Hungarian director Béla Tarr is one of the foremost stylists of European arthouse cinema, whose fondness for long takes, minimal dialogue and exquisite black and white photography of grey characters in dark and drab locations are an attempt to capture a different cinematic reality from what is traditionally depicted on the screen. Artificial Eye have released two of the director's films as a two disc set - Werckmeister Harmonies (2000) and Damnation (1987) are two thirds of a cycle of films co-written by László Krasznahorkai which, along with the seven and a quarter hour long Sátántangó (1994), have established a unique and formidable presence in international cinema.
The arrival of a couple of bizarre circus attractions – the stuffed corpse of a huge whale and a mysterious character with magnetic powers called The Prince – sparks off unrest in a small provincial Hungarian town. The inhabitants gather in the town square around the truck bearing the whale where János (Lars Rudolph) is awestruck by the majesty of the rotting corpse with its dead, but seemingly watchful eyes. He tries to interest Gyuri (Peter Fitz) in the arrival of the circus, but the professor is obsessed with the harmonic theories of a 17th century German composer, Werckmeister, and unconcerned by worldly preoccupations. His wife, Tünde (Hanna Schygulla), from whom he is separated, also wants him to take notice of the disturbances caused by the circus and threatens to move back if he doesn’t organise a committee to take action and sort out the troubles in the town. She enlists János to help her to persuade Gyuri to take steps to restore order.
The first thing that is immediately noticeable about the work of Béla Tarr is the formal aspect. Four years in the making and running to almost two and a half hours, Werckmeister Harmonies is nevertheless made up of only 39 stark black and white shots. Tarr takes these long sequences to extraordinary lengths. The opening scene, a ten minute single-take shot of János orchestrating a bunch of drunks in a bar at closing time into a demonstration of a solar eclipse is certainly an indication of what is to come and will probably be about as far as any unwary casual viewer will get with the film. The more intrepid viewer will however come across some other exceptional conceits rarely indulged with quite such frequency by any other filmmaker. Anyone expecting anything much in the way of conventional plot, action or characterisation will find little here to interest them. The majority of the film is built around long slow pans and tracking shots of dour characters walking down cold, desolate roads or sitting talking in drab kitchen interiors. In one scene two characters are filmed head and shoulders walking along for two minutes in absolute silence, with little explanation being given to account for what they are doing or where they are going – there is no exposition or convenient plot summaries for the viewer here.
Similarly, when the people of the town eventually move into action, the camera follows their silent inexorable procession through the night-time streets for a full four minutes with not a chant or a slogan shouted. The unintelligible reasons for their uprising and the ignorance of their destination or intent serves not to make their implacable march seem more menacing, nor even raise it to a symbolic level - it shows men marching and that is all it means - but rather the stark settings, the beautiful black and white photographic compositions and the long, deliberately drawn-out take gives the sequence an iconic status. Even when the marchers reach their destination – a hospital of defenceless sick old men and invalids – their eventual acts of violence eschew realism for a silent stylised monochrome nightmare representation of violence – a Kafkaesque shift over and above mere visual representation and narrative into abstract iconography.
So what does it all mean? Well, with symbolism this large you can apply almost any meaning you like to it. The rotting corpse of the once majestic whale with its vast eye always watching could represent the death of God, religion or the communist state. The death of this once mighty creature leaving the population in need of direction, ready to follow someone, even a freak like the mysterious Prince with his magnetic powers of persuasion. The film could have either religious or political meaning, or none of the above – the director himself in an interview in the extra features denies using symbolism of any kind in his films. What it certainly does have is a remarkable force. With only 39 shots, I could practically piece together the images, mood and progression of the whole two and a half hour film clearly in my mind, weeks after viewing it.
The packaging on the DVD case states 1.66:1 as the aspect ratio for Werckmeister Harmonies, however it is actually transferred anamorphically at 1.75:1. Which ratio is the correct one I don’t know, but the difference would be minimal and the film itself looks perfectly framed as it is presented here. The monochrome tones of the film are perfectly represented on the DVD with strong contrasts, fine shadow detail and perfectly clear visuals, particularly during the dark night-time scenes. Although the images are perfectly sharp in close-up, they lose a great deal of definition in medium to wide shots, faces fading to an indistinct blur with some minor shimmering and macro blocking in one or two scenes. There are a few marks and scratches, but no significant damage. Overall, it’s a strong transfer.
