Werckmeister Harmonies

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Werckmeister Harmonies
Theatrical release poster
Directed by
Screenplay by
Based onThe Melancholy of Resistance
by László Krasznahorkai
Produced byBéla Tarr
  • Milós Gurbán
  • Erwin Lanzensberger
  • Gábor Medvigy
  • Emil Novák
  • Patrick de Ranter
  • Rob Tregenza
  • Jörg Widmer
Edited byÁgnes Hranitzky
Music byMihály Vig
Release date
  • 12 July 2000 (2000-07-12) (Belgium)
Running time
145 minutes[1]
Budget$1.6 million
Box office$73,404[2][3]

Werckmeister Harmonies (pronounced [verkˈmaɪ̯stɐ]; Hungarian: Werckmeister harmóniák) is a 2000 Hungarian drama film[4] directed by Béla Tarr and Ágnes Hranitzky, based on the 1989 novel The Melancholy of Resistance by László Krasznahorkai. Shot in black-and-white and composed of thirty-nine languidly paced shots, the film shows János and his uncle György during the communist Hungarian era. It also shows their journey among helpless citizens as a dark circus comes to town casting an eclipse over their lives.

The title refers to the baroque musical theorist Andreas Werckmeister. György Eszter, a major character in the film, gives a monologue propounding a theory that Werckmeister's harmonic principles are responsible for aesthetic and philosophical problems in all music since, and need to be undone by a new theory of tuning and harmony.

Werckmeister Harmonies opened to wide acclaim from film critics, and has come to be regarded by many critics as one of the best films. In the 2012 British Film Institute's decennial Sight & Sound poll, Werckmeister Harmonies ranks 171st in the critics' poll and 132nd in the directors' poll.[5]


It is set in an anonymous, desolate, isolated small town in Hungary during Communist times.

The film starts with János Valuska, a young newspaper-delivery man, conducting a performance with drunken bar patrons about the total eclipse of the sun, which disturbs, then silences the animals. It finishes with the grand return of the warm sunlight.

János is devoted to his uncle György Eszter, a composer and musicologist, who is like a father to him. György records his observations about the imperfection and compromise of the musical scale, as defined by Andreas Werckmeister. György proposes changes to the natural scale to make its harmonies more natural.

János goes to the post office to pick up his newspapers for delivery. The workers are unsettled by the ominous signs of the circus' arrival and are disturbed by the cloud that settles over each town it visits.

A “circus” built around a huge stuffed smelly whale and its star performer, "The Prince", who is never seen, come to town in the silence and darkness of night. János sees them arrive and philosophizes about God and the whale.

György's estranged wife, Tünde, tries to leverage her political and social status by giving György a list of names to recruit for the "Clean Up the Town movement," with the blessing of the police chief, and demands that György become chairman of the movement, or else she will move back in with him that very evening. She sends her suitcase ahead of her with János. György's struggling cobbler brother, Uncle Lajos, gets the list and passes it on to the agitated throbbing masses in the town square who are unhappy with the failing public services. János is accosted by a thug in front of the open truck housing the whale. Tünde sleeps with the drunk gun-toting police chief.

The presence of the whale and the “Prince” stir up the masses. János overhears the circus master losing control of his faceless Prince, who speaks (in Slovakian[6]) through a translator of revolutions and ruins. The circus master is afraid of consequences and disowns him. The Prince, now free, inflames the masses, and the people riot. The rioters, holding clubs, march, then run into a psychiatric hospital where dissidents opposing the regime are kept, drag them out of their beds and beat them. When the rioters finally find a helpless old naked patient, who is all skin and bones, they see their impotent, sad and powerless selves and withdraw silently.

After the riot, János comes across the diary of a rioter. It explains that the rioters did not know what they were angry with; so they were angry at everything. Then it recounts the mob's horrendous rape of two post-office girls. On his way home, he witnesses from a distance a meeting between Aunt Tünde and a military officer. They departed together on a military vehicle to reclaim the town, with soldiers and a tank behind them.

János then comes across the body of his cobbler uncle Lajos, who was killed in the riot. János is told, by Lajos's wife, to leave town at once for his own safety, as his name was on a list held by the rioters. János runs away on the railroad tracks but is intercepted by a helicopter. He finds himself committed to a mental institution with caged beds (a tool of the time for dealing with political dissidents). When his uncle György visits him in the hospital, János simply stares into the blank space and does not respond to György, who recounts to János what has happened since the riot. György is evicted from their house but gets to live in a shed in the garden whilst his wife, Tünde, with her new status as a collaborator, now occupies the big house with the police chief. György tells János, in the ward, that if he is released from the mental institution they can live contentedly together in the shed with his piano. György also mentions that he has re-tuned the piano so that is now like any other, a personal capitulation apparently abandoning any present hopes of reform. János just stares at the blank space.

