Academic journal article CineAction

The Invisible Catastrophe: Lingering Movement and Duration in Werckmeister Harmonies

Academic journal article CineAction

The Invisible Catastrophe: Lingering Movement and Duration in Werckmeister Harmonies

Article excerpt

Examining contemporary art house cinema, critics have recognized a wave of films that react against the dominant conventions and norms of mainstream culture. Most famously termed as 'Slow Cinema' by Jonathan Romney, these films emerged in diverse national cinemas and attracted many viewers with the rise of film festival networks, funding schemes, and digital technologies affecting alternative production and distribution strategies. (1) Commonly featuring daily lives represented through long takes and the elision of dramatic events in favour of simple action and atmosphere, these projects offer, above all, an expanded experience of duration on screen and a contemplative engagement with the profilmic space. One of the leading filmmakers of this wave is the Hungarian director Bela Tarr, whose seven-hour long epic Satantango (1994) was long praised by intellectuals such as Susan Sontag and Jonathan Rosenbaum. (2) However, Werckmeister Harmonies (2000) marked an international breakout for Tarr, following its long tour of well-respected film festivals including Toronto, Berlin and New York. The film became a blueprint for Slow Cinema and was retrospectively selected as one of the thirty defining films of the 21st century cinema by Sight and Sound, which has since placed Tarr and Slow Cinema into the centre of scholarly attention. (3)

The highlight of Werckmeister Harmonies is its measured and laconic approach to its narrative subject. As paradoxical as it may sound, the film depicts a catastrophe by not showing its exhaustive action. What is special about Werckmeister Harmonies is that its apocalyptic mood is not conveyed through familiar images of a devastating catastrophe sweeping through the ruins of a modern metropolitan city. Instead, Tarr portrays an enigmatic setting that represents humanity's metaphysical dead-end. Filmed in various towns located throughout the iconic Hungarian Plains, Werckmeister Harmonies epitomizes Tarr's disbelief in human nature and uses filmic space, time and movement not as subordinate elements to the narrative, but on the contrary, as the means to convey and shape it. Tarr breaks away from the conventional use of the long take and elaborates on duration and camera- work in a manner that is reminiscent of the modernist film- making that manifested itself during the 1960s. Governed by this modernist tendency, the film achieves a new form of engagement by avoiding the traditional commitments to narrative clarity, cause-effect linkage and characterization. The suppression of the narrative in favour of style leads to a dynamic, triangular relationship between the camera, the protagonist and the spectator, which provides the basis of our unique and contemplative engagement with the film's catastrophic atmosphere.

Werckmeister Harmonies is the outcome of the ongoing collaboration between Bela Tarr and writer Laszlo Krasznahorkai and is adapted from the central chapter of the latter's novel, Melancholy of Resistance.4 The story involves a town descending into madness, witnessed by the local newspaperman Janos/Lars Rudolph. In addition to his tedious job, Janos takes care of the eccentric Mr Eszter/Peter Fitz, an intellectual obsessed with Andreas Werckmeister and his music theory.5 While attending to his routine duties, |anos becomes aware of a certain rumour regarding a circus arriving to the town, which will supposedly exhibit a giant carcass of a whale and include a freak show starring 'The Prince', a mysterious and grim figure. The townspeople become agitated with the ill-conceived circus and gather around the town square to voice their protest and anger. While this unexplained rage goes slowly out of control, Aunt Tunde/Hanna Schygulla visits Janos to reveal her intentions of taking advantage of this situation. Following a revolt where the angry mob storms the local hospital, Tunde sets up a sort of military dictatorship with the aid of a high-ranking military officer. Janos attempts an escape to no avail and finds himself in an asylum-like hospital, where Mr Eszter tells him how the new order is working. …

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