Saturday, September 16, 2006

Not the gorilla in the room, but the whale in the square

The film Werckmeister Harmonies is very much worth your time:
Hungarian director Bela Tarr’s Werckmeister Harmonies begins with the image of a flame being doused out. This is significant, because in this political drama, the conflict between light and dark provides much of the thematic fodder. In an astonishing opening scene, the camera smoothly zooms and pans around a dilapidated pub, as János, the film’s hero and an amateur astronomer, uses his drunken compatriots to demonstrate a solar eclipse.

Some reviews (and the Wikipedia entry) will tell you that it is a parable of Fascism - but that is far from true. It's a story of any political philosophy born of fear and anger, in the shadows of bonfires in the public square, of an unwillingness to see the truth that stands before one, of any time and place in which small-mindedness and fear-mongering rumor trump truth. It is also the story of hope betrayed:
János Valuska: You are the sun. The sun doesn't move, this is what it does. You are the Earth. The Earth is here for a start, and then the Earth moves around the sun. And now, we'll have an explanation that simple folks like us can also understand, about immortality. All I ask is that you step with me into the boundlessness, where constancy, quietude and peace, infinite emptiness reign. And just imagine, in this infinite sonorous silence, everywhere is an impenetrable darkness. Here, we only experience general motion, and at first, we don't notice the events that we are witnessing. The brilliant light of the sun always sheds its heat and light on that side of the Earth which is just then turned towards it. And we stand here in it's brilliance. This is the moon. The moon revolves around the Earth. What is happening? We suddenly see that the disc of the moon, the disc of the moon, on the Sun's flaming sphere, makes an indentation, and this indentation, the dark shadow, grows bigger... and bigger. And as it covers more and more, slowly only a narrow crescent of the sun remains, a dazzling crescent. And at the next moment, the next moment - say that it's around one in the afternoon - a most dramatic turn of event occurs. At that moment the air suddenly turns cold. Can you feel it? The sky darkens, then goes all 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 too are 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. We don't know, for a total eclipse has come upon us... But... but no need to fear. It's not over. For across the sun's glowing sphere, slowly, the Moon swims away. And the sun once again bursts forth, and to the Earth slowly there comes again light, and warmth again floods the Earth. Deep emotion pierces everyone. They have escaped the weight of darkness.

Mr. Hagelmayer: That's enough! Out of here, you tubs of beer!

János Valuska: But Mr. Hagelmayer. It's still not over.

The tragedy is that - and I can say this without really spoiling the movie for you, gentle reader - after two and a half hours, it is over for János.

Technical update: on further reading, that first link isn't really the greatest - it does a lot of extrapolating that isn't necessarily justified, and doesn't know enough about Hungarian to be able to tell you that calling people "aunt" or "uncle" generally is less than revelatory regarding family ties. These terms are generally just signs of familiarity.


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