Thoughts On: Werckmeister Harmonies - The Voice & Image Of Spectacle


Werckmeister Harmonies - The Voice & Image Of Spectacle

Quick Thoughts: Werckmeister Harmonies (Werckmeister Harmóniák, 2000)

Made by Béla Tarr and Ágnes Hranitzky, this is the Hungarian film of the series.

Werckmeister Harmonies is a very difficult film - both to watch and to read. This is my first contact with, not just this film, but also Béla Tarr, and so I certainly don't think I have a good grip of much. Alas, my initial response to Werckmeister Harmonies is neutral. Tarr seemingly falls into a realist tradition centred on the long take - a form that I think is fair to say Tarkovsky mastered. In turn, you can feel Tarkovsky in this film via the Soviet backdrop and the expansion of time. However, Tarkovsy's image, in my view, has a draw to, and poetry embedded within, it that Tarr's simply doesn't. In comparison to Tarkovsky I would even find Tarr to be slightly melodramatic; his mise en scène and structuring far more emphatic than Tarkovsky's. For his lack of subtlety, I can't say that Tarr enhances a transcendent quality in his cinema outside of a few select scenes; one example being the opening performances of the sun and earth in space. What's more, whilst Tarkovsky is difficult to read, I don't find him as difficult to watch as Tarr. In watching Werckmeister Harmonies, however, you quickly see Tarkovsky and then have to look past what you may be familiar with as it seems to produce little fruit. That is to say that their cinemas are only bound together by a few aesthetic and conceptual techniques at a surface level. And, interestingly, Tarr has commented on Tarkovsky's and his own cinema with the following:

Tarkovsky is religious and we are not… he always had hope; he believed in God. He’s much more innocent than us – than me. No, we have seen too many things to make his kind of film… he is much softer, much nicer. Rain in his films purifies people. In mine it just makes mud.

Looking past Tarkovsky, within Werckmeister Harmonies I find a film trying to voice something about spectacle. Often seen as an allegory about the state of post-WWII East Europe, this is centred on a small town entrenched in infrastructural and political issues that are never clarified. A travelling circus that bring with them a huge stuffed whale and a speaker called The Prince enter the town and, seemingly because of the social unrest, incite riots and chaos. We watch this play out following a quiet man, János, who runs newspaper rounds and errands for his elder family members and is fascinated by the poetic, the musical, the astronomical and the philosophical. János is then drawn to the whale that the circus bring and is dumbfounded by its size and the fact that God would create such a gigantic creature.

Embedded in this narrative seems to be a dichotomy between voice and image, between the unseen but heard Prince and the seen, never heard, whale. The whale is visual spectacle and the speaker audio spectacle; the whale disgusts some, not János, the speaker causes chaos among most, not János. It is János who interprets the visual spectacle as a positive and it is he who, among with other innocent people, falls victim to the ideas The Prince spreads.

As a political commentary, Werckmeister Harmonies seems to be interacting with the rift between image and ideology. For the Soviet Bloc, which includes Hungary, there would have been an image that emerged after both WWI and WWII of Communism as a new and better future (for some). Along with the ambiguous image of Communism that was/is more a mirror into one's own desires and less a window into anything, came the voices of Communism, most notably via Stalin. The voice corrupts the image. Or, rather, the voice reveals the image to be corrupt; the circus a sham that harbours a tyrant and a rotting corpse.

Taking a step back, not wanting to dive into analysis too specific after this first watch, Werckmeister Harmonies seems to detail and explore the dangers of spectacle, and the relationship that it can develop with bodies of people. The aesthetic and directorial techniques force the viewer to ponder upon this dichotomy and sometimes strike out with theme. Without a definitive feeling for the film, however, I'll leave things with you. Have you seen Werckmeister Harmonies? What are your thoughts?

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