Werkmeister Harmonies

In Hungarian director Béla Tarr’s dazzling, hypnotic allegory of human frailty and hope, rumors of impending chaos and violence follow a bizarre carnival attraction when it arrives under cover of darkness in the central square of an impoverished, unnamed Eastern European town. Announced by fliers pasted all along the town’s cobblestone streets, the show consists entirely of a single corrugated steel trailer, home to the preserved corpse of a giant blue whale and a mysterious homunculus named The Prince. As mobs of ragged men ominously gather around the trailer, János (Lars Rudolph), a naive young postman, moves among the town’s inhabitants with a message he seems unable to deliver. Having purchased a ticket to peek at the whale, he reports back to his elderly Uncle György, a philosopher of music obsessed with a centuries-old conspiracy of harmonic tuning, that the creature’s giant, lifeless eye contains the majesty of God’s infinite creation. János’ revelation, however, falls on deaf ears in an isolated community beset on all sides by twin crises of faith and knowledge. Into the breach steps the ever-unseen Prince — an authoritarian, nihilistic presence — who artfully goads a growing mob to unleash an orgy of horror and violence on the town. Evocatively shot in black-and-white and composed of long, meditative takes, Werkmeister Harmonies unfolds as a series of startling images that rattle the mind long after the film is over. In the film’s final moments, Tarr evokes the ending of another masterpiece of European anxiety, The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari, to close a grim cinematic circle at the conclusion of the 20th century.

—Paul Malcolm

Other recommended new releases: Made in Britain (DVD); Scum (DVD). Also released this week: VHS-DVD: Pride and Prejudice; Walk the Line; Yours, Mine and Ours. DVD: Axe; Congo: White King, Red Rubber, Black Death; Death Tunnel; The Firm; Going By; How to Kill a Judge; Kind Hearts and Coronets; Lady and the Tramp; La Scorta; Laughing in the Wind Volume 2; Little Tony; The Luciano Ercoli Death Box Set: Death Walks on High Heels, Death Walks at Midnight; Newsradio: The Complete Third Season; Peep “TV” Show; The Real Ghostbusters; Satan’s Blood; Saturday (Sabado); Shapes of the Invisible; The Sound of Love and Death — The Very Best of Stelvio Cipriani; Truman Capote’s Other Voices, Other Rooms; The Valley of the Bees; The Visitation; Welcome Back Kotter; Where the Truth Lies.

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