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Werckmeister Harmonies

Béla Tarr may be the most famous filmmaker that average movie buffs have never heard of. The Hungarian director began his career while his country was still in the Soviet bloc, and his aesthetic evolution paralleled the collapse of communism in Eastern Europe. After a decade of gritty social-realist dramas, Tarr developed a more expressive style based on stark lighting, long takes, and graceful camera moves. The new approach culminated in Sátántangó, a seven-hour 1994 adaptation of László Krasznahorkai's epic novel of political anxiety in a small town. After a few initial festival appearances, the film became semi-legendary, and it still draws crowds of hardcore cineastes whenever it pops up at revival houses.

Tarr's follow-up collaboration with Krasznahorkai, 2000's Werckmeister Harmonies, is almost Sátántangó-lite. Lars Rudolph plays a passive postman who roams through his village—often in unbroken five-minute takes—and observes the social unrest that ensues when an odd carnival attraction rolls into town and galvanizes the citizenry. It's a film of setpieces: Rudolph using the local drunks to illustrate how the solar system moves, his uncle explaining in detail the damage done to modern music by theorist Andreas Werckmeister, a long march through town that ends with a riot at a hospital, and so on. The scenes are like pieces in a puzzle, and it's a challenge to figure out how they fit together.


But the film isn't necessarily a failure if they don't fit together. Tarr belongs to the cinematic tradition of Luis Buñuel and Werner Herzog, in that he twists reality into impressionism. Werckmeister Harmonies may be about how cycles of political change mirror the universal cycles of death and rebirth, but it's more about the sound of trudging feet for minute after hypnotic minute, and the motion of a shadow slowly encroaching on a row of buildings. Over two hours and 20 minutes, not much actually happens, and Tarr creates a mood so lulling that even the rare scenes of dialogue can be hard to follow. But Werckmeister's standout moments are searing like few others in film history. Rudolph could be talking about Tarr—and speaking on behalf of the director's disciples—when he gazes into a giant whale's eye and says, "How mysterious is the Lord, that he amuses himself with such strange creatures."

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