Once again, I am bowing my head in shame, dear readers, but it has to be done. I just recently watched Bela Tarr's WERCKMEISTER HARMONIES for the first time. Days later, I am still reeling. I bow my head in shame at this confession, not simply because it took me so long to see the film, but because I was living in New York City in 2001 when MoMa unveiled their Tarr retrospective and I didn't see one film in the series, including the aforementioned masterpiece.
WERCKMEISTER HARMONIES is, objectively speaking, a towering work of art, a portrait of humanity so tender, so striking, so profound, that I had to watch it again the very next day in order to prove that I hadn't hallucinated it. As is the case with such works of genius (yes, I am using the "g"-word in its truest, most rarified sense), it was even more awe-inspiring the second time around. A glimpse of a society on the brink of collapse, a world on the edge of obliteration, Tarr's film is an unforgettable, miraculous achievement.
On paper, it sounds like a parody of a pretentious art film: black-and-white cinematography, impossibly long takes, seemingly nonsensical plot devices, overdubbed Hungarian dialogue, the list goes on. But in execution, it is anything but pretentious. It is more achingly real and honest than a documentary. It transcends its form and structure and style and somehow becomes Humanity Itself. Furthermore, it cements Tarr's status as one of cinema's all-time greatest visionaries.
In typical dork fashion, I scoured the internet for interviews with Tarr, only to find my hunches confirmed. For he is as seemingly unpretentious as a filmmaker can be. This quote is a perfect explanation as to why his film didn't seem pretentious:
"No, I just wanted to make a movie about this guy who is walking up and down the village and has seen this whale. And, you know when we are working we don't talk about any theoretical things. We only ever have practical problems. And it's the same with the writer. Mostly we just talk about life. How it's going on the street. We never talk about theoretical things. We never talk about Chaos or existential things. We just talk about someone coming into the room and he wants something and the other guy who is sitting there doesn't want these things. That's all."
For a film to work on those levels, or at least to be open to interpretation on those levels, I fiercely believe that a director needn't preoccupy himself with those concerns while shooting the film. That will only get in the way. One must simply answer to the truth as he feels it inside himself order to tell the most effective story possible. If that means a jerky handheld camera, then so be it. If that means a car chase through a busy downtown roadway, then fine. If that means a two-mile long dolly shot that lasts the entire length of a 400' roll of film, then that is what must be done.
I can't recommend WERCKMEISTER HARMONIES highly enough. It sounds melodramatic perhaps, but I honestly feel like I am a more sensitive, understanding person because of it. I suggest you track it down (Netflix, Facets, etc.) and experience it for yourself.
--On a side note, while my admiration for Gus Van Sant's GERRY, ELEPHANT, and LAST DAYS hasn't waned since I now understand just how indebted to Tarr he is, I do think it's somewhat ironic that Lars Rudolph, the lead actor in WERCKMEISTER HARMONIES, bears a more than passing resemblance to Mr. Van Sant. It's kind of hilarious, actually! See for yourself: