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  • Jeff Beck

Werckmeister Harmonies: A Dreamlike Tone Makes for a Captivating Experience (Criterion Blu-ray)


The Film:


There are times when a film can best be described simply as a kind of mood, a film where the plot is not particularly important, and may not even take the time to really fill the viewer in as to what's happening, and yet, you find yourself drawn in and hypnotized by its power anyway. This is exactly how one can fittingly describe "Werckmeister Harmonies," a rather odd little Hungarian film from directors Bela Tarr & Agnes Hranitzky, which is being added to the prestigious Criterion Collection this week. Despite receiving universal acclaim upon its release 24 years ago, it didn't seem to make much of a splash, and remains a somewhat obscure work, making now the perfect time to go back and see how it found itself in its current place in cinema history.


As mentioned, the "plot" of the film is a little hard to summarize given its nature, but it revolves around János Valuska (Lars Rudolph), a young newspaper delivery man living in a small Hungarian town, whose primary cares are his job and looking after his "Uncle" Gyorgy (Peter Fitz), a musicologist that he regards as his father. A circus has come to town recently that centers around a stuffed whale and a special guest known as "The Prince," both of which unsettle the townsfolk quite a bit. Meanwhile, Gyorgy's estranged wife, Tunde (Hanna Schygulla), tasks János with convincing him to recruit certain people to help clean up the town. As the presence of the circus continues to stir up the mob, it seems to become only a matter of time until the situation escalates into action.


"Werckmeister Harmonies" is one of those films that, within the first few minutes, you'll know whether it's your kind of movie or not. The opening scene, which has János demonstrating a solar eclipse with the patrons of a tavern, sets the tone perfectly for the kind of odd film you are going to be experiencing for the next two and a half hours. If this peculiar opening has made you intrigued, then chances are, you've already fallen under its seductive spell.


As far as the plot goes, we know very little as to what's going on in this little unspecified town at this unspecified time. We know a lot of people are unhappy with certain services, and we're told that the town needs some "cleaning up," but beyond that, circumstances are left intentionally vague. There's also the matter of the bizarre circus and the mysterious "Prince," who is briefly heard, but never seen. Eventually this unknown figure stirs the crowd to action, but once more, details are left quite ambiguous, leaving the viewer puzzled as to motivations and explanations.


That being said, the lack of clarity is oddly one of the film's intriguing charms. You don't really know what's happening, and yet, you find yourself drawn into this strange set of events, captivated by the gorgeous cinematography and the dreamlike tone that permeates the 39 shots that make up this mesmerizing experience. The details may indeed be scarce, but again, if you found the film's opening cosmic dance to be an oddly alluring intro to this strange little part of Hungary, then you've likely chosen to look past them and embrace the film for its wonderful hypnotic qualities. Hence why, by the time you reach the somewhat sudden end of its duration, you feel as though you've awakened from a dream or come out of a trance. You may not be able to explain it, as with many a dream, but you're glad to have had the experience.


Video/Audio:


"Werckmeister Harmonies" arrives on Criterion Blu-ray in a gorgeous 1.66:1, 1080p High Definition transfer of outstanding quality. The new 4K restoration looks incredible for its two and a half hour duration, highlighting its beautiful cinematography with its sharp picture. Likewise, the uncompressed monaural soundtrack is wonderful, giving you all of the dialogue and music in excellent quality. Overall, in typical Criterion fashion, the work done on this new edition of the film is simply marvelous.


Special Features:


Interview with Bela Tarr (21 Minutes): An interview with the co-director/co-writer in which he discusses his career.


Family Nest (106 minutes): Bela Tarr's first feature film from 1979.


Conclusion:


"Werckmeister Harmonies" may leave some perplexed by its peculiarity and ambiguous plot, but those viewers who are open to its dreamlike tone will find themselves treated to an intriguing experience, enhanced with gorgeous cinematography, ultimately resulting in a film that casts a hypnotic, captivating spell over its audience for its two and a half hour duration.


Score: 3.5/5


Available on Criterion Blu-ray starting tomorrow.


Follow me on Twitter @BeckFilmCritic.



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