Six years after the 7-1/2-hour “Satan’s Tango,” Magyar maverick Bela Tarr makes a stunning feature return with “Werckmeister Harmonies,” another hypnotic meditation on popular demagogy and mental manipulation that’s a snap at 145 minutes. Tarr received an impassioned standing ovation at the pic’s first public screening in the Directors Fortnight. But outside the festival circuit, pic will be limited to film weeks and specialist showcases.
Tarr is a highly acquired taste, a messiah to his fans and a major bore to his detractors, and has yet to acquire the broad critical following and festival kudos of fellow Hungarian Miklos Jancso and Greece’s Theo Angelopoulos, his closest filmmaking cousins. The more accessible “Harmonies” may start to change that lamentable state of affairs and prompt rediscovery of his earlier works, including “Damnation” (1987). Tarr, who’s only 45, is one of the few genuinely visionary filmmakers.
Four years in the making and again adapted from a novel by Laszlo Krasznahorkai, “Harmonies” also reunites the tech team behind “Satan’s Tango” (B&W lenser Gabor Medvigy, composer Mihaly Vig) for an opus that’s recognizably Tarr-like but, in comparison with “Tango,” often plays like Tarr Lite. For those viewers caught in the pic’s spell, events move forward at a relatively rapid pace, to a final half-hour that packs a throat-catchingly emotional punch.
Though bereft of his signatures of rain, mud and barking dogs, the setting is Tarr’s customary one of a small, bleak Hungarian village, in subzero wintry temperatures but sans snow. As the camera pulls away from a small stove and embarks on the opening 10-minute take, the audience is plunged into a rural bar at closing time, with the drunken burgers gradually falling under the spell of a young man (Lars Rudolph) as he leads them in an inebriated dance mimicking the solar system. As in “Satan’s Tango,” an outsider becomes the catalyst for an attempt at change.
As gleaned from hints in the sparse, deliberately nonspecific dialogue, the world is clearly standing on some kind of brink: Jobless hang around in the streets, families are disappearing, revolution is in the air. The time is ripe for people’s imaginations to be seduced.
A mysterious circus run by unseen foreigners has come to town, and villagers have flocked from all over, drawn by a promised appearance by “The Prince.” At the moment, however, all that’s on show is a life-size stuffed whale inside a large truck, and the dumb populace pay 100 forints to gaze upon it.
As the locals talk about revolution and leadership, tension grows among those who have braved the cold to witness the circus. After the manager announces that the Prince can’t appear, the passive mob finally rebels and — in a chilling sequence that recalls the silent, rebellious work force of “Metropolis” — marches on the local hospital and starts trashing the place.
It’s here, a half-hour before the end, that Tarr plays his most audacious card: In a moment of transcendent cinema, powered by Vig’s magical music, the mob is halted in its steps by an unexpected sight and disperses of its own accord. The military then ruthlessly hunts down and crushes the resistance.
Any attempt to make sense of Tarr’s movies in strict narrative terms is as doomed as an analysis of Jancso’s abstract political parables.
Tarr’s pics lack the choreographic grace and visual allure of his fellow countryman’s classic works of the ’60s and ’70s, and their bleak settings, shot in equally bleak B&W, don’t make them an easy ride. Uniting both helmers, however, is a distrust of power structures and a resolutely Hungarian interest in mass, passive resistance.
Where Tarr scores over Jancso is in the spiritual element of his movies. “Harmonies” is a classic demo of his almost Brucknerian approach to filmmaking, working subliminally on the viewer’s emotions over large expanses of time even when the viewer is scarcely aware of what’s going on.
As with Bruckner’s giant symphonies, you’re either hooked from the outset or sent screaming for the exit early on.
Aside from Medvigy’s hypnotic, roving camera, tech credits are carefully honed. Vig’s seemingly repetitive music is often cleverly manipulated in the sound mix to give prominence to this or that instrument, and editing by Agnes Hranitzky is minimal but sharp, often cutting short a sequence unexpectedly just when the viewer has settled down for another mammoth take.
Performances by the seasoned cast of Hungarians, with the dubbed Rudolph and Hanna Schygulla fulfilling German co-production demands, are disciplined — essentially marionettes in the maestro’s hands.
Though never explained in the film, title refers to the 17th-century German organist-composer Andreas Werckmeister, esteemed for his influential tomes on harmony and musical construction. It’s a fitting parallel for a filmmaker whose pics work on the emotions in as unfathomable a way as the compositions of great symphonists.