Criterion Review: WERCKMEISTER HARMONIES (2000) [4K UHD]

Bela Tarr’s best film remains cosmically, brutally prescient nearly 25 years later

Stills courtesy of The Criterion Collection, unless otherwise noted.

While Werckmeister Harmonies rivals only Sátántangó as Bela Tarr’s most accessible film as far as home video releases, many of their previous transfers failed to do justice to the visual splendor of the original films themselves. While Tarr’s cinema makes copious use of the grime and gloom of his Hungarian settings, so too did these releases–excluding Cinema Guild’s reverent transfer of Tarr’s final film The Turin Horse, all of these previous releases seemingly dragged each film through sandpaper and vaseline before burning in near-illegible subtitles and unleashing them on the home video market. The sole US DVD release of Werckmeister Harmonies was released in such a fashion before going out of print just as fast. The recent revival of Tarr’s work has led to a slew of recent restorations, including the excellent intensive restoration of Sátántangó by Arbelos in 2019. In 2023, Werckmeister Harmonies finally received its own 4K restoration, bringing back this timeless parable of fascism and existential dread in an era where its themes have become all too timely.

In the film, based on László Krasznahorkai’s novel The Melancholy of Resistance and co-directed with Ágnes Hranitsky, soft-spoken mailman Janos (Lars Rudolph) bears the weight of several responsibilities in his small Hungarian village. In addition to delivering mail, he instills scientific knowledge; in the film’s riveting opening scene, he uses the blitzed patrons of the local pub as interactive props to illustrate the mechanics of a solar eclipse–working in the language of their superstitions to slowly drive them towards a place of visual and metaphorical enlightenment. One night, however, a foreboding giant truck belonging to a traveling circus lurches into the town square. It contains a massive preserved whale, which immediately grabs Janos’ attention; grabbing everyone else’s attention, however, is the mysterious “Prince,” an unseen yet seemingly deformed creature who’s sparked riots and ominous incidents wherever he goes. The local authorities, spearheaded by Tunde (Hanna Schygulla), compel Janos and hermit-y musical theorist Eszter (Peter Fitz) to investigate the growing mobs in the town square under the guise of “preserving order.” This, however, forces Janos to witness the societal collapse that may not just be occurring everywhere else but may have been long ordained for centuries.

Werckmeister Harmonies was my first Bela Tarr film, seen under this laborious amount of visual degradation. However, the visual quality couldn’t impede the tremendous impact the film would have on me. I’d never seen a film with this amount of methodical patience in the way it treated cinematic time–to play out a moment to its exact length, no matter how short or how long. It was a resounding formal rejection of cinema’s many colorful tools, stripping it down to its rigorous formal essence. The most profound moment came in the last moments of the film’s thirty-ninth and final shot, as a heavenly blast of light provides one last cosmic sucker punch–a seemingly divine answer to the grueling events of the film.

I got the chance to meet Bela Tarr at the New York Film Festival following a career-spanning Q&A (me at 29:31!) that wildly lived up to his stoic yet headstrong and passionate nature. I asked him further about Werckmeister’s ending, discussing how much the ending tied together everything I thought the film was driving at–themes of order and chaos, God and Man, fate and free will, ad nauseam. Tarr, to his immense credit, patiently heard out the ravings of this insane 20-year-old with a smile before clapping me on the back and intoning, “is fog machines,” before disappearing into the crowd.

Certainly not Julian reeling with existential doubt.

In the subsequent decade, I’ve since learned how Tarr is a director who’s vehemently shrugged off attempts to impose meaning on his films. He’s a director who vigorously rejects the artifice cinema can impose on its viewers, and spends so much time and care into the methodical unraveling of his films precisely so that there’s no opportunity for anything fake to creep into them. Moments last as long as they have to. People are creatures of habit and sloth, following compulsions and vices to natural conclusions. Those same flaws and foibles are endemic to the systems they create, which more often persecute and punish than deliver and absolve. While The Turin Horse is Tarr’s most directly apocalyptic film, Werckmeister Harmonies certainly does its damnedest to encapsulate this feeling that we are likely going to be the cause of our demise. Following at a distance behind Janos and the others, we bear as much witness as this unfortunate deliveryman to how willing people are to bend towards an ill-defined order. Corrupt authorities take whatever action they need to to remain at the top; deprived of everything, those underfoot cling to whoever can promise change; despite seeking order, people unflinchingly embrace causing chaos and ruin if it means order might come as a result. These aren’t subtextual things in Werckmeister Harmonies–a spellbindingly horrific sequence of destruction and depravity in a hospital shows just what we’re capable of without any need for gratuitous closeups or rapid-fire editing. 

The cumulative effect is unforgettable. It’s one that directly influenced filmmakers like Gus Van Sant with Elephant in the wake of the Columbine school shootings, and one that presages Jonathan Glazer’s techniques in dramatizing the progress of concentration camps in The Zone of Interest by decades. With each passing moment, you grow further away from feeling like just a spectator enjoying a film to an active, complicit participant in the film’s action. Your presence is tempered with guilt or shame, our inability to act transformed into an action in and of itself. 

But still, there’s hope among the ruins. In Werckmeister Harmonies, in particular, a character who once willingly sat on the sidelines indulging in circular thoughts on order and chaos realizes either how wrong or right he truly was. The conclusion is left ambiguous–but in the spirit of Tarr’s rejection of interpretation, he makes clear that some form of change has come about. That deep down, change is possible, as much as we may collectively bend towards fascism as a resistance to societal upheaval. Tarr restrains you for as long as you need to to be inspired to break free and cause change. By showing you everything–unvarnished, uninterfered with, horrors and all–Tarr hopes you’ll see things differently.

