Pick up the ordinary film that chronicles the rise of fascism prior to the second world war and you know what to expect – a nation penalized for the first war, a corporal in resentment, his becoming a key figure, formation of ideology, those mesmerizing speeches, rise to power and finally, the ruthless extermination of humans. Well, you know the routine. Rare is the case that such a film is historically inaccurate or morally flawed, but what is troubling is that a single person is made the focal point of such monumental passages of history – as if satisfying our need for a villain as we do for a hero. Not that I am in defense of any such individual, but how on earth can a single person independently cause the galvanization of a whole nation? However convincing his words and however significant his moves are, it is finally the mass and the intentions that run through it that make it possible. From what can be seen as an adversarial position, Béla Tarr’s Werckmeister Harmonies (2000) chillingly exposes the other side of the loudspeaker – a film that is to the ordinary documentary what Goodfellas (1990) is to The Godfather (1972).
Like most films by Tarr and similar directors, Werckmeister Harmonies does not rely heavily on its plot. Based on a book, The Melancholy of Resistance by László Krasznahorkai, Werckmeister Harmonies plays out in an unnamed town in an unnamed country in an unspecified year (though images indicate a year in the eighties). The whole town seems to be in a state of total fear and insecurity after the arrival of a certain circus whose performers include a dead white whale and a man called The Prince. Unrest ensues as the town mailman János Valuska (Lars Rudolph) witnesses the place fall apart, unable to do anything about it. János is the epitome of curiosity and learning about nature and creation for him seems to bring abundant joy. He often attends to György Eszter (Peter Fitz), a music theorist whose interest lies in exposing mistakes of the past. At this terrible time, Tünde Eszter (Hanna Schygulla) – the Satan figure of the story – tells Valuska that she would restore “order and cleanliness” within the town if only he gets her ex-husband, the theorist, to gather a few important signatures. But “order” too, seems to be a subjective term.
Werckmeister Harmonies does form an interesting companion to Tarr’s magnum opus Sátántangó (1994) in some ways. While Sátántangó is about the disintegration of a collective will due to fear, passivity and plain ignorance, Werckmeister Harmonies is about the formation of one because of the same factors. The characters, too, seem to repeat themselves across the films. The working class in Werckmeister Harmonies (the foreign workers) succumbs supposedly to the speeches of The Prince owing to its ignorance and social condition whereas, in Sátántangó, the same group (farmers) buckles under the conflict between personal and collective will and, simply, the inability to adhere to an objective. The inebriate doctor – the only sign of intelligence in Sátántangó – is not much different from the music theorist here. Tarr teases us with questions about the role of intellectuals in revolution in both films. Both the doctor and the music theorist, perhaps disillusioned by the state of the affairs, force themselves to become apolitical and into a personal shell out of which they come out only in order to maintain it so (The doctor leaves the house to get his quota of booze whereas the theorist, to avoid the return of his wife to his house). And the only “sane” person – Futaki in Sátántangó and János here- who sees the misfortune coming is completely helpless and battered about by the mindless workers and the spineless intelligentsia.
The element that seems to be a new addition in Werckmeister harmonies is the tangible presence of a middle class. Leftist filmmakers have maintained that the prime reason for the rise of fascism is the complacent nature of the bourgeoisie and the political and social passivity that it seems glad to wallow in. Here too, the bourgeois seems unwilling to give up that position. They are never seen outdoors in the film, they are contented with having sex and delivering monologues about the state of the world. Neither are they desperate and active enough to be The Prince’s followers nor do they seem capable of pursuing higher interests. The doctor notes about the farmers in Sátántangó: “They haven’t a clue that it is this idle passivity that leaves them at the mercy of what they fear most”. But here, it seems like it is the middle class that is too short-sighted to see the doom heading towards them and hence too happy maintain status quo.
In the film, The Prince apparently quotes that people who are afraid do not understand. Tarr too seems to be concerned with the notion of fear, ignorance and violence being stimulants of fascism and presents them as the three sides of a triangle with each one perpetuating the others. Being the Wong Kar Wai of monochrome, Tarr employs black and white colours extensively and in an expressionistic fashion to juggle with the ideas of ignorance and knowledge, fear and courage and war and peace. János’ shuttling between his desire to learn and the inertia imposed upon him by the townsfolk culminates in his witnessing of the inevitable streak of violence. In what may be one of the most effective and chilling depiction of violence in cinema, we see the rabid folks enter a hospital and put down its inhabitants. There is complete detachment by the camera which continues to track away as ever to leave a lump in your throat. It’s a sequence that is so stunningly choreographed that it almost deserves to be called beautiful despite its nature.
In his superb article on the ontological entities of the filmic medium, Mani Kaul reflects upon the Deleuzian theory of time and movement in cinema. Watching Tarr’s later films, now, seems like a practical demonstration of the theory. It is a unanimous opinion that it is Tarr’s shot composition – seemingly endless, rich in detail and “atmospheric” – that captures the attention of the viewer first. Where other films subordinate time to the action and space under consideration, Tarr’s sequences have time as the primary axis on which movements are choreographed. Instead of questions like ‘What will he do next?’, we are forced to ask questions like ‘When will this motion end?’. What this does in essence is to make each second of the sequence precious and the audience conscious of the same. And why this seems to work exceedingly well in films like Werckmeister Harmonies is because it provides that sense of impending doom – of the inevitability of a massacre – throughout the film.
Tarr presents us an utterly bleak world where death seems to be the only destination for all its inhabitants. He creates a colourless land that is flat, barren and infinite – an isolated world where almost no two social classes are seen in the same frame, except János himself who seems to percolate everywhere. In my favorite of the 39 shots in the film, János and the theorist walk without speaking a single word for a long time. Tarr, unusually, frames them both, in profile, in the same frame such that they seem stationery with the world moving behind them – choking them into the frame and sealing the fate of their journey. The world in Werckmeister Harmonies is devoid of any notions of Faith and Karma. It’s a Godless universe like Tarr’s own (as the director has claimed in interviews). But perhaps there is God here, but not one that goes by the conventions. Towards the end, when János tries to flee the town, an enigmatic black helicopter – a possible nod, along with the army tank in the town, to the Spider God of Through a Glass Darkly (1961) and Silence (1963) respectively – forces him to return back. It’s worse than God’s indifference, it is Satan’s Tango. It is in this instability where people like The Prince – a distorted version of the circus director, whose troupe is the whole town – take advantage, create a symphony of destruction and well, play God.
But that is the exact kind of narrative that seems to suit our “ordinary documentary”. The Prince can easily be called the root cause of the entire disturbance, but that would only be too easy. We actually never know if The Prince (or the whale) is responsible for it at all. The whale is dead and hence a mute observer and The Prince, who speaks in a foreign language and whose words we obtain only secondhand, isn’t even seen in the film. In what may be a “whale” of a Macguffin, Tarr tempts us to pin the blame on the two foreign entities. But it eventually becomes evident that it is the people themselves – the workers and Tünde Eszter – who are the fascists, taking the mute and the invisible “guests” as pretext for violence. Violence that exterminates the apathetic bourgeois, persuades the hermetic clerisy out of its shell and makes the working class the pawns of a power game. One may remember Tarr’s sarcastic take on “Let there be Light” in Sátántangó, where the doctor seals off every possible entry of light into his hut (and where this film seems to take off from, in a way). At the end of Werckmeister Harmonies, the only survivor in this war, Tünde Eszter, who is the most patient and diabolically thoughtful of all the characters in the film, goes on to rule. I can see Mr. Tarr chuckling as he quotes “Blessed are the meek for they shall inherit the earth”!