Can the medium of film really be defined as art? Or is it in fact nothing more than an amalgamation of different art forms? For Bela Tarr, acclaimed director of Damnation and Satantango and master of the ‘slow cinema’ genre, film is less art but rather a psychological process. No more is this true than in his latest, and rumoured to be final movie, Turin Horse, which apparently came very close to being named Best In Competition at this year’s Berlin Film Festival.
The story takes place in a small, unnamed provincial town in Hungary. A town isolated from the continued advancements of the west which survives purely on the will of its hard working community. We follow Janos Verluska (Lars Rudolph), a philosophical young man who lives and works here throughout the bitterly cold weather whilst still managing to care for his elderly uncle.
On one of these cold days, a circus arrives in the town – a circus unlike any we would be familiar with. Its collection of oddities includes the carcass of a large whale and a mysterious man named ‘The Prince’. They’re all contained in an iron clad trailer that features none of the glam or glitz you’d normally expect to see from a touring show aiming to entertain.
This circus and especially ‘The Prince’ come with a following of disenfranchised foreigners and neighbouring towns’ folk. These elements combined with a coal shortage in the town during an unrelenting frost ignites a fire of disharmony that has been festering beneath the fragile populous, resulting in a rebellion of colossal magnitude…
With Werckmeister Harmonies, Tarr has created his most philosophical film so far. His use of Janos Verluska to narrate and observe the town’s descent into madness helps us to understand how such chaos could come about so quickly. Indeed, the film’s opening scene (in which Janos explains to the local bar’s patrons how the effects of an eclipse reflect our human condition to block out the looming fear of mortality) sums up what we as an audience are in store for. This allegory, beautifully portrayed through the spinning of drunkards, represents the movements of the Earth and the Moon around the Sun, and depicts the way in which the natural world turns to madness when faced with the silence of impenetrable darkness.
If you fail to find the majesty in this opening scene then it would be fair to say that Werckmeister Harmonies isn’t for you. It’s here in these opening ten minutes that we witness a montage of all the style and trademark techniques Bela Tarr has become famous for. Here we see them all working in perfect harmony, whether it be his magnificent ability to hold your attention throughout overtly long tracking shots, his meticulous use of lighting to gently reflect mood, and the subtle presence of non-diegetic sound to emphasise the deep rumbling emotion that should by now be pumping through your veins.
There is also the fascinating use of symbolism which has kept many intellectual art house fans up all night debating with each other on internet message boards. The main topics of debate focus on deciphering the meaning behind both the giant whale carcass and the enigmatic prince. The large dead whale could easily be seen as a representation of God, or more notably Nietzsche’s quote about morality and the disappearance of the moral principals which once guided us through organised religion. “God is dead. God remains dead. And we have killed him” would certainly seem fitting with this depiction of a community’s rapid decline into chaos. ‘The Prince’ perhaps holds a more obvious connection to the film’s geographical setting, and Tarr’s devotion to depicting his nation’s harrowing journey throughout modern European history. Some see ‘The Prince’ as a representation of Hitler and thus the effects of fascism which tore the country apart. Others see the Slovak speaking prince as a depiction of Stalin and the oppressive communist regime he subjected Hungary to throughout the 1950s. However you look at it, he is certainly an image of sanctimonious hatred whose singular aim is to pollute the populous with an atmosphere of rebellion and chaos.
All this high praise should not mask the fact that, like his previous work, Tarr’s style is certainly not to everybody’s taste. Clocking in at hefty 139 minute runtime and only comprising of thirty-nine extended takes (that’s an average of three-and-a-half minutes per shot, whereas your usual Hollywood block buster clocks in at around 5.4 seconds). The film certainly requires a mix of patience and strong will (as well as an equally strong bladder!).
Fans of silent cinema should find much to rejoice in with Werckmeister Harmonies mainly due to its aesthetic similarities with the genre. Tarr’s use of minimalist dialogue and wide angled shots, often paired with a sustained and soulful close-up of the characters faces, harks back to films such as Metropolis and Sunshine. A perfect example of how a picture is worth a thousand words.
Regardless of your taste or preference in world cinema, or your feelings on the newly revered genre of ‘slow cinema’, Werckmeister Harmonies should be viewed by anyone who claims to be a devotee of art house film. Even if the film’s subtle symbolism escapes you, or it’s lethargic pace frustrates, you should certainly find enough here to convince you of what a truly sumptuous masterpiece of cinematic art this is. Yet like all works of art, it will no doubt confound some whilst dazzling others.