Werckmeister harmóniák (Werckmeister Harmonies)

I’d been looking forward to seeing this film for ages, in fact ever since watching Damnation and The Man From London, and I wasn’t disappointed: this was yet another Béla Tarr masterpiece, in his usual inimitable style.

In actual fact this film was slightly more ‘normal’ in style than those others. Although there were very long shots in which very little happened, they weren’t nearly as extreme as what I’ve come to expect from this director. But that’s not to say it was a fast-moving film; everything is relative! For the rest it was very similar to the others: brilliant black and white photography, an excellent score, and an atmosphere which words can’t describe.

(details below)

As usual, the actual plot is anything but clear and simple, and viewers seem to have been extremely divided in their opinions as to what, exactly, the film is supposed to be ‘about’, and what, if anything, it ‘means’. Whoever wrote the Wikipedia article was convinced that “the film is about János and his uncle György during the Soviet occupation of Hungary at the end of the Second World War”, and that it “can be seen as an allegory of the post WWII Eastern European political systems”, whereas Ken Fox, writing on tvguide.com reckons that “the film could easily be reduced to a parable of post-Communist Eastern Europe”. Richard Williams, in an excellent review in The Guardian, starts by saying it “could also be a bleak vision of chaos and capitalism”, but eventually decides that

It would be better, perhaps, to adopt the director’s own apparent reluctance to seek meanings and to treat the film simply as a fable – a story concealing a generally applicable moral, although in this case with no happy ending or easy interpretation. So maybe not even a fable. Just a story, perhaps, with glimpses of humanity.

Having now seen and enjoyed several Béla Tarr films I would very much agree with that. For him the plot is just one small part of a film, and is never central. He and his team (for his films seem to be very much a group effort) use light, music, dialogue and finally to some extent a narrative to ‘tell a story’, but not a story which could be told in any other medium, or one which could be explained using words and logic. You could say that the plot of a Béla Tarr film is about as important as the ‘plot’ of the average ballet, i.e. not very, but I would go even further. When I listen to music which really ‘speaks’ to me, whether it’s a Beethoven piano sonata, a Mahler symphony or something by Schnittke or Xenakis, I often feel that the composer is telling me a story, but a story which couldn’t possibly be translated into words. In the same way, for me watching a Béla Tarr film is like listening to music: it definitely tells me something, and does so in a very powerful way, but it’s not something I could really describe to anyone else. Just as good music manages to communicate without being ‘about’ anything, so we don’t need to ask what Béla Tarr’s films are ‘about’. And while this film seems packed with symbolism (in the words of Richard Williams, “everything in Werckmeister Harmonies can be read as a metaphor for something or other”), how and indeed whether those symbols are interpreted is entirely up to us. The only thing which is clear is that this is not a happy or optimistic film. It’s a nightmarish vision of chaos, anarchy and violence, but whether we are being told something about Russian-dominated Communist eastern Europe, something about capitalism or rather something about humanity as a whole, is very much a matter of opinion (if I had to choose, I’d go for the third option). So I would say it’s probably a waste of time trying to interpret this film – it should just be experienced! That might be a strange experience, and not one which everyone will find pleasant, but it will be well worthwhile and not easily forgotten.

Having said all that, I’m still very curious as to how my opinion of this film might change if I read the book it’s based on. As I’ve done some translation myself and know its difficulties and limitations, I try to avoid books which I can’t read in their original language. But in this case I’m more than willing to make an exception, and The Melancholy of Resistance by László Krasznahorkai (one of Tarr’s set of close long-term collaborators), is now high on my ‘to read’ list.



title Werckmeister harmóniák (Werckmeister Harmonies)
director Béla Tarr
released 2000
language magyar
subtitles English
further information IMDb


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