Werckmeister Harmonies (2000)

How mysterious is the Lord that he amuses himself with such strange creatures!  –Janos, Werckmeister Harmonies

Bela Tarr’s magnificent Werckmeister Harmonies offers a beautifully bleak portrait of the narrowness of modern life. The film opens with Janos in a barroom at closing time, prepared to illustrate for the drunken men the workings of the cosmos. Using the men as models, Janos shows them how the earth rotates around the sun while the moon at the same time orbits the earth. The scene’s oddity is strangely moving, as the single shot serves to unify the disparate group and strengthens the coherence of their actions. Tarr brings the camera both near and far, allowing us access to the men but also retaining the fundamental strangeness of the scene.

The simplicity of the scene endears the viewer to the men, yes, but more so to Janos. What kind of man would think up such a scheme? As the film follows Janos through his travels in the village over the following two days, we quickly discover a man captivated by a sort-of-circus that has come to town boasting the “largest giant whale” in the world. For Janos, this whale represents the creative possibilities of God (the quote above being Janos’ response to seeing the creature), and as such he encourages people to see it. Indeed, in the whole of the village, Janos seems to be the only one who actually sees the animal.

Janos seems to possess a quality that no one else has: reverence. When he sees something grand, he humbles himself before it. As such, we see him constantly on the move, serving other people, older people who he seems to respect and appreciate. Tarr’s typically lengthy “walking shots”—where a character or characters simply walk in an extended tracking shot—underline this fundamental aspect of Janos’ character: his reverence for the O/other has profound implications for how he lives his life.

That Tarr’s film ultimately illustrates the ways in which the abuse of power in the modern world—either through destructive riots or draconian rule—squelches such reverence makes the portrait no less beautiful. Indeed, the tragic ending draws us back to that opening sequence. As Janos directs the three drunken men in their “Dance of the Cosmos,” he suddenly stops them, the moon directly between the sun and the earth—an eclipse. Darkness has come, but only for a time, Janos tells them. The light will come again, and bring life with it.

This is, after all, the natural order.

Sátántangó (1994)

I’ve long been intrigued by the films of Bela Tarr. And while I had since found copies of Werckmeister Harmonies and Damnation, the Holy Grail remained the 431-minute Sátántangó. Finally, thanks to the recent Facets release, I have had the opportunity to see it. It was worth the wait.

Following the members of a failed agricultural commune over a cold and wet three-day period, Tarr’s vision is typically grimy and dreary. While each of the characters has ample screen time, none can seem to rise above the muck and mud that encompasses them. Every one of them expresses some measure of deceit, greed, violence, or promiscuity. Even those that seem clean or well-put together (like the prophetic and charismatic leader, Irimias) arouse suspicion of some darker and more sinister motives.

Throughout, the physical world of the film mirrors the characters that inhabit it. Tarr’s extremely long takes allow one to get the full sense of that physical world—the rain beating people’s faces, the mud that sticks to their shoes, and the cold that seeps through their clothes, a chill they permanently hold within themselves. The single moment of real warmth comes during the titular tango, which takes place during a night of drunken revelry at the only bar in town. Yet rather than letting up on their self-serving pursuits, they are only enhanced during this lengthy dance. Some drink themselves into oblivion. Others play and dance mindlessly. One man pursues another man’s wife in full view of her husband, pawing at her relentlessly. All the while the music plays and the people experience the closest thing to joy in the entire film.

Should these characters be viewed as products of this filthy, freezing, and unsavory world? Or should we see them as bearing the responsibility for who they have become?

Tarr’s sparsely dialogued film offers little specific guidance on this point. However, the film’s conclusion does provide some hint. The doctor, left behind at the commune due to negligence, ventures out of his hut at the sound of bells (the same bells that awaken Futaki at the outset of the film). After a long walk into the countryside, the doctor comes upon a chapel in disrepair that he believes hasn’t had a bell in some years. When he stumbles up the stairs and in, he sees what appears to be a blind monk ringing and calling out that “The Turks are coming!” over and over and over again.

The historical metaphor is clear: An enemy army draws near, thus the need to sound the warning bells. Death is coming to the Hungarian countryside, to this mass of people who have shown themselves to be anything but worthy. And while I suppose one could see this as another in an endless cycle of mindless tragedy that they don’t deserve and can do nothing about, the location of the call in the chapel lends the message a divine authority (not unlike the lengthy Ezekiel quotation in Tarr’s earlier Damnation). Judgment is coming. The people have left their faith in disrepair. And there is nowhere in this bleak and barren countryside to hide.