Waiting for the Miracle: The Films of Béla Tarr, Ágnes Hranitzky, and László Krasznahorkai

In "Werckmeister Harmonies," recently restored and now touring the US, the trio excavates an unexpected grace from grit and grime.
Robert Rubsam

Werckmeister Harmonies (Béla Tarr and Ágnes Hranitzky, 2000).

Werckmeister Harmonies (2000) begins at closing time. Dousing the embers in his wood-burning stove, a weary bartender shouts at the gathered drunks to get out. Not yet, they say, there’s still one last thing left to do. And right on time arrives János (Lars Rudolph), a bug-eyed young man full of uncomplicated yet not entirely naïve wonder about the universe. He picks one drunk to be the sun, another the Earth, and a third to be the moon, and has them act out a swirling, swaying dance, the sun shining, the Earth revolving until, quite suddenly, János calls them to a stop: a lunar eclipse, wonder of wonders, has settled onto the Earth, blocking out the light of the sun, and calling the entire room to a hush. But then, says János, the moon passes, the sun returns, and all of them have “escaped the weight of darkness,” a miracle that calls the entire roomful of haggard alcoholics to the floor, to waltz and to rotate and to envision, for a moment, how their run-down, washed-out lives might, on rare occasions, cross paths with the sublime.

The collaboration between director Béla Tarr, editor Ágnes Hranitzky, and writer László Krasznahorkai has produced many such degraded miracles. Across five features, the trio have shown us slaughterhouse horses racing through vacant city squares, the bodies of little dead girls levitating in the air, a man who suddenly begins barking like a dog, and the world of a peasant family unmaking itself, element by element, until even the light has gone, a parade of surreal, even absurd grotesqueries that add to these stories of false prophets and far-too-credulous innocents an element of grandeur, even majesty.

Werckmeister, now touring the US in a new 4K restoration from the Hungarian Film Archive, was their third full-length collaboration, and Hranitzky’s first as a credited co-director. Tarr and Hranitzky, who are married, first worked together on a series of stylized social realist dramas about unstable outcasts, starting with The Outsider in 1981. Tarr’s famous long takes found their patient partner in Hranitzky’s careful editing rhythms, allowing images to develop for minute after minute only to cut on a precisely timed punch line. She elegantly prevents their films from stagnating in sluggish, drawn-out imagery. “We decide everything about the cutting during the shooting,” Tarr said in a 2000 interview. “She is always there and watches everything on the video monitor. She checks the rhythm of the scene, how two scenes will interact and things like that.”

Tarr approached Krasznahorkai after reading the writer’s 1985 debut novel Sátántangó, demanding that they adapt it together. By this time, the two men were essentially pariahs in official Hungarian cultural circles—Krasznahorkai had his passport confiscated in the 1970s, and spent years working menial jobs in mines and collective farms; Tarr, according to Krasznahorkai, was “a hated man in the Hungarian film world”—and so the Hungarian government refused to permit or fund the project. So the pair wrote 1988’s cracked noir Damnation instead, a film that establishes the trio’s aesthetic preoccupations: a stark black-and-white palette; extensive stretches of silence; and long, intricately choreographed shots, often tracking actors for minutes at a time.

Werckmeister Harmonies (Béla Tarr and Ágnes Hranitzky, 2000).

Werckmeister expands these principles until they reach a cosmic scale. The story begins with this barroom eclipse and follows the postman János as he travels throughout his small Hungarian city. A circus arrives in town and, like a magnet, draws a horde of violent, expectant men along in its wake. These men have come to hear “the Prince,” a miniature megalomaniac who preaches a gospel of chaos. But János only has eyes for the main attraction: a long-dead whale, touted as the largest in the world, stuffed and stinking, sequestered inside of a sheet-metal trailer. He observes the ragged body, and finds himself especially transfixed by the beast’s great glass eye, gleaming out across the void of death. The camera drifts through the cramped trailer behind him, lingering as János does over the molting skin, the drooping baleen, the frozen limbs. The simple fact of the thing, brought to his home from the watery deep, is enough to floor János. He declares it a wonder, proof of God’s strange and ineffable genius. You admire the boy for his awe. Even in a muddy and rundown town, one might brush up against the mechanics of the universe, and even glimpse moments of grace.

