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Werckmeister Harmonies / Damnation
cast: Lars Rudolph, Peter Fitz, Hanna Schygulla, Miklós B. Székely, and Vali Kerekes

director: Béla Tarr
145 / 120 minutes (15) 2000 / 1987
widescreen ratio 1.66:1 Artificial Eye DVD Region 2 retail

RATINGS: 7/10   &   8/10
reviewed by Peter Schilling
Adapted from a novel titled The Melancholy Resistance by L�szl� Krasznahorkai, Werckmeister Harmonies (aka: Werckmeister harmóniák, 2000) is an eerie fable by acclaimed Hungarian art house director Béla Tarr. Adopting the sombre attitude and deliberately ponderous style of noted Tarkovsky and Herzog political allegories; it follows the daily routine of protagonist János (Lars Rudolph), whose life is turned upside down by the arrival in his hometown of a 'circus fantastique'.
   Heralded by cheap posters, a stuffed whale is on display in the market square. This theatrical event is greeted by consternation, sadness and wonder. Rumours fly and catastrophe looms just out of view, as an aggravated mob of locals gather around bonfires waiting tensely for the appearance of a mysterious Prince. Sense fades in broad daylight as a barbaric uprising ensues. The hospital is ransacked, patients are viciously beaten - and yet, by morning, tanks and troops occupy the town, restoring order to chaos. János flees down the railway tracks but is spotted by a helicopter and captured with ease by the faceless new authority...
   Scenes of poverty flank the brooding intellectual speeches, much atmospheric weirdness and bemusing little marvels of character and human observation, with a monstrously bizarre central image (that of the leviathan carcass). Unrelenting anxieties deflate the beguiling mystery and all hopes for sympathy, giving way to darker moods and mortal fears. Is this a work of astounding metaphysical vision or just another slice of pretentious postmodern twaddle from Europe? The black and white cinematography is very good indeed.
   Damnation (aka: Kárhozat, 1987) was co-written by Tarr and Krasznahorkai and is broadly imitative of postwar film noir. It tells a bleakly romantic "story of disintegration" concerning the withdrawn and shabby Karrer (Miklós B. Székely) and his obsessive love for an unnamed singer (Vali Kerekes). It's set in a mining town where persistent fogs seep into lost souls. Overhead cables haul buckets of coal on an endless cycle through post-industrial wasteland. There are evocative, lingering scenes of endemic social decay. Karrer's listless pub-crawls and walks home in the rain are driven by jealousy and despair. His romantic passion for the singer leads only to tired and desperate screwing. This is a town where the most fun a man can have is barking at the mangy strays that scratch about dismal back streets in search of food. This is the kind of cinema that finds much poignancy in views of static crowds sheltering from the downpour, and makes a focus point of a long mournful look from the dance hall's philosophical wallflower.
   Tarr would have us believe film cannot tackle fiction, and there are no heroes, only people that the camera eye ought to reveal - in unflinching detail - as best it can. Well, perhaps� These two examples provide a satisfying introduction to his unique and fascinatingly existential work.
   Artificial Eye's DVD release has Dolby digital 2.0 sound in original Hungarian with optional English subtitles. Bonus items with this two-disc set: Werckmeister Harmonies features a video interview with the director conducted by Jonathan Romney, with aid of an interpreter, at the NFT on 15 March 2001. Damnation, presented here at full-frame (4:3) ratio, includes a Béla Tarr filmography.

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