This was not the first time that I have watched a film by Béla Tarr. Last year I tried out is 2011 film The Turin Horse which was, without mincing words, a bit of a chore to watch. I mean… how often can you watch an impoverished old man peel a boiled potato with his hands.
It is because of this previous exposure that I figured two things. Firstly, I wanted this to be watched sooner rather than later so I would have films less glacially paced to watch. Secondly, this was a rare night on my own and I knew this was a film that my partner would have absolutely no interest in watching because of the aforementioned pacing.
To start looking at Werckmeister Harmonies I do need to look back at The Turin Horse and remark how much more watch-able this film was. Yes, the pacing in Werckmeister Harmonies is slow. Yes, it also features the small number of long takes. However, what ties this film together is a story thread far more engaging than The Turin Horse and one that is able to tie things together far more effectively.
The story takes place in a Hungarian town in the wake of the Second World War. The people are impoverished and aggravated about the status quo where a small number of the higher ups are living comparatively well. The central character in all this is János (played by a man who resembles a regular sized Peter Dinklage) with nearly every shot in the film featuring his role in the town’s upset.
The spark that ignites the townsfolk into rioting is the arrival of a travelling circus. Carried with them is the stuffed remains of a large whale and the Prince, a disfigured man that we never see. Through the speeches of ‘The Prince’ the riot spreads through the town with looting, arson and (as revealed through a found diary) the bloody rape of two innocent girls.
One thing that the slow pacing of the film serves well is the ultimate climax of the rioting as they storm a hospital. The reason behind this is pure visceral anger. They had already burned and looted their way through the town and the hospital appeared to just be in their way. Not content with the smashing of medical instruments the rioters also beat and murder the patients that they come across. People so weak that you don’t even hear them cry or see them fight back with any meaningful resistance. The symbolic end to their riot just works to show how pathetic and powerless the rioters are… causing the eventual end to the riots.
Werckmeister Harmonies is far from an easy watch due to both the subject matter and the languid pacing of a film which would be quickly paced under the hands of an editor. Then again, a lot would have been lost if things were edited together with the ultimate climactic siege of the hospital being less affecting.