“Can’t Stop Marathon” Review #6: Werckmeister Harmonies (2000, Tarr)

August 8, 2011 — 14 Comments

My face while watching this movie

My marathon continues, leaving behind the joys of Borzage and entering another world entirely. Werckmeister Harmonies is the world of Hungarian director Béla Tarr; I wish I could say it’s a world I enjoyed, even a little bit. I have to lay out as plainly as I can that Werckmeister Harmonies is easily one of the worst films I’ve ever had to endure. And no, it’s not the same kind of bad as The Room or even a forgettably terrible film like Premonition. I’m talking about a film that I found so utterly unwatchable that I can’t believe I’m sitting here, able to tell you I’ve seen it from start to finish.

I suppose it would only be fair to talk about the positives of the film before totally trashing it, so here goes nothing. Werckmeister Harmonies is a beautiful looking film. The black-and-white cinematography is stark and stunning. Tarr also does a lot of work with long takes—almost the entire film is made up of complex, flowing long takes. The technical work is top notch. The music, by Mihály Víg, is also beautiful and haunting. I might say that the acting is good, but I can never really tell with a foreign language film, particularly when it was so obviously re-dubbed in post.

Alright, now that we’ve gotten that out of the way, allow me to explain my disdain for this film. It all begins with… well… the opening scene. In the opening scene we see our protagonist, János, organizing some sort of weird performance art piece about the cosmos using drunk old men at a bar. It goes on forever, and it’s weird, and I thought it was fine as an opening to set the mood. I slightly dreaded the prospect of that esoteric nonsense setting the standard for the rest of the film, but I didn’t really expect that to be the case. Unfortunately, my first instincts were completely correct. What followed was just another over-two hours of esoteric nonsense.

Nonsense. Garbage. Meaningless crap. It sounds harsh, but these words are not nearly enough to describe my feelings of fury and annoyance toward Werckmeister Harmonies. The story—so much as there is a story—follows János as he does odd jobs for people all over town. At some point a man shows up in the town square with a huge trailer. Inside it is a whale. There’s also somebody involved with the whale known as the Prince. Over the course of the film, people seem to be gathering around the trailer, waiting for word from the Prince. The Prince turns out to be somebody from another country (Russia or Slovakia, I think), and he is there to get the people in the square to riot and start a massacre in the town.

I would like to make something clear right now: I have no idea why anything in the film happens. Not a clue. I can only imagine that there is some sort of thematic, allegorical, or even historical meaning to the events of the film, but I don’t know what any of that might be. To my eyes, there is no meaning. None. It’s just long boring scene after long boring scene not really adding up to anything, and even in the third act, with all the rioting taking place, it all feels pointless. Just a bunch of pretty pictures that add up to absolutely nothing more than a waste of time.

Oh, and those technically amazing long takes? Yeah, those are absolutely the worst thing about the film. I love slow films. I also love long takes. I love the super long take of Naomi Watts crawling along the floor for several minutes in Funny Games, but that shot is long and slow for a reason. It’s there to let the enormity and horror of the preceding events stew in the audience just as it’s stewing within Naomi Watts’ character. I’d like to say that there is a point to be had in watching a trailer drive up to the camera in the dark for three minutes, but I just can’t. And the whole damn film is like that! Long take after long take, completely without reason, going on and on past the point of tedium and right into awful irritation. I’m calling bullshit.

Werckmeister Harmonies is a terrible film. It’s one of the worst films I’ve ever had to endure. At least Transformers 2 had things blowing up to keep my attention. Werckmeister Harmonies has absolutely nothing. There is one long take involving a massive group of men, marching through the streets with weapons in hand, looking to riot. The shot is masterful. It goes on forever. I suppose at that point I was supposed to feel something resembling tension, but I just didn’t care. And by about the fourth minute of watching the same take of men walking all I could think about was how impressive it was that Tarr managed to get the budget for that many extras. An independent film this weird does not normally have that much money to work with. This was later followed by scenes with trashed buildings, a working tank and a flying helicopter. My only thought? “Congratulations, Mr. Tarr. You beat the system. You beat me. I hope you’re happy.”

