Released in 2000, Hungarian film maker Béla Tarr’s Werckmeister Harmonies is a singular film that asks a lot more questions than it answers. A challenging and visionary experiment, the film chronicles the arrival of a circus featuring a stuffed whale and a mysterious Prince in a small rural community somewhere in Hungary. In addition to its compelling visual style, Werckmeister Harmonies also features a sparse yet unforgettable soundtrack by Hungarian guitarist and composer Mihály Víg.
Like many of Béla Tarr’s films, Werckmeister Harmonies features non-professional actors, a stunning monochrome cinematography and a unique rhythm – there are only 39 shots in the entire 145mn movie, many of them over 10mn long.
Several takes follow local paper carrier János Valuska (Lars Rudolph) walking from one location of the village to another while the long opening scene sees the same János choreograph the cosmic ballet of the Earth and the moon around the sun with the drunken patrons of the town café just before closing time.
Underpinned by a constant political tension, the film explores the fine line between order/harmony and chaos/dissonance. Pitched against a musical metaphor, the title of the film refers to Andreas Werckmeister, the 17th century music theorist who suggested the “equal temperament” of the twelve-tone scale as a compromise way of tuning modern instruments. According to idealists like János’ uncle György Eszter, this novel approach is “a dreadful scandal”.
Hence the shameful situation that all the intervals in the masterpieces of many centuries are false. Which means that music and its harmony and echo, its unsurpassable enchantment is entirely based on a false foundation […] We have to turn our backs on this development of tuning instruments, the so-called constant-tempered, and its sad history and bring back the naturally tuned instrument. Carefully, we have to correct Werckmeister’s mistakes. We have to concern ourselves with these seven notes of the scale, but not as of the octave, but seven distinct and independent qualities like seven fraternal stars in the heavens. György Eszter
But what makes Werckmeister Harmonies a fascinating watch is the use of music. Apart from a couple of classical music pieces (from J.S. Bach and J. Strauss) played on a tape or record, the soundtrack only consists of two superb mellifluous themes featuring piano, violin, cello and percussion. The “Valuska” theme first comes up at the end of the “cosmic ballet” scene and is repeated when János sees the whale for the first time.
The other theme “Öreg” (old) features at the end of the riot scene in the hospital and plays again during the final scene and end credits. The minimal use of music and the fact that the songs are used at key moments of the narrative seem to amplify its overall impact.
The two tracks were released in 2009 on Filmzenék Tarr Béla Filmjeihez, a compilation of all soundtracks composed by Mihály Víg for the films of Béla Tarr between 1985 and 2000.
The musician has long been associated with Béla Tarr, having not only acted in a previous feature Sátántangó (1994) but also composed the music for the latter, for Almanac of Fall (1985), Damnation (1987) and for two subsequent films The Man From London (2007) and The Turin Horse (2011).
Widely praised in the years following its release, the film has also had a huge cultural impact and has sparked several distinct projects to date.
Formed in 2007 in Chicago by sound artist and composer JR Robinson, Wrekmeister Harmonies is an experimental music collective drawing on elements of drone music and post-rock and whose name is directly inspired by the eponymous film. Akin to the slow-paced rhythm of the Hungarian cinematographer’s films, Wrekmeister Harmonies’ compositions typically consist of long album-length tracks.
Released in 2007, Andrew Dominik’s western drama The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford is perhaps another film that is indebted to Béla Tarr’s work. If not for the contemplative pace of the 2h 40mn drama, there are definite echoes of Mihály Víg’s music in Nick Cave and Warren Ellis’s soundtrack for the film – an all instrumental piano-led haunting and hypnotic score arranged for cello and strings.
Illustrated by a magnificent black and white photography, a recurring visual theme throughout Werckmeister Harmonies is the constant shift between light and darkness. Icelandic modern classical composer Ólafur Arnalds quotes the film as a life-changing experience. The opening scene of the inebriated patrons recreating a solar eclipse in particular became a catalyst for his album …and they have escaped the weight of darkness (2010) whose title is a quote from that scene.
For across the sun’s glowing sphere, slowly, the Moon swims away. And the sun once again bursts forth, and to the Earth slowly there comes again light, and warmth again floods the Earth. Deep emotion pierces everyone. They have escaped the weight of darkness. János Valuska