Werckmeister Harmonies is adapted from Krasznahorkai’s 1989 novel The Melancholy of Resistance, a dense, difficult, and frequently quite joyous attempt to depict this traveling circus effect on a provincial city near the end of communism. Since the mid-’80s, Krasznahorkai has become increasingly well-known for his absurd and often sublime works that reflect, pessimistically, on the possibilities of transcendence in the midst of modernity and decline. His novels, stories, and essays recall writers from Dostoevsky to Kafka to Bernhard in their willingness to ground metaphysical questions and abstractions in grimy, remote locales. Through his long, on-rushing sentences, which accumulate page after page of clauses, characters, and grievances, he works out struggles between the beautiful and the corrupt, the innocent and the cynical, the weak and the strong. Staging these stories in far-flung hidey-holes that one can hardly find on a map, Krasznahorkai suggests that even the grandest truths must apply to the most seemingly insignificant people.

Krasznahorkai likes to center his stories on vulnerable innocents and loose-screwed madmen, Prince Myshkin types who, as he poignantly phrases it, have been “wounded by the world.” These characters, like War & War’s Korin and Melancholy’s foolish János, “believe in a universe where everything is wonderful, including human existence,” creating “a heavenly space” in the narrative with room for beautiful, miraculous moments: the eclipse, the horses, the whale. “I honor very much the fact that they are believers,” says Krasznahorkai. “But their way of thinking about the universe, about the world, this belief in innocence, is not possible for me.” 

For these innocents are eternally dogged by the wicked, animal conditions of this world, from the violent bruisers who stalk them down alleys, to the rain pelting rot down onto their homes and the mud that streaks their floors, to the stuffing showing through the whale’s dead skin. János, in his innocence, sees much that others won’t. But outside the trailer, the crowd is growing restless, and already the Prince prepares to make his final, apocalyptic speech, to unleash the crowd of restless men upon János and his insignificant town.

Melancholy is a work of Gogolian scope, hopping freely from character to character in its attempt to convey the full scope of this remote society’s disintegration. The film, adapted by Krasznahorkai alongside Péter Dobai and Tarr, wisely chooses to pare the source text down to the story of János as he roves throughout the town, fulfilling his duties and pursuing his acquaintances as the fabric of reality comes apart around him. This gives Werckmeister a sense of genuine momentum, a fleet, almost light touch at odds with its substantial running time. Whether following János as he embarks on his duties or peeking into the lives of the townsfolk or marching before the unleashed mob, the camera rarely stops dollying, panning, tracking, and zooming, cutting with great ease from perspective to perspective as if to encompass the experience of the entire town. It creates a propulsion absent from Krasznahorkai’s dense, diffuse novel, and the effect is both sweeping and intimate, an epic related in strikingly few minutes.

Sátántangó (Béla Tarr, 1994).

Thankfully, anyone with nearly seven and a half hours to kill can turn to the trio’s legendary Sátántangó (1994). Across its sprawling runtime, the film adapts nearly every page of Krasznahorkai’s debut novel. The residents of a collective farm are preparing to sell off what remains of their run-down dump when news arrives that Irimiás (composer and frequent collaborator Mihály Vig), a malevolently charismatic young man, has returned to them from the dead. Across twelve parts, the camera spends plentiful time with the farm’s many residents, panning across their ragged homes, tracking along weather-beaten walls, and following them down windswept streets and through fields of mud, waltzing forward and backwards in time until the moment of Irimiás’s arrival, postponing for hour after hour the moment of final social collapse. The film mires us in their environment until the possibility of escape comes to seem as likely as the end credits. You emerge with sore eyes, blinking like a subterranean creature dragged suddenly into the light.