It’s a radical approach to cinema that has become all too timely in recent years–as the world outside of Tarr’s theaters has morphed and deformed to fit the black-and-white bleakness he’d spent years depicting in his films. As Dennis Lim notes in his essay provided for this disc, 

Fascism is even less of an abstract concern today than it was in 2000. Hungary has been under Viktor Orbán’s strongman rule for over a decade now. In the present-day American context, it is hard to watch the riot scenes without flashing on the violent mobs—the white nationalists in Charlottesville, Virginia; the election deniers of the January 6 insurrection—that have been a recurring feature of the Trump era.

Werckmeister Harmonies has emerged from over a decade of relative unavailability and obscurity to find it’s become less of a warning of what we’re capable of and more of a mirror to what we’ve done to ourselves. Hell, it even makes for a more languid companion piece to Alex Garland’s Civil War as it does to the aforementioned Zone of Interest in that it bears objective witness to our capacity for evil which, left unchecked, seems only natural to overwhelm the better angels of our nature. And, like both films, it finds an urgent call for change in its seeming objective spectatorship–that only by directly confronting evil, leaving final judgment to ourselves, we are given an opportunity to forge a better path.

Fate, as I should have expected, inevitably chose to weigh in on how I viewed the ending of Werckmeister Harmonies. After years of seeing the film’s conclusion as I did, heavenly light and all, it became clear that some prints and transfers of Werckmeister Harmonies had this last-second increase in exposure, while others did not. Was Tarr’s elusive answer a decade ago an answer to something never there in the first place? I was beyond excited to hear the news of this film getting a 4K restoration–not just to finally see the film as close to its original form as possible, but to also get a definitive sense of closure to a question that had crept up on me over the last ten years.

The restoration finally came to Austin, Texas–and it was a wonder to behold, seeing Werckmeister Harmonies finally escape the prison of artifacting and aspect ratios it had been trapped in for years. Since this UHD review has veered far off course from actually being one by now, it’s here I’ll say that the video and sound quality on this disc release is equally superb, restoring the original theatrical aspect ratio and clearing out so many errant instances of wear and tear while still preserving how absolutely miserable the world of the film looks and feels. Mihaly Vig’s elegiac wail of an all-timer score still settles deep in one’s bones in the film’s monaural audio track.

But in that theatrical screening, despite experiencing the film as if seeing it for the first time, I waited on tenterhooks for that final shot. 

Which played out, in wall-to-wall sound, in all of its glory.

But minus that heavenly flash.

I’ve been sitting with that experience for the last few months–even more so now that I, like cinephiles around the globe, now have a definitive 4K UHD copy of Werckmeister Harmonies available to me after all these years. It’s crazy how so much of a film’s impact can be determined by the right conditions: the time of day, who you see it with, down to the individual quirks of the version of the film you happen to watch. I can’t help but love that it’s this film, a chilling yet wonderful parable about our role as a spectator, and of the meaning we apply to the inscrutable to make sense of our lives, that happened to have such an otherwise innocuous error in its transfer that wholly shaped what I appreciate most about this film.

In its absence, though, I feel its impact even more. As revelatory as that flash was, it only confirmed something abstract that Tarr had already wrestled into tangibility. It was present in Uncle Eszter confronting the whale and literally changing his tune. It was present in the horrors of the hospital where, confronted with the opportunity to commit the unspeakable, the voiceless throngs of the mob universally chose to cease and turn back. 

We don’t need external divine confirmation to compel us to change. Being able to change is already divine in its own right. It’s just a question of whether or not we will.

Like Tarr, I hope we do.

Special Features

Note: All disc-based special features are included on the accompanying Blu-ray Disc.

  • Family Nest (1979): In a major coup, Criterion has included a restoration of Tarr’s debut feature film, which focuses on the grueling interpersonal conflicts between a couple, their children, and their in-laws as the ongoing Hungarian housing shortage forces them to live in a singular cramped apartment. With a major focus on Irén Szajki’s wife as her patience and personal boundaries are increasingly violated by those around her, Tarr’s neorealist drama may differ in terms of the long-take style he’d develop by Sátántangó, yet the seeds of Tarr’s biting social criticism arrive hear fully realized.
  • Bela Tarr: In a new interview conducted for this release, film critic Scott Foundas sits down with Tarr to intimately discuss the totality of his career, including his major influences like Jean-Luc Godard growing up in Communist Hungary, navigating the endlessly shifting politics of the Hungarian film industry and censorship offices, his longstanding creative relationships with László Krasznahorkai and Ágnes Hranitsky, his particular cast-director relationship with Werckmeister star Lars Rudolph, to the circumstances of Tarr’s retirement from feature film directing after 2011’s The Turin Horse.
  • Trailer for Werckmeister Harmonies’ theatrical tour of the 4K restoration by Janus Films.
  • Essay: Film critic and New York Film Festival creative director Dennis Lim uses Werckmeister Harmonies as a framing device to discuss Tarr’s working relationship with Krasznahorkai, Tarr’s reflection upon order and disorder across his filmography, externalizing these ideas via the usage of his signature long takes, and a more sobering reflection on the possibly instinctual nature of humanity to bend towards fascism.

Werckmeister Harmonies is now available on 4K UHD, Blu-ray, and DVD courtesy of The Criterion Collection.

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