So proclaim the posters that appear around the small Hungarian town in Werckmeister Harmonies, set some time in the 1980s. They announce the impending arrival of a traveling circus, which includes the massive carcass of a whale and a mysterious figure known as “the Prince.” The people of the town, struggling under a communist infrastructure that is crumbling, regard the circus with suspicion, believing rumors about the chaos it has supposedly caused at previous stops. A young man named Janos (Lars Rudolph) is more open to the wonder it might offer. Werckmeister Harmonies opens with an extended sequence in which Janos demonstrates the orbits of the solar system by having drunks in a bar spin around as if they were the earth and moon. “Step with me into the boundlessness,” Janos invites. That’s something they’re willing to do (amusingly so) when inebriated, but not so much when they’re sober.
Werckmeister Harmonies is about many things, most of which I’ll admit I don’t understand. (I’ll leave the significance of its title to others, despite an extensive monologue dedicated to it.) One clear tension at the movie’s core is that between belief in boundlessness—the marvelous and mysterious, like the whale—and resignation to bitter, daily reality. Directed by Bela Tarr and co-directed and edited by Agnes Hranitzky, the movie consists of 39 long, single takes, many of which detail the mundane dreariness of this place and the lives of the people who live there (one such sequence is devoted to Jonas preparing a meager meal for himself). Yet these moments also evidence the town’s need for transcendence.
There is transcendence in that opening scene. When Jonas demonstrates a total eclipse by way of the drunkards, you can feel both the astrophysical and spiritual weight of the phenomenon, especially when Jonas describes the return of the light once the eclipse has passed. Light and dark go on to do battle in many of the ensuing scenes, all filmed in black and white: Jonas walking down a midnight road, leaving the glow of a street lamp to disappear into the gloom; the late-night arrival of the whale in a giant rumbling container, which casts an enormous shadow on the houses it passes; Jonas’ visit to the whale later on, where its giant, glassy eye emerges from the darkness like a glowing crystal ball that reveals nothing.
Jonas says he sees God’s creativity and omnipotence in the whale. His grumbling neighbors smell trouble (and the whale does stink). Prodded by the rabble-rousing Prince (whom we only see in shadow), the town erupts in mob violence, turning on itself until the military is called in to ruthlessly restore order. I won’t pretend to know enough about recent, Eastern-European history to grasp the political commentary that might be at play, yet it’s clear that Werckmeister Harmonies also chronicles Jonas’ loss of innocence. The final shot is of the whale, lying exposed in the town square in the morning, its container broken down during the previous evening’s chaos. A light fog rolls in, and as Tarr’s camera pulls away the whale slowly disappears, light and dark melding into a vague, indiscriminate gray.