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14 responses to “Can’t Stop Marathon” Review #6: Werckmeister Harmonies (2000, Tarr)

  1. 

    I think there’s a very clear meaning of the idea of order and disorder in the universe. From the opening scene, there’s the idea that these celestial bodies are all part of a natural flow that unifies the universe. Meanwhile, the musician János takes care of spends all his time groveling in the minutia and sees all of music as completely meaningless, built off of false assumptions, simply noise and chaos.

    I think it’s a rich film experience and one I’d gladly take on again.

  2. 

    Considering that Bela Tarr is widely considered to be one of the greatest living filmmakers, and his fans regard Werckmeister Harmonies as one of his best movies, the lack of intellectual curiosity in this review is astonishing. Opinions are subjective, but this review gives the impression of someone who didn’t understand the film, and instead of trying to understand it (by reading reviews and analysis, discussing it with other people), just lashed out. To dismiss a movie like this as “one of the worst movies you’ve ever seen” sounds more like you were too busy trying to be provocative than actually challenging yourself to grapple with a difficult film.

    “I’d like to say that there is a point to be had in watching a trailer drive up to the camera in the dark for three minutes, but I just can’t. And the whole damn film is like that! Long take after long take, completely without reason, going on and on past the point of tedium and right into awful irritation. I’m calling bullshit.” Instead of “calling bullshit,” why not do some research to find out some of Tarr’s reasons? Or look up reviews that explain why these scenes resonated with others? Of course you’re allowed to disagree with these opinions, but you seem to act as if such opinions cannot possibly exist.

    A good film writing expresses curiosity and open-mindedness. To be this flippant about such an ambitious and complicated work of art (going so far as to negatively compare it to Transformers – TRANSFORMERS) is willfully ignorant.

    • 

      I am all for finding outside context to enhance my appreciation of a film, or even to make me see a film in a new light. In the case of this review I did not look at anything. I knew absolutely nothing about the film going in, and my review is reflective of my experience watching it.

      Is there anything to be learned by looking at other points of view on the film? Of course. I would never be so pretentious as to think my opinion is the only valid one or even the most enlightened one.

      But I also need to ask you, what real good would research do? If the only way to appreciate a film is to learn the intents of the filmmaker then I’m better off calling up the filmmaker and asking him to tell me what he wanted to say. The actual intentions of the filmmaker should not be my concern. What I’m interested in is what is conveyed by the movie through its images, music, sounds and dialogue. I saw nothing in Werckmeister Harmonies that illuminated any ideas or thoughts or themes. It was a lot of long, boring shots that did not speak to me in any way whatsoever.

      If you got value out of the film, then I am happy for you, and on some levels I wish I could have experienced what you did with it. Unfortunately, I did not, and that has nothing to do with a lack of intellectual curiosity. I did not enjoy the film, and I think the construction of the film is terrible. This is how I feel about it. That’s all.

  3. 

    Read the book it is based on, if you felt this was too vague. http://www.amazon.com/The-Melancholy-Resistance-Laszlo-Krasznahorkai/dp/0811215040/ref=pd_sim_b_4

    I loved both the book and the film immensely, though I am glad I read the book first; the film seems more vague without the detailed narration, instead it just focuses on the atmosphere and feelings present in the novel.

  4. 

    Um…this is a joke, right?

    So, you hate the film because it’s paced more slowly than you’re used to, because it lacks explosions, and because it’s filled with “esoteric nonsense”? You betray your own ignorance, my friend. Perhaps the fact that you “have no idea why anything in the film happens” has less to do with any shortcomings of Tarr’s and more to do with your inability to dissect a film of this complexity.

