Werckmeister Harmonies

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Werckmeister Harmonies
Werckmeister Harmonies.jpg
Theatrical release poster
Directed by Béla Tarr
Ágnes Hranitzky
Produced by Béla Tarr
Screenplay by László Krasznahorkai
Béla Tarr
Based on The Melancholy of Resistance
by László Krasznahorkai
Starring Lars Rudolph
Peter Fitz
Hanna Schygulla
Music by Mihály Vig
Cinematography Patrick de Ranter
Edited by Ágnes Hranitzky
Release dates
  • 1 February 2001 (2001-02-01)
Running time
145 minutes
Country Hungary
Language Hungarian

Werckmeister Harmonies (pronounced [verkˈmaɪ̯stɐ]; Hungarian: Werckmeister harmóniák) is a 2000 Hungarian film directed by Béla Tarr, 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 Soviet occupation of Hungary at the end of the Second World War. 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 is often listed among the major cinematic works of the 21st century.[1]


The film can perhaps be seen as an allegory of post-World War II Eastern European political systems - told as a black-and-white cinematic poem with 39 long, single-camera takes. It examines the brutalization of a society, its political systems and ethics through the metaphor of a giant, decaying, circus whale and its star performer, "The Prince", who makes rousing speeches. It is set in an anonymous, desolate, isolated small town in Hungary during Soviet times.

The film starts with János Valuska conducting a poem and dance with drunken bar patrons. The dance is of the total eclipse of the sun, which disturbs, then silences the animals. It finishes with the grand return of the warm sunlight.

One of the significant reoccurring characters in this plot is the subtle transitions between light and darkness. The first appearance of this motif is a lamp in the bar, moving to a door into the darkness. The circus arrives like a Trojan Horse in the darkness of night. A window is opened as a glimmer of hope and dressed to shut out the world. The antagonist, The Prince, is only ever seen as a shadow.

János' uncle György is a composer, and therefore one of the intelligentsia. György observes the imperfection and compromise of the musical scale (as defined by Andreas Werckmeister a historical theorist). György proposes changes to the scale to make it more harmonious. This utopian approach to music represents a flawed, naive idealism that never can be achieved; it is not developed any further in the film or the book. It is just a statement indicating that human governance will always be flawed.

György's estranged wife 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).

However, a stuffed smelly circus whale and its star performer, "The Prince", come to town in the silence and darkness of night. This is perhaps a metaphor for a bloated political system, with the unseen Prince representing the power of politically inspired, emotive dogma.

János philosophizes about God and the whale.

The post office workers are unsettled by the ominous signs of the circus' arrival and are disturbed by the cloud that settles over each town it visits, perhaps a reference to the spread of the externally imposed centralised monolithic government system onto all the Soviet buffer nations just after the war.

György's struggling cobbler brother gets the list and passes it on to the agitated throbbing masses in the town square who are unhappy at public services failing. György's former wife 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 is becoming drunk with his own voice of revolutionary dogma. The circus master disowns him. The Prince, now free, inflames the masses, and the people riot.

The film is shot as a visual poem, and has been described as both beautiful and haunting. Lengthy single-shot scenes with a hypnotic and rhythmic pace build up to the peaceful observation of the thuggish destruction of the hospital and its patients. The rioters are brutal. Their inhumanity almost seems normal and natural. When the rioters finally come to beat a helpless old naked patient, they see their impotent, sad and powerless selves. The patients they are destroying in the hospital are themselves.

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 mobs horrendous rape of two working class post office girls.

János comes across his killed cobbler uncle who got naively involved in the riot. János is told, by his cobbler uncle's wife, to leave town for his own safety.

He 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). János appears drugged and broken.

György, his composer uncle, is evicted from their society house but gets to live in a shed in the garden whilst György's former wife, with her new status as a collaborator, now occupies the big house with the police chief. The intelligentsia is displaced by political opportunism.

György tells a vacant 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.

It finishes with György looking directly into the eye of the whale, then, walking away and looking back at the now sad and disheveled whale, destroyed by the rioters the night before, its rotting carcass slowly enveloped by the fog which gets whiter and brighter. Warm bright sunlight returns.



Werckmeister Harmonies received much critical acclaim. On Metacritic, the film received an weighted average score of 92/100 (based on eight reviews), which translates to "universal acclaim".[2] Based on 39 reviews, Rotten Tomatoes reports a 97% approval rating, with an average score of 8.5/10.[3]

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."[4] 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."[5]

In The Guardian, Richard Williams compared Tarr to the greatest directors and perceived Werckmeister Harmonies as "a bleak vision of chaos and capitalism."[6] Film critic Roger Ebert described the movie as "unique and original", writing that it "feels as much like cinema verite as the works of Frederick Wiseman." He went on to add the film to his "Great Movies" collection in 2007.[7]

Some critics rank the movie with the best of all time. In the British Film Institute's decennial Sight & Sound poll, 10 critics and five directors voted Werckmeister Harmonies one of the 10 greatest works of cinema ever made — placing it 171st in the critics' poll and 132nd in the directors' poll.[8] According to They Shoot Pictures, Don't They, a website which statistically calculates the most well-received movies, it is the fifth-most well received movie of the 21st century, and the 268th-most acclaimed film of all time.[9]


  1. ^ "21st Century (Full List)". Retrieved January 10, 2016. 
  2. ^ "Werckmeister Harmonies Reviews, Ratings, Credits, and More at Metacritic". Metacritic. CBS Interactive. Retrieved 17 October 2013. 
  3. ^ "Werckmeister Harmóniák". Rotten Tomatoes. Flixster. Retrieved 17 October 2013. 
  4. ^ "Yielding to the Power of Persuasion". nytimes.com. Retrieved 16 August 2014. 
  5. ^ "Movie Guide: New Releases". csmonitor.com. Retrieved 16 August 2014. 
  6. ^ "The Werckmeister Harmonies: Deep waters". The Guardian. theguardian.com. Retrieved 16 August 2014. 
  7. ^ Roger Ebert's "Great Movies" essay about Werckmeister Harmonies.
  8. ^ "Werckmeister Harmonies, The". British Film Institute. explore.bfi.org.uk. Retrieved 16 August 2014. 
  9. ^ "The 21st Century's Most Acclaimed Films (50-1)". They Shoot Pictures, Don't They?. theyshootpictures.com. Retrieved 16 August 2014. 

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