The film ends with György walking through the town square and looking directly into the eye of the abandoned whale, then walking away and looking back at the now sad and disheveled whale and the “circus” destroyed by the rioters the night before. The whale's rotting carcass is slowly enveloped by the fog which gets thicker. End credits.


The film is an international production[7] whose financing it took a long time for Tarr to secure.[8]



Werckmeister Harmonies received critical acclaim. On Metacritic, the film received a weighted average score of 92/100 (based on eight reviews), which translates to "universal acclaim".[9] Based on 39 reviews, Rotten Tomatoes reports a 98% approval rating, with an average score of 8.5/10.[10]

Lawrence van Gelder of The New York Times called the film "elusive" and argued that it "beckons filmgoers who complain about the vapidity of Hollywood movie making and yearn for a film to ponder and debate."[11] David Sterritt, writing for the Christian Science Monitor, awarded it a full four stars, remarking, "Tarr wants to stir the imagination and awaken the conscience of his audience rather than divert us with easy entertainment."[12]

In a 2016 poll by BBC, the film was listed as one of the top 100 films since 2000 (56th position).[13]

Film critic Roger Ebert described the movie as "unique and original", writing that it "feels as much like cinéma vérité as the works of Frederick Wiseman." He went on to add the film to his "Great Movies" collection in 2007.[4]

In the 2012 British Film Institute's decennial Sight & Sound poll, 10 critics and five directors voted Werckmeister Harmonies among their 10 favorite films — placing it 171st in the critics' poll and 132nd in the directors' poll.[5] According to They Shoot Pictures, Don't They, a website which statistically calculates the most well-received movies, it is the 19th most acclaimed movie since 2000.[14] It also ranks 58th on a 2016 BBC poll of the best films since 2000.[15][16]

Home video[edit]

The only home video release in Region 1 (U.S. and Canada) was released by Facets, and has gone out of print.

4K restoration[edit]

Film at Lincoln Center (FLC) announced a new 4K restoration of Werckmeister Harmonies, opening 26 May 2023, in the Walter Reade Theater.[17]


  1. ^ "Werckmeister Harmonies (12A)". British Board of Film Classification. 30 January 2003. Retrieved 30 June 2023.
  2. ^ "Werckmeister Harmonies (2023)". The Numbers. Retrieved July 28, 2023.
  3. ^ "Werckmeister Harmonies (2023)". Box Office Mojo. Retrieved July 28, 2023.
  4. ^ a b Roger Ebert's "Great Movies" essay about Werckmeister Harmonies.
  5. ^ a b "Werckmeister Harmonies, The". British Film Institute. explore.bfi.org.uk. Archived from the original on 20 August 2012. Retrieved 16 August 2014.
  6. ^ "Decay of a Mortal God: Béla Tarr's "Werckmeister Harmonies"". Vigour of Film Lines. 2020-01-01. Retrieved 2023-08-01.
  7. ^ Ritz-Buranbaeva, Oksana; Mladineo, Vanja (2011-09-22). Culture and Customs of Hungary. ABC-CLIO. ISBN 978-0-313-38370-0.
  8. ^ Kovács, András (2013-05-28). The Cinema of Béla Tarr: The Circle Closes. Columbia University Press. ISBN 978-0-231-16531-0.
  9. ^ "Werckmeister Harmonies Reviews, Ratings, Credits, and More at Metacritic". Metacritic. CBS Interactive. Retrieved 17 October 2013.
  10. ^ "Werckmeister Harmóniák". Rotten Tomatoes. Flixster. Retrieved 17 October 2013.
  11. ^ Gelder, Lawrence Van (10 October 2001). "Yielding to the Power of Persuasion". The New York Times. Retrieved 16 August 2014.
  12. ^ "Movie Guide: New Releases". Christian Science Monitor. csmonitor.com. Retrieved 16 August 2014.
  13. ^ Top 100 movies of the 21st century by the BBC
  14. ^ "The 21st Century's Most Acclaimed Films (50-1)". They Shoot Pictures, Don't They?. theyshootpictures.com. Retrieved 21 June 2019.
  15. ^ "30 great films of the 2000s | Polls and surveys | Sight & Sound". British Film Institute. Retrieved 2022-06-29.
  16. ^ Cabin, Chris (2016-08-23). "BBC Unveils 100 Best Movies of the 21st Century List". Collider. Retrieved 2022-06-29.
  17. ^ Azad, Navid Nikkhah. "Film at Lincoln Center announces 4K restoration of Béla Tarr and Ágnes Hranitzky's Werckmeister Harmonies - Deed News". www.deed.news. Retrieved 2023-04-12.

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