UPDATE. The reissued transfer is non-anamorphic and actually closer to 1.58:1 than 1.66:1. Blacks are deep, perhaps a little too dark and harshly contrasted with no great shadow detail, but it is a film that takes place mostly in near darkness, so I don't think it's going to look much better than this. The few minor marks and flecks are still there, as are a few instances of thin horizontal and vertical lines causing a little bit of shimmer. The image remains a little soft, but detail is much better than in the previous version. There is no real grain in evidence.
The soundtrack is Dolby Digital 2.0 and it performs adequately, capturing the mood and tone of the film through its silent passages and the hugely important musical score. Subtitles are good, but inexplicably fail to translate the final lines of the film. This has been noted at Masters of Cinema who have very helpfully provided a translation here.
Béla Tarr interview (37:40)
The director is interviewed by Jonathan Romney during a showing of a season of Béla Tarr films at the National Film Theatre. Speaking through a translator, Tarr tries to explain why he does what he does – which is never easy for an artist who works primarily through a visual medium. He talks about how all the other elements – time, place, location and characters are all just as important as the dialogue or ‘plot’ of his films, if not more so. He sees his films as a constant attempt to clarify and simplify his vision of who he is, where he is from and what he sees. He discusses the contributions of the various collaborators who make the films with him. It’s an interesting if not particularly enlightening interview.
Karrer (Miklós B. Székely) stands in the rain contemplating the miserableness of his surroundings, a silent witness to a dreary world that he cannot escape. The only thing that has any meaning for him is a singer (Vali Kerekes) in a bar he frequents, who he is in love with – but she is married and her husband, Sebestyén (György Cserhalmi) is sick of Karrer hanging around and warns him to keep away. The owner of the bar, Willarski (Gyula Pauer) offers Karrer a job smuggling a mysterious package, but Karrer passes the job onto Sebestyén, and takes advantage of the man’s absence to pursue his wife.
“The fog gets into the corners, into the lungs. It settles in your soul.”, says the Apocalyptic quoting cloakroom attendant in the bar in Damnation, and Tarr’s film revels in this kind of oppressive physicality – where even the weather elements and the persistent deluge of rain throughout the film attempt to beat the characters down deep into the muddy desolation of their surroundings. With damp, dank locations, graphically depicted in stark black and white, Damnation is the ultimate film-noir, a deeply existential rumination on the miserableness of existence and the search for a meaning or a means of escape. Yes, it really is as bleak as the title suggests. Karrer hopes that the love of one person can give meaning to his existence, but his hopes are eventually shattered. The only choice left is to either rise above it all and join in the dance of life with everyone else or sink to the level of the dogs which prowl around his feet, and in the end, it’s the latter the choice that he makes.
Although there is slightly more of a plot in Tarr’s 1987 film it is still far from conventional filmmaking, with trademark long takes, slow movements of the camera and elliptically obscure dialogue. Again, many other elements play an important part in the overall scheme of the film, the sound and the music again being vitally important. There among the persistent patter of the rain and the relentless creaking of the coal buckets being drawn from the quarry on cable-cars, the music is the force that keeps the people in the bar moving, lifting them above the muddy misery of their existence. The bar room scenes towards the end of the film of the people swaying in drunken rhythm to the sound of the piano, accordian, clarinet and drum arrangements, really are an extraordinary sight.
Large reel-change marks, the occasional dust spot and the faintest hint of grain and shimmering are the only real issues with the picture quality here on the Damnation DVD. Otherwise the black and white photography, transferred at the correct 1.33:1 aspect ratio has a crispness and sharpness that does justice to the stark chiaroscuro lighting.
There is a great deal of importance placed on the soundtrack as part of the film and it comes across well on the Dolby Digital 2.0 soundtrack with only a faint hint of background noise.
Béla Tarr filmography
The only extra feature on the second disc is a filmography for the director with a short biography.
There is no doubting the impressive filmmaking achievements of Werckmeister Harmonies and Damnation, but be warned – this is arthouse cinema taken to extremes and unlikely to have anything to offer a mainstream audience. For anyone who likes experimental and individual cinematic experiences though, they don’t come much more challenging than this – at least not until we get a release of Tarr’s remaining part of the cycle – the seven and a quarter hour Sátántangó.