Hitting the Right Notes

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Review of 'Werckmeister Harmonies', director Bela Tarr

This film is directed by an acclaimed Hungarian film-maker, Bela Tarr, whose work was recently celebrated with a retrospective at the National Film Theatre in London and the Museum of Modern Art in New York. A more appropriate title would be the name of the novel it is based on, 'The Melancholy of Resistance' by Laszlo Krasaznahorkai, as that is what the film is about. Its actual title refers to a subplot in which a musicologist is devoted to overthrowing the musical system of Andreas Werckmeister, a 17th century musical theorist who believed that heavenly constellations were created by god to influence men.

The story is slim. A large number of people are standing in a Hungarian provincial town centre, freezing from the cold, angry at the privations of their lives and at the authorities' attempt to buy off their discontent by bringing a circus to town, whose main attraction is a stuffed whale, and the promise of a visit by 'The Prince'.

The elements of the plot are not very clearly delineated, but are contemplative and vague, with minimal dialogue. Much more the defining character of the film is the way the story is told, in essence, the camerawork. The photography, in monochrome, is searching and memorable, but the most lasting impression is the long takes of each scene, which allow for intricate camera movements as the characters struggle to find their way through the 'melancholy' of their resistance.

The clop clop of the leading actor's footsteps as he goes from place to place, building up the atmosphere, seems to go on throughout the film, but this does give the opportunity during the lengthy takes of his walking to note small changes of expression, growing tensions, increasing anxiety and frustration. The slow, deliberate and meditative photography and the large absence of dialogue give the work a haunting, poetic quality quite unlike anything else.