Decay of a Mortal God: Béla Tarr’s “Werckmeister Harmonies”

Valuska, a dreamy, and intellectually “slow” postman, with a poetic understanding of his surroundings, stages a little scene with a bunch of weary drunkards, in a bar, at the very beginning of the film. He arranges the drunkards to act the roles of the the Moon and the Earth, as they revolve around the Sun. A total eclipse is created and the sky darkens and then all goes dark. The dogs howl, rabbits hunch down, the deer run in panic, run, stampede in fright. And in this awful incomprehensible dusk, even the birds, the birds are too confused and go to roost. And then… Complete silence. Everything that lives is still. Are the hills going to march off? Will heaven fall upon us? Will the Earth open under us? We don’t know. For a total eclipse has come upon us…. But… No need to fear it is not over. For across the Sun’s glooming sphere, slowly the Moon swims away… And the Sun once again bursts forth, and to the Earth there slowly comes again light, and warmth again floods the Earth. Deep emotion pierces everyone. They have escaped the weight of darkness. Valuska walks into the town’s night and solemn, peaceful and melancholic piano music accompanies his departure.

András B. Kovács, in his book The Cinema of Béla Tarr: The Circle Closes, argues that this ritual, which is repeated every night, as it is emphasized in the novel the film was based on, Krasznahorkai’s The Melancholy of Resistance, has two functions: “One is eternity of natural laws and processes, engendering the alternation of coldness and warmth, darkness and light, which allows the return of hope, and assures nothing is closed down forever.” The other function is “the one that connects the individual with the cosmos. The show brings the cosmic nature of human beings down to the deepest and most hopeless levels of human existence.” In the article about Béla Tarr’s “Evolution in Understanding of Art, Life and Cinema”, I have identified the three stages in his filmmaking. The first is characterized by social anger, the second is the ‘ontological phase’ and the end there is the ‘cosmic phase’. I have deliberately omitted Werckmeister Harmonies from that article, and I believe that it belongs to the cosmic phase of his oeuvre, and in the very first scene I have just described, this is emphasized. The ontological problems of human existence are still present, but they are a part of a larger, cosmic picture.

Since Valuska works as a postman, he meets various people delivers the newspapers. A working-class woman he meets tells him of coal shortages, people’s fear to go out because they could be robbed or attacked, the disappearance of families and the end of the normal course of things in the everyday lives of citizens. All of this is somehow connected to the arrival of the mysterious Prince along with the circus to town. Strange things are connected with the Prince, a tree fell and its roots suddenly started coming out of the ground. The woman asks Valuska: “How are things in the cosmos?“ She makes fun of his affiliation to the cosmic order of things, understanding him as a dreamy and slightly retarded individual. However, in this ironic remark, the cosmic nature of things ocurring in the film is revealed. While ordinary people live their day-to-day experiences without reflecting on the greater picture, someone like Valuska, although he might be intellectually deficient, struggles to keep things in balance through his acts of imagination – the ritual at the beginning of the film. Now, we witness things going out of control in the everyday life of citizens, and that they cannot escape the great unbalances in the cosmic order.

At the post office, the officer says: “Apparently, they came on the evening train yesterday. Because of the whale… Some say there’s at least three hundred of them. Someone else, that there’s only two of them actually, and that the whole attraction is the most frightening things you’ll ever see. It’s also said that the whole thing is just a cover-up for other things. That when the night comes, they’ll swoop down on peaceful inhabitants. They also say… that the whale’s got no part in it.“ Valuska inspects the great whale with awe, and says to Mr. Eszter, an elderly musicologist he is taking care of, that it is one of the most mysterious creatures Lord can create.  In the philosophy of Thomas Hobbes, the state as a “Mortal God” is identified with the Biblical creature, Leviathan, a giant whale. Hobbes writes: “The only way to erect such a common power, as may be able to defend them from the invasion of foreigners, and the injuries of one another, and thereby to secure them in such sort, as that by their own industry, and by the fruits of the earth, they may nourish themselves and live contentedly; is, to confer all their power and strength upon one man, or upon one assembly of men, that may reduce all their wills, by plurality of voices, unto one will.” (Leviathan, Ch. XVII)

It is important that the post-officer says that “the whale’s got no part in it [the Prince’s scheme]”. In other words, state no longer operates, we can see that the inhabitants of a town no longer live peacefully and are under attack by mysterious forces from outside; they are not protected by the state. The state of affairs which is derived from this condition is a state of perpetual war of every man against the other, the so-called state of nature. That there is a sovereign power looming from above, we will see later in the film.  Tünde, the ex-wife of the musicologist Eszter, makes an ultimatum: he will either collect the signatures to start a Clean Town Movement, led by her and in association with her lover, the police-chief, or she and her lover will move to his place and he will lose his independence. She plots to take over the town by her own scheme, to be its ruler from the shadows. In the novel Melancholy of Resistance, her claim is even more emphasized, as well as the rivalry between her and Mrs. Harrer.

