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Art is timeless. Art is a two-way communion between the artist and the viewer. Art is open to discussion and mystery. Art is somehow greater than the work itself. Few movies deserve to be called art. Werckmeister Harmonies is art.

Night of the Whale

The mysteries of creation can be seen or ignored
The mysteries of creation can be seen or ignored

The film comes from Hungary in 2000. Superficially, it tells of a small town disrupted by a traveling exhibit, featuring a whale and “The Prince.”

János (Lars Rudolph), our protagonist, delivers papers and looks after an old man he calls “uncle” (a term he calls every male elder he meets). He visits the whale and is amazed by the diversity of God’s creation, but the townspeople are ominously hanging around the exhibit, not going in, just mutely observing, apparently afraid of change and knowledge.

The Prince, whose shadow is seen only once, claims to have the power to disrupt society. And indeed, the small town witnesses a night of destruction, brought about by the eerily speechless mob of locals, although it’s hard to believe a minor character, barely glimpsed is the real power behind the destruction.

But the plot, so often king at the movies, is here just another component of the film, co-equal to style, photography, pacing, structure, casting, and metaphor.

Minimalism

One of the key components to Werckmeister Harmonies is its minimalist style. Minimalism is not just a description, it is a movement in art. In painting, the monochromes are good representatives. In music, look to Philip Glass or Steve Reich. In film, there isn’t much in the main stream that might be called minimalism. You’d probably have to look to the avant-garde film artists (maybe Warhol’s Sleep?)

The idea behind minimalism is to force a certain self-awareness on the viewer. Minimalism deliberately makes it hard, if not impossible, for you to simply get lost in the subject matter. The effect can be funny, hypnotic, enlightening, or simply boring.

Director Bela Tarr is known as a minimalist filmmaker. (In fact, when Gus Van Sant’s minimalist film Gerry was making the rounds, there was a joke that it would be called Dude, Where’s my Tarr?) In Werckmeister, this comes through in Tarr’s very long takes — sometimes a scene will run for ten minutes without an edit. Dialogue is very sparse, and there are often long stretches were nobody says a word. The black-and-white photography is rich, while still presenting the bleakness of the small Eastern European town.

The effect of minimalism on Werckmeister Harmonies is to make the film somber and reverent. The music (also minimalist) greatly helps set this mood. The film’s main theme is a simple piano line, joined occasionally by fiddle and cello. The haunting, pretty music invokes a feeling of nostalgia and sadness.

Nutrition Information

With such a simple plot and minimalist style, the primary source of nutrition for Werckmeister comes from the little pieces offered in the film and from one’s own fleshing out of those sketched ideas.

I don’t think any two viewers of Werckmeister would be likely agree on the film’s meaning. Nevertheless, here is some of what I got from the film, based on two viewings.

Tree of Knowledge

First, the title. Andreas Werckmeister divided the octave into twelve half-step tones. In doing so, according to János’ uncle, he deprived the musical instruments of their divine tuning. In other words, Werckmeister is Adam or Prometheus, giving the gift of knowledge — once the realm of the divine — to man. János’ uncle is of the old school, saying that we were better off with God’s music.

This idea of the forbidden fruit of knowledge fits well with the oppressive small-town atmosphere that the young János grows up in. We sense the potential for János to go far, if only he weren’t trapped in his little life. He is the only townsperson to visit the whale. Sensing the rest of the town’s distrust, he calls the whale one of God’s greatest works, but all the town can muster is “It will bring trouble, János.”

Sure enough, the small town revolts, smashing the symbols of science in the town’s hospital, and making a wreck of the gleaming modern appliances in a local showroom. János’ own ending is a bit of a tragedy, slightly mitigated by the touch of his uncle, whom János may have reached after all.

Conclusion(s)

My own theories and observations so far fail to incorporate the whale, the prince, uncles and aunts, and the harmony of the spheres acted out by drunks in the opening scenes. I could probably see Werckmeister another dozen times before feeling like I had really seen the film. And other critics have undoubtedly seen different films and found their own interpretations of Tarr’s images.

I hesitate to give the movie highest rating because some might mistake those four stars for me “liking” the movie and recommending it to all audiences. On the contrary, I recognize the limited appeal of a slow-paced film that demands much of its audience. Nevertheless, Werckmeister Harmonies is as interesting a work of art as any of the best-made films, and so deserves our highest rating.

DVD Extras

There are no extra features on this Facets DVD release.

  • Henrik: Hi there,

    I like your reading of the movie. To complement, let me suggest how to incorporate the harmony of the spheres and the whale and then offer an alternative explanation how the Werckmeister scale fits into all this.

    Please also note that I am not a native speaker and that I have seen the movie for the first time last week. My thoughts are, therefore, based on memory and may not be sufficiently developed.

    The "harmony of the spheres" was discovered by Galilei. He "deprived" the planets of their divine tuning and explained it in scientific terms. Two important things must be noted here: Firstly, his bar mates are drunk and, hence, in a state of mental numbness. The other issue of significance is Janos's description of the solar eclipse. He paints an apocalyptic picture of men being bereft of their mental faculties and nature at the edge of collapse. Instead of looking for a rational explanation, people tend to act in an irrational manner instead, he says, they act foolishly and do not even consider the search for "truth." Thus, man's willingness to master his own fate by facing such a challenge instead of delving into some sort of mysticism seems quite volatile.

    This is exactly what happens when the whale is shown on the market place. Hungary is a country that might never have seen a whale given that the country is located in the center of the European continent. People are scared and behave most irrationally by exhibiting behavior that is reminiscent of medieval supersticion and blind and fascist following. No one, except Janos, even considers taking a closer look at the whale. Instead, they turn to the invisible leader who does not represent anything but an image that everyone can project onto whatever they wish.

    When Andreas Werckmeister developed the chromatic twelve-tone scale, replaced the divine tuning with a "scientific" one. Janos's uncle said that this represents an artificial system which is nothing bu t an illusion on which the achievements of western music are based. He fails to acknowledge, though, that those achievements are considerable. Instead, he ponders if it would be preferable to revert to the divine tunings instead even though they offer less potential for composition. As a musicologist (!) he fails to appreciate the higher level of organization that you can achieve with the Werckmeister scale (to develop Werckmeister harmonies, so to speak).

    The above paragraphs touch on the model character of science (explanation of the planetary movements, hitherto unknown earthly creatures the existence of which can nontheless be scientifically explained (even huge mammals who live in the sea), the twelve-halftone-scale) which does not represent truth but a method to obtain "knowledge" and, hence, the opportunity to make life more humane, livable, etc. Once man fails to realize this he puts at risk his achievements and retarding back into pre-enlightement times.

    I believe that my interpretation complements yours but so far I am unable to include the aunts and uncles as well. I would be happy to hear from you to discuss.

    Regards,

    Henrik September 3, 2006 reply
  • LMG: About "Werckmeister Harmonies:

    I speak Hungarian, and "Uncle" and "Aunt" are just terms of respect used by young Hungarians when addressing their elders. There is no great significance in Janos using these words.

    As for the movie itself, I thought it was a throwback to the bad old days of Antonioni. May 13, 2007 reply