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Werckmeister Harmonies: Dark Side of the Earth

<em>Werckmeister Harmonies: </em>Dark Side of the Earth

Béla Tarr’s Werckmeister Harmonies arrived in 2000, a concrete manifestation of free-floating millenarian dread. Tarr’s career, which began during the final stretch of Communist rule in Hungary, has coincided with the toppling of various regimes and ideologies, as well as sundry pronouncements about the end of history, the decline of faith, and the death of cinema. His sardonic, luxuriantly bleak laments are nothing if not movies for an apocalyptic age, and Werckmeister Harmonies, a mesmerizing chronicle of collapse, is his most nightmarish vision of how things fall apart.

By the time of Werckmeister, his seventh feature, Tarr had established an instantly recognizable aesthetic and existential universe. From Damnation (1988) onward, all his films are set in weather-beaten wastelands and shot in deep-focus, chiaroscuro black and white, with a ceaselessly roving camera. Characters are stranded in dismal rooms and barren plains, places that the camera circumnavigates in sinuous sequence shots that outlast any expository purpose. The Mitteleuropean gloom is all-encompassing, yet the films are enthralling in their fluid manipulation of vast tracts of space-time, verging on the sublime in their invocations of the ineffable. This consistency of vision owes in part to a regular stable of collaborators, starting with Ágnes Hranitzky, Tarr’s longtime editor and his codirector from Werckmeister through Tarr’s avowed final film, The Turin Horse (2011). The celebrated novelist László Krasznahorkai cowrote Tarr’s features starting with Damnation, and in some cases also provided the source material. The mournful drones of composer Mihály Víg, often written before shooting, have accompanied all the films since 1984’s Almanac of Fall.

Tarr’s decision to make a reasonably faithful adaptation of Krasznahorkai’s 1985 debut novel, Sátántangó, preserving its overlapping temporal and perspective shifts, resulted in a twelve-chapter, seven-and-a-half-hour opus. Werckmeister is a much looser and more streamlined version of the novelist’s 1989 The Melancholy of Resistance, hewing to the vantage point of a single character, János Valuska (Lars Rudolph), who observes the chaos that inexorably descends on a small town with the arrival of a one-truck circus whose sole attractions are a stuffed whale and an enigmatic, possibly demagogic figure known as the Prince. János, a wide-eyed, mild-mannered mail carrier, also serves as caretaker to the reclusive musicologist Mr. Eszter (Peter Fitz), himself a dreamer, obsessed with exposing the supposed inaccuracies of the modern harmonic scale. The air is thick with paranoia and fear. As word circulates of encroaching unrest, the townsfolk queasily mill about the ominous whale parked in the central square, while Eszter’s vengeful estranged wife, Tünde (Hanna Schygulla), and her new consort, the police chief, seek to exploit the moment by forming a political movement devoted to the restoration of “cleanliness” and “order.”

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