Béla Tarr’s Werckmeister Harmonies opens with an ebullient, maddening, playful, oblique, and altogether disconcerting cinematic treatise on chaos and order in the modern age: a group of men in a bar tentatively organized into a disassembled, flat-footed ballet that approximates with gusto and drunken flair the orbiting of the planets around the sun. It is a fully alive, alert gesture of cinematic visualization, and a humble one; for the maddening questions Tarr is known to cryptically tackle, he lays his meditation bare in this opening scene. The universe, he wants us to know, may be fundamentally chaotic, may be fundamentally ordered, he doesn’t know, and he wants to find out.
Which is not entirely accurate; Tarr and co-write Kraznahorkai Laszlo (who wrote the book The Melancholy of Resistance upon which the film is based) do not necessarily let on that they want to find out the answer, but they definitely search nonetheless. A better phrasing might be they play around with the idea of chaos and order, not necessarily looking for an answer but hoping to accidentally stumble upon one; the film is organized around a theme, but it isn’t beholden to it. It seems to exist as a toybox rather than a dissertation, with Tarr pursuing his thoughts on order and chaos, or pitting order and chaos against one another in any way he can manage, without necessarily seeking a specific conclusion for the pas de deux between seemingly opposing forces (then, as Tarr shows, are they really opposing? Mutually exclusive? Mutually constitutive? Identical?). I suspect he simply wants to see what comes out the other end, whether it be destination or self-destruction.
Thankfully for us, when Tarr plays, all the screws of cinema loosen. The man in the bar organizing the impromptu lecture on astrophysics by way of poetry, we soon learn, is Valuska János (Lars Rudolph), whose uncle is a famed moral high-ground of the unnamed town they live in (presumably in Hungary). That uncle, Eszter György (Peter Fitz), and his ex wife Tünde (Hanna Schygulla), occupy pillars rigid enough to constrict them to their moral superiority, and tall enough to stand well above everyone else and stare down in contempt. György believes firmly in the supremacy of a classical sect of European music, although he is set on a more individualistic, passive form of thumbing his nose at the “lesser beings” of the world by way of his own quiet indignation. His ex-wife is a more brash sort, and she actively wishes for a more authoritarian removal of the drunkards and the so-called undesirables of the town, the chaotic elements stamping down on the world order György and Tünde practice.
From there, a traveling circus – filmed by Tarr as a visual cacophony of uncontained anarchy hidden and revealed by a carnival’s worth of varying shades of light and dark – interrupts the town, riding in on the fog and refusing to leave. As a malformation of authoritarian order leading to disorderly, predatory chaos, the circus needs no explanation, and the ever-cosmic Tarr affords them none. They ride in on the whims of chaos fighting back against order, reminding that too much of one leads to the other, and that the two are at some minute level virtually indistinguishable.
Merely one of many ringleader gestures performed by Tarr, the greatest being, probably, the luxuriously noirish, heaven-and-hell lighting that turns a whale carcass – the central, and seemingly only, exhibit of the circus other than a shrouded prince-like figure pulling the strings – into dialectic light and darkness in itself. The dead whale becomes a necrotic canvas, as voluptuously engorged with the remnants of life as it is swollen and primed with death, on which Tarr can play the speculative artist on subjects such as power, corruption, darkness, and light. What separates Werckmeister from the rest of pack is that, in Tarr’s vision, movement and stillness, science and poetry, abstraction and concrete, are all false dichotomies. Just like order and chaos, and, light and dark, emphasized in the way his film expresses, and arguably invents, a myriad of gray shadings with its lighting, heavy on the chiaroscuro.
Thematically and visually, Tarr flips the script on his dichotomies time and time again, elegiacally crawling with his camera in ways that both encircle order and entrap chaos. The narrative structure? Freeflowing with a deliberate lack of order, and yet heavily ordered around visual cues and themes. Yet the themes can change from moment to moment, and an appropriate exegesis both requires the severely disciplined dissection of theme-by-theme (order) and the necessary rejection of a wholeness to the piece, or an answer (chaos). The look of the piece draws on the order of classical Hollywood continuity editing (the extremely judicious, sedately organized Ozu is also a prime influence). Yet the way the camera continuously subverts that editing, focusing on characters we least expect in specific shots, rejects definition and the sculpting of order. The relentless metronomy of the long takes function like clockwork (order), but the camera that never stops moving cavernously excavates the unknown (chaos); the movement of the camera and the length of the shots induce a calm as well as a disquiet, especially when Tarr circles a man’s head like a vulture around a corpse, performing perfectly ordered, graceful circles around the head until we lose track of where we are and give in to chaos.
Even the name clues us in; the titular Harmonies reference Andreas Werckmeister’s supposed harmonic principles, which György views as insufficiently ordered, and thus incomplete. He seeks both to disrupt (chaos) and to impose new order onto these principles, but his moral quest comes hand in hand with exhuming the “undesirables” – the insufficiently ordered – from the town, a removal that itself would require a form of chaotic upheaval masqueraded by the facade of order, so much so that chaos might as well be its own form of order (certainly, the townspeople who reflect a chaos throughout the film come to exist in ordered patterns at various points). All of this doesn’t necessarily go anywhere, but again, the “solution” isn’t the point; Tarr is just dreaming here, and his film reflects the way in which dreams, although chaotic by normal life’s standards, inhabit their own order.
All of which only defines the film’s beauty by virtue of its percussive thematic play, but the visuals ought to stand on their own. You can take the arrival of the circus’ metallic, malevolent truck, bathed in darkness until it passes over the screen, swallowing our vision with the endless passage of metal teeth and lines moving past us. It reinforces the film’s debates – the truck is definitionally ordered into lines and angles but so much so that they become chaotic (it appears to exist as an obtuse shape rather than any sort of conventional square or rectangle). And the truck itself moves from darkness to light in a way that forces the two to double back on each other. We see the full truck in darkness, but because the darkness coats the truck we can make out its shape as if it was in light, but when the truck enters into the light, it covers the screen so much so that we can no longer make it out as a truck; we can see better in darkness than light.
But the ethereal cinematography by Gabor Medvigy, philosophical ramblings aside, needs nothing but its elemental, dreamlike elegance to function, especially in conjunction with the soothing-but-discordant score by Mihaly Vig and the editing by Agnes Hranitzky. If Tarr’s film is all thematic exploration, it also supersedes theme altogether. It becomes a parade of images and sounds that function on their own terms. It is the rare breed of film that can seem both impulsive/ youthful and pre-ordained/eldritch, and fittingly, it exists in a world that is both cryptically otherworldly and wonderfully mundane (even in the magically famed and magnetically framed introduction of the whale, Tarr focuses on everyday rhythms, and daily rituals and materiality daunt over the film). So much so that the whale, for all the chaos it represents, becomes a part of the order of this world; it seems like it fits right in, for the world we inhabit here doesn’t necessarily play by our definition of disorder at all but swirls around in its own doldrums and decadence.
Other themes emerge; it is difficult to view the film without visions of Eastern Europe under Soviet control, and the ever-controlling darkness hiding behind the swelling corpse of corruption is so central to the narrative it must be mentioned. But something about the piece also exists as a fable more than a specific commentary on any portion of human time; it is more-so about chaos and order as they exist in elemental, abstract terms, and how visuals can convey them and challenge our thinking on those ideas. As his film unfolds, Tarr musters the charisma of a dissent into the internal regions of the human mind, only to shoot back out and permeate through the ether around the collective human consciousness. His film eviscerates the normative order of cinema. Chaos. But it entrenches its own rules. Tarr’s order, and no one else is playing by it.