Carl Schmitt, a political theorist and jurist, further expanded this symbolism of Leviathan. He writes: “It can thus be explained that the leviathan as serpent or dragon changes from an apparition representing a dangerous force to a downright foul fiend. He may just as well symbolize the power of the devil in his various forms of appearance, including Satan himself. Like the more ‘chthonic’ behemoth, he comes close to the apocalyptic beasts that appear in The Revelation of Saint John: the dragon, the serpent, the ‘beast from the abyss,’ the ‘beast coming from the earth,’ and the ‘beast rising from the sea.’”  It can be understood why Hobbes chose this ‘beast from the abyss’ to embody his conception of the state, it is terrifying and magnificent in its omnipotence. Yet, Schmitt’s enumeration of Leviathan’s symbolism in the Hebrew Bible can further help us understand the symbolism of the whale in Werckmeister Harmonies. The great whale can represent not just the state, but also a fiendish creature, symbolizing the forces of the devil himself, and foreshadowing an apocalyptic scenario, which does occur later in the film. Valuska, when he sees the whale later in the film, says: “Look how much trouble you’ve caused”.

Jaws of Leviathan
Jacob Isaacsz Swanenburgh, Jaws of Leviathan cca 1600

Valuska enters Mr. Eszter’s house and the latter speaks in the microphone, of the introduction of the “unnatural” and artificial musical harmonies in the 17th century by Andreas Werckmeister. He says: “Here we have to acknowledge the fact that there were ages more fortunate than ours, those of Pythagoras and Aristoxenes, when our forefathers were satisfied with the fact that their purely tuned instruments were played in only some tones, because they were not troubled by doubts, for they knew that heavenly harmonies were the province of gods.” Mr. Eszter concludes: “Carefully, we have to correct Werckmeister’s mistakes. What we have to do then, if we are aware, is that this natural tuning has its limits and it is somewhat worrisome limit that definitely excludes the use of higher signatures.“ The “purely tuned instruments” of Pythagoras were a part of a natural harmony existing in the universe, and what Werckmeister accomplished was the elimination of that very harmony – it is an act of pleonexia – the one which aims for limitless expansion in the world of music.

Mr. Eszter understands that the natural tuning has its limits, and that’s worrisome for him, for the use of higher signatures is excluded and it is implied that a greater part of modern music cannot be played, if one tunes his instruments according to the “natural harmony” which existed before. This understanding is anti-modernistic, and it aims at restoring natural order and harmony in place of disorder. He emphasizes that this is a philosophical question. Pythagoras’ natural harmony which Mr. Eszter prefers over Werckmeister’s modernistic understanding of music, can be compared, politically speaking, with the harmony established in premodern times.

Werckmeister’s act of “dividing the octave of the harmony of the gods” can, on the other hand, be compared to the limitless expansion of modernity. In the novel Melancholy of Resistance, it can be vividly seen that Mr. Eszter is living an artificial life, passive and completely withdrawn from the world; his only connection to the outside world are walks with Valuska. His reactionary sentiments are only sentiments, without any desire for action, aside from advocating the return to the premodern musical harmony. Valuska overhears the conversation between the Prince, his translator (and seemingly his protector) and the circus manager. The Prince speaks in some foreign language incomprehensible for the other characters (it is Slovakian) and the translator says to the circus manager that the Prince doesn’t recognize any higher authority and the characters can see that he has “some magnetic power over people”. The circus manager says that he created the Prince; we see that behind every nihilistic endeavor aiming for total destruction is the money of those who seek to profit from the magnetic influence a certain leader can have on the masses, and his subsequent political power.

