies ranks with the most intellectually provocative and inventively cinematic works I saw at the festival, and the art of film will be badly served if it doesn't receive the exposure it deserves.

Based on a novel by László Krasznahorkai, Werckmeister Harmonies begins in the saloon of a small Hungarian town, where a young man named Valushka lifts the movie to a lively start by choreographing his fellow carousers into a drunken dance meant to illustrate the movements of the solar system. It's an extraordinary sequence that vividly introduces Tarr's basic theme of order versus chaos--and, just as important, order versus the countless dissimulations that masquerade as order. At the same time, it acquaints us with the protagonist (strikingly played by German actor Lars Rudolph), and with the bleak, oppressive milieu where the story takes place. Also introduced is the characteristic fluidity of Gàbor Medvigy's long-take cinematography, which meticulously conveys the film's human and narrative rhythms.

Subsequent scenes introduce additional characters, including various residents of the village; members of a family torn by emotional tensions; and Valushka's mentor, an aging musician with a mission. Music has gone tragically astray, he believes, ever since the baroque-era musicologist Andreas Werckmeister finished nailing down the system of equal temperament, whereby the octave is divided into 12 equal semitones (allowing for orderly modulations among a fixed number of scales) instead of following the series of naturally occurring overtones. This synthetic system has reduced music's infinite potential by confining it within arbitrarily imposed rules, the old pianist asserts, depriving humanity of the art's most glorious possibilities. So down with Werckmeister and all his followers--beginning, presumably, with J. S. Bach, the first great composer to bring the Werckmeister system to full fruition.

The plot gathers momentum as we learn of a curious circus that has been traveling in the region and has just arrived in town with its two main attractions: a giant whale preserved for scrutiny on dry land and a mysterious prince known for his ability to render an audience spellbound with his words. The whale is quite a hit with the local citizens, including Valushka, who sees the creature as awesome evidence of God's creative power. But the prince has spurred consternation among those who fear a negative influence over people suffering mightily from unemployment, poverty, and hunger. Might he stir the masses to anger, violence, revolution?

We'll never know, since dissension within the circus keeps the prince out of public view, and a large contingent of townspeople lurches into insurrection on its own, lashing out with implacable ferocity at whatever lies in its path. The mayhem spreads--even to a hospital packed with the sick and injured--until the mob comes upon a startling sight: one elderly man, naked and grotesquely frail, facing the throng with nothing in his eyes but bewilderment and vulnerability. The crowd turns and marches silently away. Soon after, we see that the government has jumped into action, mobilizing its forces to crush whatever is left of this pathetically short-lived, barely organized rebellion.

The meanings of Werckmeister Harmonies are multifaceted and, ultimately, ambiguous. It's impossible to pin down the precise nature of the prince's demagogic ideas, since neither we nor the characters are allowed to hear them. The ancient man in the hospital provides another pungent example: Do the rioters stop because his pitiful state reminds them of human imperfection? Or because his appearance supplies their destructive orgy with a climax that even they couldn't top? And what's all this talk about Werckmeister, anyway? While equal-temperament tuning does indeed cut music to a humanly conceived mold, it has also facilitated the glories of Western polyphony and homophony for the past 300 years. Surely the Werckmeister system doesn't amount to the aesthetic equivalent of fascist tyranny. Or does it?

While these imponderables may signal that the movie's eloquence is more visual than conceptual, I prefer to see Tarr's radical ambiguity as a sign of his daring--of his bid to take us beyond the limits of ideological art, just as his images (and his soundtrack, anchored in Mihàly Vig's pulsing score) take us beyond the well-worn verities of classical filmmaking. If it were necessary to read a Deeper Meaning into the picture, I'd suggest that Tarr is testing and probing (rather than positing or preaching) the notion that order is preferable to chaos even when the available varieties of order are inevitably flawed or circumscribing. Among these, there's the order of equal temperament that enhances some musical possibilities by excluding others; the order of domestic arrangements that promotes emotional quietude by outlawing unruly passions; and the order of centralized political power (symbolized, perhaps, by the mummified whale, a relative of Thomas Hobbes's prototypical Leviathan figure) that allows everyday life to ramble through its habitual routines by stifling the disruptions of spontaneous rebellion and dissent.

This theory seems dubious once it leaves the realm of abstract aesthetics for that of political reality--which may explain why Tarr has embedded his exploration in a framework that's full of indecipherable elements. In any case, Werckmeister Harmonies is more a work of spiritual adventure than philosophical analysis: It uses a set of conspicuously modest raw materials--struggling people in an awful environment and a troubled epoch--to lift our minds and souls beyond the encumbering confines of ordinary films. In other words, Tarr is one of the great ones, and Werckmeister Harmonies merits the biggest audience that our perilously imperfect distribution systems can possibly give it.


A version of this article originally appeared in the Canadian film journal Cinema Scope.

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