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.”