Werckmeister Harmonies (2000)

“I have to make it clear that not even for a moment is there doubt that it is not a technical but a philosophical question. So that the tonal system in question, through researches, has led us inevitably to a test of faith, in which we ask: on what do we base our belief that this harmony, the core of every masterpiece, referring to its own irrevocability, actually exists or not. From this it follows that we should speak of, not research into music, but a unique realization of non-music which for centuries has been covered up and a dreadful scandal which we should disclose. Hence the shameful situation that all the intervals in the masterpieces of many centuries are false. Which means that music and its harmony and echo, its unsurpassable enchantment is entirely based on a false foundation. Yes, we have to speak of an indisputable deception, even if those who are less sure, a little moderate, babble on about compromise. But what kind of compromise, when for the majority pure musical tonality is simply illusion, and truly pure musical intervals do not exist? Here we have to acknowledge the fact that there were ages more fortunate than ours, those of Pythagoras and Aristoxenes, when our forefathers were satisfied with the fact that their purely tuned instruments were played only in some tones, because they were not troubled by doubts, for they knew that heavenly harmonies were the province of the gods. Later, all this was not enough, unhinged arrogance wished to take possession of all the harmonies of the gods. And it was done in its own way, technicians were charged with the solution, a Praetorius, a Salinas, and finally an Andreas Werckmeister, who resolved the difficulty by dividing the octave of the harmony of the gods, the twelve half-tones, into twelve equal parts. Of two semi-tones he falsified one, instead of ten black keys, five were used and that sealed the position. We have to turn our backs on this development of tuning instruments, the so-called constant-tempered, and its sad history and bring back the naturally tuned instrument. Carefully, we have to correct Werckmeister’s mistakes. We have to concern ourselves with these seven notes of the scale, but not as of the octave, but seven distinct and independent qualities like seven fraternal stars in the heavens. What we have to do then, if we are aware, is that this natural tuning has its limits and it is a somewhat worrisome limit that definitely excludes the use of certain higher signatures.”

‘Werckmeister Harmonies’, directed by Béla Tarr in 2000, is a Hungarian drama made by a director famous for his glacial, precise approach to filmmaking. János Valuska, played by Lars Rudolph, lives in a small town in Hungary during the Soviet occupation. One day, a circus comes to the town, accompanied by a giant, stuffed whale. This sinister presence sends waves of uneasiness through the inhabitants which leads to a riot and exposes some of the corruption of the occupation, including collaboration by Valuska’s own wife. It’s a slow, beautifully shot film, filled with mythic images that Tarr focuses on and, someone, makes all the more mythic in the way he films them. There’s a clean exactitude about the cinematography that is pleasing and keeps your attention despite the pacing and the lack of drama in the individual scenes. Weirdly, the introduction of the whale and the circus recalls Fellini, particularly the conclusions of ‘La Dolce Vita’ and ‘8 ½’ respectively, whilst the camera work and stylised choreography owe debts to  Miklós Jancsó, Tarr’s fellow countryman, and films such as ‘The Red and the White’ and ‘The Round-Up’. The look of the film, in stark monochrome, is entirely Tarr, however. It’s almost as if he has taken the mythology and iconography of Fellini and the methodology of Jancsó and twisted it to serve his own philosophy of film. This seems to be one of the more accessible of Tarr’s film, the real challenge being the seven hour epic ‘Sátántangó’, a film that is often described as the ‘everest of movies’.

Would I recommend it? It’s rich and cerebral; slow but mesmerising. Watch in a double bill with ‘La Dolce Vita’ for both the variety and the surprising connections.

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