At two and a half hours, Werckmeister Harmonies is an eye-blink in comparison to director Béla Tarr's seven-hour-plus epic Sátántangó (which was acclaimed by Susan Sontag as the future of cinema and ripped off by Gus Van Sant in Elephant, Last Days, and Gerry). Tarr actually surpasses himself in this condensed format, and what felt bloated and hectoring at epic length feels precise here, and engaging on every level. The tale is told through extremely long, unbroken and fluid camera movements, some drawn out as long as 15 minutes.
Sátántangó opens with 10 minutes of cows emerging onto the muddy landscape of a farming community, which let you know you had to have a saint's patience to endure the rest of the movie. Werckmeister Harmonies, on the other hand, has a more arresting and immediately engaging sequence. It helps that Tarr follows one central protagonist this time, one János Valuska (Lars Rudolph), whom many critics have referred to as a "Holy Fool." But in fact, this supposedly simpleminded guy is a practitioner of the theatrical arts. He has more in common with great Polish theater directors like Grotowski and Artaud than he does with holy fools, and he is first glimpsed staging a bit of performance art for the drunken patrons of an alehouse right before closing time.
This moment of theater for the poor is a reenactment of a solar eclipse, with János using the drunks and the peasants as stand-ins for the sun, the moon, and the earth. "And now we'll have an explanation that simple folks like us can understand about immortality," he cheerfully intones, whirling the bar patrons into a kind of dance as the Steadicam roves around them. "All I ask is that you step with me into the boundlessness..." Tarr's camera feels outside of the characters, in a reverential movement best described as "cosmic" in its fascination. To all those who endured the dance sequence in Sátántangó, this is quite a different matter. Instead of a mocking assessment of his characters in an all-encompassing wide shot, Tarr dances with them, as if responding to the poetic nature of János's monologue.
As the eclipse reaches its peak, János stops the action, and the camera movements grow less frenetic. Then the monologue veers into the apocalyptic: "Everything that was is still. Are the hills going to march off? Will Heaven fall upon us? Will the earth open up under us? We don't know. We don't know, for a total eclipse has come upon us."
The character of János is fervent, articulate yet blessedly compassionate and strangely optimistic -- the antithesis of the hate-spewing, equally working class intellectual played by David Thewlis in Mike Leigh's Naked. "We are a part of everything that has ever been or will ever be," was Johnny's creed, and it is echoed here, but it feels more blessed coming from János. There are forces in the solar system larger than us, but when he looks upon them it is with awe. "But no need for fear... it's not over," he says.
That hope and amazement carries through the rest of Werckmeister Harmonies, which plays out like a horror tale of a town on the verge of obliteration. That night, the market square becomes increasingly filled with angry peasants building large bonfires around a carnival attraction featuring a large, mummified whale. When János looks upon the whale with amazement, he stands in counterpoint to the seething resentment of a poverty class that doesn't give a damn for the infinite solar system above them, or the price of a ticket to see the great white leviathan. The carnival's ringleader, an unseen presence known as The Prince, spouts revolutionary screeds and has been known to incite towns to elaborate riots and destruction.
As rage builds within the town square, János is cast as de-facto observer of an impending destruction--indeed, the Prince and the Whale have arrived concurrent with János's single-minded aunt (Fassbinder actress Hanna Schygulla), who has come to town with a list of names, a political ideology that may err on the side of totalitarianism, and a proposal for martial law to contain the angry masses. There are indeed forces in János's world larger than he is, but politics is grounded in the earth, and human blood, and has no use for the sun, moon, or stars.
There are only 39 shots altogether in Werckmeister Harmonies, yet it never feels dull. It marches along towards a middle section of riots and a climax of horror resolutely and purposefully. And each shot feels like a building block towards something. Each shot, in fact, is visually striking. To wit: Our hero runs through an all-encompassing darkness, covering a country mile as the camera stays in close on him as he flees the distant horizon over his shoulder. One wonders why Tarr lingers on him so long when suddenly the background erupts in explosions, and we see the long take register as a scary thought -- outrunning one's own death.
Indeed, every shot in Werckmeister Harmonies makes GoodFellas seem like child's play. A legion of zombie-like workers barge into a hospital, tearing everything apart and beating up or killing anyone who lurks there (it feels like the pristine dolly shots from The Shining if a riot were taking place in the Overlook Hotel). A lingering long take on the hero walking through the square follows him as he passes a legion of angry peasants, each seared, weather-worn face telling a story, until he arrives at the eye of the whale, moving effortlessly from the mundane to the epic. The final image of the whale is perhaps the most succinct vision of "apocalypse" ever put on screen, and dares to say the apocalypse has a startling, bleak beauty all its own.
Aka Werckmeister Harmóniák.