Werckmeister Harmonies (2000)


Director: Bela Tarr

Stars: Lars Rudolph, Peter Fitz

Another dose of Bela boredom!

I wasn’t Bela Tarr’s biggest fan after viewing The Turin Horse. A film which gathered rave reviews from the arthouse crowd, about two of the most boring characters in the universe going about their boring daily business for a very boring week indeed. It made my life look like a thrill a minute! Although The Turin Horse was beautifully shot and magnificently directed, it had absolutely nothing in the way of characters or plot, which in my opinion are two of the most important things to engage an audience. However, I was willing to give Bela another chance. Werckmeister Harmonies was gaining some unbelievable reviews. People were saying that it changed their lives, it moved them to tears and that it was one of the most perfect films they’d ever seen. I put away my Turin Horse prejudices and was actually really looking forward to seeing it! Unfortunately, what I got was more of the same thing.


Read any rave review for Werckmeister Harmonies and you won’t see anyone commenting on the narrative or plot, they’ll instead be commenting on the imagery and score, both of which are admittedly fabulous. I was drawn in from the opening 15 minutes which showed off some incredible camerawork with a 10 minute cut-free sequence explaining the universe with various German drunks. It must’ve been painstakingly rehearsed and taken an unholy amount of takes with the camera and actors moving around with great precision. I couldn’t help but really appreciate this stark opening. And then we had the near-perfect shot of Janos walking down the dark street with a beautifully haunting score playing over it. I was swept in, buckled in and ready for the ride!

However, just like The Turin Horse things quickly began to get tedious. The main problem is the characters. They’re not exactly infused with life are they? The only thing interesting about the protagonist is his amusing name, Janos. None of the characters have any personality and they don’t develop which makes it very difficult to engage with the story. I think it must be a Hungarian thing though, because every Hungarian film I’ve seen has featured stupidly boring characters. Hungary definitely isn’t a place I’d want to visit or make a film about.


The other big problem with Werckmeister is that it’s quite simply, very boring. I love a long take as much as the next fat person but most of these long takes feel long for the sake of it. I don’t need to see people walking for 5 minutes. You may say that it creates atmosphere and if you’d be right, but I’m not particularly keen on an atmosphere of boredom. Werckmeister Harmonies has barely enough plot to fill an 80 minute film, yet Bela decides to stretch it out to two and a half hours. Thank god he was never approached to adapt The Lord of the Rings!

Much of the narrative is meandering around very dull characters. At one point Janos’ aunty comes with her knickers in a twist about her ex-husband. The whole sequence is very dull and uninteresting, yet it takes up about 40 minutes of the film and adds nothing. At lot of people point towards a political allegory, which personally doesn’t interest me at all, however Bela has even said in interviews that he had no political allegory in mind and was just shooting a story about a man meeting a whale. There could’ve been an interesting story if the most interesting characters weren’t skimmed over. The Prince for example seemed like a fascinating fellow, but only his shadow is shown once! Obviously Bela didn’t want to give his viewers a heart attack with too much excitement.

Werckmeister Harmonies

Werckmeister Harmonies isn’t all bad though. Just like The Turin Horse it is beautifully made, with some shots being nothing short of stunning. I must admit that the hospital sequence was also brilliant, even if the reasons behind the characters doing it are a little bemusing. The two scores that feature in the film are also incredible and actually quite moving. I’m not one of these people who cry at Mozart or anything, but I did find the music in this very powerful and it elevated some scenes (especially the hospital scene) wonderfully. For some strange reason I was almost moved to tears at the final scene! Now, I don’t know if that was because I was so happy that my ordeal was over, or if the music was so haunting.
I don’t judge anyone for liking this film. It is undeniably beautiful to look at and directed with mesmerising precision and sometimes this is enough for people! Some of my favourite films put atmosphere first and characters/plot second such as: Eraserhead and more recently, Under the Skin. However, these films are interesting enough to engage me. Nothing about Werckmeister Harmonies interested me so I was never engaged or felt involved with what I was watching. I watched it in complete darkness and on a proper screen too to try and soak up the atmosphere, but I just couldn’t feel it. Werckmeister Harmonies disappointed me massively and I’ve decided to give up on Bela Tarr. I almost fall asleep just thinking about his seven hour magnum-opus, Satantango!




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