Along the way, Sátántangó lingers on the textures and details of this dilapidated and disintegrating world. This must be one of the most tactile films ever made: rain dribbles down window panes, dust clogs up attics, ancient plaster flakes off crumbling walls. Mud gets on everything, caking coats, soaking shoes, and tracking over all these filthy floors. The film’s patient ethos gives you the time to absorb it all, to steep yourself in this dingy, denigrated, perfectly distressed milieu.

Perhaps because it’s 439 minutes long, or perhaps because this is the sort of movie in which we watch a cat being poisoned to death, Sátántangó has acquired a fearsome reputation. When the Arbelos restoration played at Lincoln Center a few years ago, the ads basically asked: Can you handle it? Now, is it slow? Of course. Can it be unpleasant? You bet. Yet this is also a film of constant movement, a story that transforms over the course of those ultra-long takes until it arrives at a series of poignant culminations, showing us mysterious images that never quite resolve into their muck and mire. Those masterfully choreographed shots track figures, stray details, even invisible elements as they pass behind walls and through the darkness, evolving as they go. These sequences offer a cinematic form for Krasznahorkai’s profuse sentences, which encompass many perspectives within their loping, twisty syntax. They present the reader with ideas or images that can be pursued through permutation after permutation, transforming in the reader’s mind until their thoughts are deposited on some far-off mountain peak, with an unexpected vantage on our world.

At their best, these stories depict the world in its vast totality, heightened yet naturalistic, wide in scope yet peopled, detailed, pulsing with life. Werckmeister gradually drifts away from János to follow the crowd of violent men as they march through town, ransacking it as they go. The camera lingers on their faces, full of mute fury and dull determination: a mob guided by elemental urges and atmospheric currents. Even when the violence is at its worst, theirs is a peculiarly enchanted kind of degradation, compelling us to look up at that “heavenly space” that drifts above us, to consider the possibility that there might be more to the world than brute materialism. These moments drift, gorgeously, through every one of the trio’s films, pockets of genuine transcendence that crowd out, for a moment, the mud, the rain, the blood. And yet there is always the melancholy knowledge that all innocence must lapse, and everything beautiful will one day be wounded, and wounded terribly, by the world. For every up, there is a down, and every heaven is drawn down to hell.

The Turin Horse (Béla Tarr and Ágnes Hranitzky, 2011).

The trio next worked together on The Man from London (2007), a glacial detective story fundamentally undercut by its disastrous production history. You can sense, in the opening moments, a story of grand scope, but beyond a pair of intricately choreographed takes and some gorgeous Corsican locations, the results are inert: all technique, no passion. Their final feature together, The Turin Horse (2011)—a severe, ascetic story that depicts the decline of the 19th-century peasantry as its own apocalypse—attains a kind of majesty on a microscopic scale. A father and a daughter sit in a stone house, eating boiled potatoes, drawing water by hand, and looking on as their miniature society dwindles down to nothing over the course of one week. Like their old draft horse, they are totally at the mercy of a harsh and inexplicable universe, accepting with nearly mute submission every bizarre occurrence visited upon them. Yet there are no heavenly visitations, no interventions, and no wonders. The film rarely cuts, and stubbornly refuses to leave their little valley. Only a few lunatics stop by to visit. We are locked into their world, and that world is dying. The miracles here are all mysterious, all unknowable, and all catastrophic, a series of subtractions that dissolve their reality one element at a time, until even light, the essence of cinema, has gone from the Earth. 

Horse marks the end of their collaboration, one final eclipse from this great trio. Since then, Tarr has made a pair of site-specific short films, and Hranitzky has no further credits. Krasznahorkai has shifted from the macrocosmic focus of his early novels towards a looser, more experimental style, favoring monologue and reverie in shorter bursts. It’s not a large body of work—just five features and a single short. Yet as the restoration of Werckmeister shows, their films are still revelatory, their accomplishments not yet degraded. With their ambition, their patience, and their eye for grace in the breach, they remind us of the heavenly space held by art in a culture hellbent on degrading it. These days, it seems more and more remarkable, perhaps even miraculous, that such powerful works should exist in our world at all—and that they should help us to escape, if just briefly, that great weight of darkness. 

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Béla TarrÁgnes HranitzkyLászló Krrasznahorkai
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