Best of the Decade: Werckmeister Harmonies
On a cold night in late February 2007, I made a pilgrimage to the Brooklyn Academy of Music to acquaint myself with the work of Béla Tarr, a filmmaker whose name had become emblematic of formidable intellect, exhaustive running times, and a rapturously grand vision. This was mostly due to the proselytizing of Susan Sontag and other critics smitten by Tarr’s seven-and-a-half-hour magnum opus Sátántangó, a legendary, see-it-if-you-can rarity reportedly on par with Rivette’s equally elusive Out 1. It hardly mattered that, on this particular evening, everyone in my immediate social circle was gathering at various domestic outposts to revel in a very different kind of cinematic celebration—the annual bestowal of gilded homunculi on Hollywood’s mandarin class. The Academy Awards have their allure, but I was in a heavy mood, more pensive than depressive, and at a certain hour I determined that my time might be better spent sinking into whatever otherworldly textures and immersive folds of time this notoriously headstrong Hungarian had in store with his arcanely titled Werckmeister Harmonies, about which I knew very little. The scarcity of Tarr’s films on U.S. screens added to my interest, as did BAM’s boldly counterintuitive programming, which seemed directed as much by hope (behold a true master of cinema…please?) as it did pure spite (fuck the Academy and its night of narcissistic self-congratulation!). To my surprise, the theater was not barren: fifty or so kindred spirits sat quietly (and for the most part, alone) as if anticipating a private ceremony that demanded solemn reverence rather than ecstatic conviviality. Did these anonymous patrons know something I didn’t? Two and a half hours later, I was newly baptized in Tarr’s dark, majestic vision and mesmerized by this waking nightmare of restive agitators, quasi-mystical visitations, and oblique prognostications of social and cosmic upheaval in post-communist Eastern Europe, and my conversion was complete.