    Moreover, it’s important to realize that Béla Tarr’s style is more concerned with atmosphere than narrative. This is apparent in all of his films, especially the 7-hour epic Sátántangó. The specific atmosphere that Tarr evokes — and the way in which he does so — distinguishes his work from the well-worn Hollywood conventions that have obviously shaped your perspective of film. For those of us who’ve become exhausted with Hollywood drudgery, a film like Werckmeister is actually quite refreshing — even revolutionary.

    You’re entitled to your opinion, of course, but there’s a chasmic difference between “I hated this film” and “It’s one of the worst films I’ve had to endure.” If you find avant-garde film so reprehensible and meaningless, I’d recommend sticking to American cinema, which you seem to hold in such high esteem. Though, you for your sake, I truly hope you open your mind a little.

    • 

      You assume that my total lack of engagement in Werckmeister Harmonies has something to do with a general closed-mindedness toward slow or avant-garde films, but I am totally open. I think Werckmeister, specifically, is a bad film. I think that the style of the film, though technically gorgeous, is completely alienating and obscures any potential complexity. It’s an exercise in atmosphere, but I got bored of the atmosphere in less time than it took for the first shot to end. The film offered me nothing and I got nothing out of it other than an appreciation for the technical craft involved.

      Compare this to, say, Jeanne Dielman, a longer and slower film, but one that doesn’t bury its story in buckets of alienating style. Instead, it creates an attachment to a character who I could then follow through this sad, disturbing journey of boring chores. The film ends up speaking something more than just atmosphere. It tells me a story, gets me emotionally involved, makes me think about people and society and relationships. Werckmeister Harmonies, at least in my case, spoke to nothing and involved me in nothing either intellectually, emotionally or even viscerally. And trust me, it’s not hard to get me viscerally thrilled by a movie (it’s why I still love a good Hollywood action movie.)

      If all Bela Tarr was going for was to have me succumb to atmosphere, well, unfortunately that atmosphere was both not to my liking and not very compelling. I didn’t feel disturbed by it, or scared by it, or moved by it. I just felt nothing. Michael Haneke did it all much better in the masterpiece-level The White Ribbon.

      And beyond that, attack me all you want for closed-mindedness, but I watched the movie and didn’t like it, just like I can watch any movie and not like it. I have no prejudices. There are plenty of great American films and loads of garbage, too. Also, do you paint all American cinema with the same brush? Are you taking a hatchet to films like Sunset Blvd and The Godfather and Taxi Driver (another film very much about atmosphere.) Or maybe you’re just talking about Transformers and Battleship. Or are you throwing in good fun like Raiders and Die Hard as well? Or maybe you’re just burning down the whole building, including films like Killer of Sheep, Days of Heaven, Inland Empire, Dog Star Man and Koyaanisqatsi. You know, because they’re American so they don’t have much value except for morons and simpletons.

      In all honesty, though, I’ve re-read this review and I agree that I was hyperbolic. Oh sure, I hated the film, but I certainly accept nuances, and it’s very possible that I just missed the things others have seen. Maybe I need to watch it again. Yet, reading over the review I remember the feelings I had while watching the film and this review is a perfect reflection of those feelings. I can tell you, though, that even if I do watch the film again, it will be some time, and I’ll definitely try to watch some other Tarr beforehand to see if I can get my head in a better space to appreciate his films. It might work, it might not, but for now my opinion on Werckmeister Harmonies stands.

    • 

      You write so hoenstly about this. Thanks for sharing!

  5. 

    Oh Corey, you were so young and beautiful. You still are. I am saying this from a place of love.

    I agree – and I might be projecting – that Bela Tarr is film snob catnip and people who love him need to calm the fuck down. But at the same time it makes me more guarded in my opinions in a way that I would say ‘Its slow pace might not be for everyone.’ Like I submitted myself to the possibility that I would need a venti before watching a venti, blaming my dislike for a movie for my generation and provenance’s lack of attention instead of attributing that to the flawed methods of foreign art cinema instead.

