Monday, October 31, 2011

Werckmeister Harmonies

I was really glad to have a day off today - I got a lot done, and was able to get everything set so I can go pick up my car tonight. It was nice to actually get a movie finished before 10 p.m, too. I have to go in earlier on Saturday than I thought, but really, it was worth it.

Today's movie is strange and long, but I sort of liked it. I watched Werkmeister Harmonies, directed by Bela Tarr in 2000. I remember wanting to go to some film class on this movie when I first was at DePaul, but I was lazy. I then had the movie on my Netflix queue for the next five years. Glad I finally got to see it. It was really a weird movie, not like anything I've ever seen before. It's slow, moody, and felt like a nightmare. I could see that this could be really irritating to watch if you didn't get into it. It was odd - I felt like I didn't want to be watching it, but I really wanted to finish it and see what happened.

The film takes place in a small Hungarian town, where a weird circus has arrived. It's not really a circus so much as a strange truck with the body of a whale inside, and the Prince, who is rumored to have dark powers. People come from all over to observe the whale, and the whole order of the small town is disturbed. The main character we follow is Janos, a paper carrier who is well-liked in the the town.

The film is remarkable because it's done in only 39 shots, which is quite a feat for a film with a running time of about two and a half hours. All of them are long and lingering, as you can imagine, but many of them have a ton of movement. There is one shot where the camera follows a rioting crowd through a hospital, in and out of rooms and doors. I sort of shuddered imagining how long it probably took to get this shot right, to make sure everyone was coming and going on the right queues. Other shots are still, like when the truck containing the whale comes into town, first a tiny shadow, then growing as it drives closer. Is there a reason to look at a truck slowly driving toward a camera for like, ten minutes? Nah. But does it work well? Most certainly. It creates this really awesome sense of foreboding, of creeping doom.

I personally really liked the longer takes. They seemed to give a lot of meaning and purpose to everything that I saw. Like the scene with the truck - it was pretty commonplace, but the way it was filmed made it eerie. The whole movie is like this. The long takes create this great tone and atmosphere, and somehow make it feel more realistic, like the town really was driven mad by this weird circus. Something about more mundane, occasionally boring shots in a film always remind me of reality for some reason.

I just felt like the movie was full of intensity, despite the fact that it was long and slow. There was something about the camera movement, the characters, and the images I was seeing that just creeped me out a little bit and felt really purposeful and intense. The soundtrack was so perfect, and gave a lot of emotion and weirdness to calmer scenes. In intense scenes, like the raid on the hospital, no sound plays at all. It's very effective.  The world of the film is just like ours, but was still very other. It was a weird film, but easy for me to get lost in - I do like films that are slow and sort of image-driven like this one. It's incredibly beautiful and strange at the same time. I'm really glad I was able to see it. Worth checking out if you're a fan of long and slow, moody, visual movies.

Ebert's Great Movie Essay on Werckmeister Harmonies
Buy it on Amazon

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