Werckmeister Harmonies

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Synopsis

This mesmeric parable of societal collapse is an enigma of transcendent visual, philosophical, and mystical resonance. Adapted from a novel by László Krasznahorkai, Werckmeister Harmonies unfolds in an unknown time in an unnamed village, where, one day, a mysterious circus—complete with an enormous stuffed whale and a shadowy, demagogue-like figure known as the Prince—arrives and appears to awaken a kind of madness in the citizens that builds inexorably toward violence. In thirty-nine hypnotic long takes engraved in ghostly black and white, auteur Béla Tarr and codirector-editor Ágnes Hranitzky conjure an apocalyptic vision of dreamlike dread and fathomless beauty.

Picture 9/10

The Criterion Collection presents a new 4K UHD edition of Béla Tarr’s and Ágnes Hranitzky’s Werckmeister Harmonies. This edition, presented on a triple-layer disc in its original aspect ratio of 1.66:1, offers a 2160p/24hz ultra high-definition presentation in 10-bit SDR sourced from a new 4K restoration. The restoration, sourced from a scan of the 35mm original camera negative, is also available on a standard Blu-ray with a 1080p presentation of the film and this edition's special features.

The new restoration is a beauty, and Criterion’s digital presentation does wonders with it. The film isn’t that old (though I confess I was shocked to see it was approaching its 24th birthday), but I was still surprised by how new and fresh it looks. The texture and details of the rundown settings, clothing, and withered faces all pop, while film grain has been preserved and looks beautifully rendered throughout, thanks to a terrific encode. On top of that, no print damage remains, and the image remains crisp and stable throughout.

Despite the like of HDR, I found grayscale to look incredibly wide, with smooth gradations in the sky and sharp details in the shadows. Highlights also look generally good with decent detail within. The early scene where János (Lars Rudolph) is walking around the whale in the dark trailer looks wonderful, as does another later on where an angry mob walks down a dark street.

The black levels never seem to reach a pure black, but they also never appear milky or crushed. All around, the presentation looks just fantastic.

Audio 8/10

The film’s Hungarian soundtrack is presented in lossless monaural PCM. Dialogue sounds sharp and clear, as do sound effects, but Mihály Vig’s score stands out. It’s rich and sharp, with a vast range, featuring impressive highs and lows. I wouldn't have expected much, but for a monaural presentation of a generally quiet film it's incredibly dynamic.

Extras 7/10

Criterion’s first Tarr release feels light regarding features, though at least two substantial ones are found on the standard Blu-ray. First, they’ve managed to record a new interview between Tarr and critic Scott Foundas, running 21 minutes. The two discuss his feelings around film and the directors that inspired him before working through some of his filmography, including Werckmeister Harmonies. To his disappointment, he finds the film has become more timely in its message, having initially envisioned it as simply a "fable." I’ve seen a couple of interviews with Tarr, and like those, not only is this one frank and insightful, but it’s also somewhat humorous, with Tarr being blunt and to the point.

This especially shines through when the discussion turns to his first film, Family Nest, which Criterion also supplies here as a bonus. While I'm no expert on Tarr’s films, having only seen three before it (The Turin Horse, Sátántangó, and now Werckmeister Harmonies), Family Nest feels distinctly different from his other work, aside from touching on similar thematic interests. The film focuses on a Hungarian family, with a son and his wife forced to live with his parents in a small flat while they wait for their own place. Tensions rise as the father belittles his son and sows doubts about his wife's fidelity. Desperate to escape, the young woman seeks help from a government agency to speed up the process, only to be met with bureaucratic obstacles.

It’s an engaging drama with a socio-political context, but it’s stylistically and tonally different from Tarr’s other work. It has more of a cinema vérité vibe and feels so much like a documentary that the opening titles explicitly state that the film is not a documentary, as though Tarr feared the audience might confuse it for one. While it includes lengthy sequences, it also features more traditional cuts and edits than Tarr's later work, making it a faster-paced film. Tarr acknowledges how his style has evolved since then, so I expected this to feel different, but the difference was more pronounced than I expected.

The presentation is satisfactory, although it hasn’t received the same attention as the main feature. Sourced from a 4K restoration, it looks sharp, but the encode leaves something to be desired. The image is a bit fuzzy, with muddled grain and limited range in the black-and-white photography. While it’s not overly distracting, I almost wish they had included an additional disc for the film to give it more breathing room.

The release closes with the trailer advertising the new restoration and a poster insert featuring an essay by Dennis Lim, adding an academic element to the release, the only outside of a handful of comments from Foundas during the Tarr interview.

While including Family Nest adds significant value to the release on its own, Criterion’s first Tarr title still warrants more academic analysis.

Closing

Features are shockingly slim, but the 4K presentation is gorgeous!

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Year: 2000
Time: 145 min.
 
Series: The Criterion Collection
Edition #: 1215
Licensor: Luxbox
Release Date: April 16 2024
MSRP: $49.95
 
4K UHD Blu-ray/Blu-ray
2 Discs | BD-50/UHD-100
1.66:1 ratio
Hungarian 1.0 PCM Mono
Subtitles: English
Regions A/None
HDR: None
 
 Family Nest (1979), Tarr’s first feature film   New interview with Béla Tarr by film critic Scott Foundas   An essay by film programmer and critic Dennis Lim