The nihilistic power of Prince’s discourse can be seen in his words from the novel: “Whatever they build and will build… whatever they do and will do, is a disappointment and a lie. Whatever they think and will think makes one laugh. They think because they are afraid. And he who is afraid knows nothing. He wants, as he says, everything to become a ruin. Ruins contain every construction, thus disappointment and lies are like air in the ice, that’s what it is like. Everything is contained only in half in construction; in ruins, everything becomes a whole.” Prince’s character cannot be compared with any tyrant who has ruled in the 20th century, although it is tempting to make such comparisons. His nihilism is metaphysical, his arguments are even more so. He does not seek destruction to realize a utopia, the rule of a class or a race, but purely for destruction’s sake, since only in destruction “everything becomes a whole”. When life and material world are reduced to their primal source, nothingness, they become themselves again, the part becomes a whole. The Prince speaks similarly in the film, after the hypnotized masses have destroyed the city and injured many of its inhabitants.

The much debated, and harrowingly beautiful scene, in which the crowd attacks the hospital, beats its inhabitants and destroys it, is the one with a vulnerable old man who stands in the bathtub, observing the attackers. The crowd solemnly walks away from the spot, and does not resume with the rampage. Some have said that this scene is unrealistic and overly sentimental since the sight of helplessness can only provoke further aggression in the attackers.  I would not fully agree. The old man didn’t look frightened, he did not really look helpless, just innocently fragile. This sight is similar to seeing an infant baby, whose helplessness usually does not provoke further aggression. The sight of a defeated and desperate being can provoke further aggression, but I believe that this scene is not completely unrealistic. It has an almost mythical resonance; the sight of a naked, skinny old man who looks almost ethereally white in the dark, has a purifying effect – it invokes pity.

The tanks and the army arrive on the scene to bring order to the town (they are called by the police chief and Tünde, his lover, who has finally acquired true power over the town’s inhabitants), but we are aware that this is not true order, it is another illegitimate rule which brings terror. This is vividly seen when Mrs. Harren says to Valuska, who is obviously innocent, that the army is looking for him. He says that he has not done anything, but she replies that “it does not matter to them”. His name is on their list. Instead of the Prince who brings terror to achieve annihilation of life and matter, another power is looming above the heads of the inhabitants which deems everyone guilty; no one is innocent and anyone can be found guilty, whether they have done something, or have done nothing, especially if they have done nothing. The Prince is an active nihilist who destroys, and everyone is “guilty” simply because they live, while the other power is the one which punishes passivity.

Aunt Tünde punishes Mr. Eszter for his passivity by moving in his apartment with the police chief, while Valuska’s passivity is punished by his imprisonment in the psychiatric ward. Some interpreters say that it is illogical for Valuska to see the helicopter looming above his head on the railways, because he has done nothing. For this line of interpretation, it seems that it is his hallucination. Precisely because he has done nothing, and because nobody is innocent, he is arrested and the helicopter is real. Mr. Eszter’s loss of independence and the possibility of living his “hermetic” and passive life devoted to scholarship, is metaphorically conveyed in his act of tuning his piano back to “normal”, as Kovács concludes. He imagines life with Valuska in the narrow confines of what’s left for him in Mr. Eszter’s own apartment.

It seems that Tarr walks the same line as the Coen brothers in A Serious Man. When others are active in destroying the peaceful and withdrawn life of an individual, being passive is the same as admitting one’s defeat. Krasznahorkai starts at a different philosophical point of departure, he advocates passive nihilism, while the Coens criticize it, but they end up in the same place. The whale in Werckmeister Harmonies symbolizes the apocalyptical beast, but the its ruinous state also portrays the condition when the state loses its main reason for existence, to protect its subjects. Both the Prince and the army are oppressive, and both deem no one innocent. One is a hypnotic power which is a complete opposition to a rational, bureaucratic modern state, the other is the power whose foundations are in violence and terror. Tarr’s most spiritually elaborated film, and the one which is arguably the most beautiful, is perhaps the bleakest. There is no escaping the apocalyptic forces which want to obliterate life, or control it with an iron fist of terror.

5 thoughts on “Decay of a Mortal God: Béla Tarr’s “Werckmeister Harmonies”

    1. This is a great film to start with Bela Tarr. He is a unique filmmaker, more of an European director (in the tradition of its nihilism and pessimism) than Hungarian I’d say, although there are many elements which are connected with Hungarian society and history. Another great Hungarian filmmaker is Istvan Szabo. His Mephisto is a good one to start with.

      Liked by 1 person

      1. Thank you and that’s great to know. Gotcha. I wasn’t familiar with that country’s movies. The closest thing I came to anything Hungarian in film would be any movie I’ve seen with a Gabor sister in it like The Aristocats and Happily Ever After. Haha! In all seriousness, I do appreciate your recommendations.

        Liked by 1 person

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