Hungarian filmmaker Bela Tarr is known, if he is known at all, for Satantango, an astounding 7-1/2 hour long black-and-white movie composed of extremely long takes and meticulous camera choreography. It might be a movie best reserved for cinephiles with buttocks of steel or impatient masochists, but a movie’s greatness should never be judged by the viewer’s constitution, and since its 1994 inception, Satantango has stood as a singular achievement in cinema, until now.
Tarr’s follow-up, Werckmeister Harmonies, four years in the making, has been called Satantango-lite by some, which is not an inaccurate description. Harmonies certainly wouldn’t look too out of place as one of the segments in Satantango, though it has it’s own separate tone. Like all of Tarr’s recent films, the setting is rural and bleak. The film follows youthful, not-too-bright Janos (Lars Rudolph) around an impoverished Hungarian town wrought with strife between the townspeople and the authorities. A circus arrives bearing the spectacle of an enormous dead whale and a bizarre “Prince,” but it seems no one is interested except wide-eyed Janos. They are too busy struggling for political power.
Like Satantango, Harmonies is made up of extremely long takes usually in the form of tracking shots averaging about 4 minutes each (the entire 2-1/2 hour movie is made up of only 39 shots). That Tarr manages to technically sustain such shots is mind-boggling. Watching Tarr’s Damnation, Satantango, and Werckmesiter Harmonies is like watching an artistic still photograph come to life. But Tarr traverses all the spaces seen and unseen in the photo, drawing up yet more stunning pictures out of the nooks and crannies of the one being explored. One misstep by an actor or one poor focus pull could mean the failure of a 5-minute take.
Among the stunning set pieces here are the arrival of the circus in a single monstrous truck, Janos’ almost mystical experience observing the whale, an uprising of men making their way to a hospital and then storming it, and an escaping Janos being intercepted by a helicopter. In one sublime shot, Janos walks through a lit-area of the town at night; the camera pulls back farther and farther away from him into the darkness until he is a tiny figure in a small circle of light. It is stunning to look at and it acts as a metaphorical foreshadowing of Janos’ fate.
Given Tarr’s obsession with dreary and desolate imagery of his home country, many accuse him of wallowing in misery. Tarr’s eloquent camera movements and striking black and white photography themselves may seem to go against the grain of so much gritty, pessimistic subject matter, yet it should be clear to any one who watches his films that the artistry itself is what connotes hope.