Hungarian director Béla Tarr's latest film, Werckmeister Harmonies, is a beautiful, existential disaster, complete with allegory, symbolic lighting, and an innocent, likeable protagonist who we just know must be doomed. It is filled with lines such as, "the mysterious, unknown plagues are here." Werckmeister is frustrating, pretentious, mystical, and human; I loved the film for the exact reasons that I despised it.
Based on Làszló Krasznahorkai's novel, The Melancholy of Resistance, Werckmeister is set in a small village in Hungary, and stars sweet Jànos (Lars Rudolph), who delivers newspapers and takes care of an aging musical theorist. Jànos notices flyers advertising a circus coming to town, featuring two exciting attractions: a great whale and a prince. Jànos is immensely curious about the whale, but the people in the town fear that the circus will only bring death and destruction. A group of ominous-looking men hang around the town square, and the townspeople start hearing stories of shop windows being broken and people being murdered. They fear chaos, but the viewer never sees the source of their fear; everything they're afraid of is based on hearsay and the assumption of evil's imminence. The film's plot peels apart in philosophical layers, referencing everything from Plato to Sartre to Stalin, all the while whispering its message in grainy black and white and vast, carefully lit shots.
Werckmeister is a film about the common person, made by and for the intelligentsia. But Tarr is gentle with its characters, and the subtitles are translated poetically. Of course, it wouldn't be nearly as beautiful a film if it was in any other language--Hungarian sounds like mathematical music, a series of uncrackable, graceful clicks and rolls. Half the time, it doesn't even look like words are coming out of the characters' mouths; but, as with much of the movie, we are unsure whether what we're thinking is aligned with the reality of what we see.
Werckmeister is over two hours long, but Tarr's 1994 film, Sàtàntangó, clocked in at just over seven hours. That Béla Tarr would subject an audience to such excess for the sake of art shows that he possesses a singular audacity--perhaps a side product of living in Hungary, which spent many years under censorous, pseudo-communist rule. But we are forced to pay attention to Tarr because, though his direction is indulgent, it is also uniquely compelling.