    And yes, having to know the symbolic meanings within foreign art cinema is ghettoizing. Some film professor has probably written about how this movie is about fascism the same say that some tired graduate student will probably write a dissertation on how 21 Jump Street is a metaphor for retrograde conservatism. But the best movies, Hollywood or foreign, are about the characters as individuals as opposed to having a heavy sociological context attached to them. And this movie does fall on that trap.

    Werckmeister is just about a guy who gets punished for being and doing something good. I feel like we have to take away the movie’s contrivances to see those bare bones but only a fictionalized society like that can turn a man insanely numb and they have to be portrayed and in that way. I liked Turin Horse (and you might too) because it’s simpler – a reductive term – but I can’t remember anything that happens in that movie while I have a better memory of the multiple characters here and how Lars Ulrich`s character meets and tries to negotiate with them.

    I have the same ambivalence towards Tarr as I do with the man who influenced him, Andrei Tarkovsky, and the other auteurs that the latter has influenced. I’m wondering what you think of his movies. I’m also wondering what you might think of Russian Ark. I like that movie better too but you know how much I love colour cinematography and white women in Gilded Age gowns and shit.

    Also, do not besmirch The Room. That movie passes the Bechdel Test and is awesome.

    Hopefully any or all of that made sense.

  6. 

    Corey, I love that you use Jeanne Dielman as a point of comparison. I love Bela Tarr. I’ve seen Werckmeister Harmonies front to back 4 times and many scenes/sequences on their own numerous times. Sátántangó is one of the great viewing experiences I had this year. Yet I still cannot bring myself to watch Jeanne Dielman because I have this image in my head of a woman peeling potatoes for 3 hours.
    And it’s not even an interesting shot.
    And that’s the point.

    There’s a shot early in Sátántangó of 2 guys walking down a windy street as garbage endlessly blows around them. It’s amazing. I’ve watched that shot a couple of dozen times. Show it to others and say “this is Béla Tarr.” The shot is about 2-minutes and I wish it was 3 times as long. (I wish there was behind the scenes footage of how he did it, including the clean up between takes.) The atmosphere gives me stuff to think about during “Tarr time”. With Jeanne Dielman I see my mind drifting away and then drifting to sleep.

    • 

      It’s a bit of a bad comparison, actually. A better comparison for Werckmeister might actually be something like Drive. Now there’s a film that’s really all about atmosphere, and the atmosphere informs everything. It informs whatever character there is, and whatever themes the film is exploring, but ultimately what draws me in are those long, slow, atmospheric sequences. It’s beautiful. But it also doesn’t overstay its welcome. Are there shots in there that I wish would last longer? Of course. I could probably watch the shots of Gosling driving is car with coloured lights flashing on his face for hours. But the comparison highlights the fundamental differences and the opposing approaches. Where Drive gives you these beautiful atmospheric shots and holds them longer than normal, it still cuts away before those shots have a chance to really become boring. Tarr doesn’t do that at all. He just lets the shots go on and on with no care for whether the audience is actually drawn in. If they are, great. If not, screw them. Are there some shots in Werckmeister Harmonies that I could have watched endlessly? It’s possible, but that doesn’t mean I should be given what I want, and it doesn’t mean that every shot should be built to assume the same loving reaction.

      Jeanne Dielman is a different beast. The shots aren’t interesting. In fact, they’re deliberately boring. The atmosphere reflects the boring nature of her life. The film draws me in, not through atmosphere, but through action. Recognizing the subtle actions in character, and then witnessing the shifts in action over the course of the film. It basically begs you to pay attention to every detail because every tiny detail and action is a reflection of this character. Werckmeister is going for something very different. Though I hear that if you want to watch long takes of people peeling potatoes, Tarr has you covered in The Turin Horse.

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Trackbacks and Pingbacks:

  1. Doomed to the Middlebrow, or Why I Watch Films « justAtad - November 1, 2011

    [...] the boundaries of my comfort. I don’t always enjoy those experiments in branching out, my response to Werckmeister Harmonies being a good example of that. But for every Werckmeister Harmonies there is a Close-Up or a Last [...]

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