Darren Carver-Balsiger’s review published on Letterboxd:
Werckmeister Harmonies is a film of constant symbolism and allegory. It is the greatest philosophical and political allegory since Sátántangó, another film by master auteur Béla Tarr. Werckmeister Harmonies is Tarr's most exciting film (although Sátántangó remains his best) because it's the most brimming with ideas. Adapting the novel The Melancholy of Resistance by László Krasznahorkai, Werckmeister Harmonies more than matches the quality of the masterful original text. The film is more implicit in some ways, taking the dense metaphorical nature of the novel but removing the clarity of the book's multi-viewpoint narrative. What remains though is the unfolding of a Mitteleuropean tragedy, which is hypnotically enchanting and slow, and on an intimate scale with cosmic flourishes.
Werckmeister Harmonies is a distinctly political work, even if it embraces an apolitical stance of nihilistic condemnation of every side. The film opens with a tale told in a bar about the planets and the sun. This story provides a sense of community to those listening because the vast emptiness of existence and the systems that keep it going are ever present. We only feel free when we think we understand the system. This is people living drab lives, wanting change, and thinking they know how. They think history hasn't wronged them. The world as present now must be false in every way, right down to the music (hence the need for the titular harmonies). It must be false, as that is the only way to justify our faults. We must revert back to the old system, because it must have been better since it cannot be worse. This is traditionalism masquerading as revolutionary. As a group, people will rise, but they know not why they hate or feel. They will become collectivist, but will be run by an individual and fuelled by the lies of individualism. They will become harbingers of fate, as society enters a free-fall which descends quickly before a sudden impact. Their struggle becomes a metaphorical re-enactment of the tale of hope told in the bar, but this time there is despair. This time the eclipse leaves the world darker, or at least no lighter than before. This revolution will stop, but only upon a revelation we all already know: we are destined to become old and weak, decrepit, naked, unclothed, and unmasked. Why destroy and erase the future? It's the only thing we can change. We are all set to become a lonely innocent, so why destroy ourselves and our humanity?
The title of the novel - The Melancholy of Resistance - is somewhat more telling than the enigmatic title of the film. It reveals more about this contradictory uprising fuelled by anger and hate. It reveals the true overlords to be those we would call, in this Trumpian age, the establishment. The people who act out are ignorant, and their actions are met with confusion. Yet those who are confused think they are not ignorant, despite also being so in different way. No one knows or understands everything, so the futility of change is obvious. We will never all agree as never does everyone have all the facts, and if society is always full of disagreement, is it not ultimately the same regardless of who controls it? We will always revert back to disagreement and so we shall be the same forever. If society needs a leader or leaders, then it will always fail. Disagreements, by necessity, create opposing authorities and an authority that doesn't control all is powerless. This is why resistance and rebellion is bleakly meaningless. Breaking down law and order everywhere will only lead to more law and order, so why break it down? Werckmeister Harmonies depicts a power play, but for who? Tünde Eszter and the Prince both vie for some kind of power, but neither side is good and the common people will not be improved by either. Yet it doesn't really matter who is manipulating who, what matters is who the people think is doing so. What they don't understand is that they are fighting the establishment within its control and plans, so they aren't really fighting it at all. The status quo is everywhere already, yet they fight to return it. The establishment has already won. This is why the lead character suffers. He is amazed and uncertain, and those characteristics are criminal in a divided society where both sides fight for the same cause. The world is teetering on, or hoping for, an apocalypse. Unfortunately it never comes and so idealism is crushed.
Werckmeister Harmonies also touches on a lot more than politics. It looks at life through its similarly bleak lens. In a world living beneath a drab sky, where every silence is sonorous, Werckmeister Harmonies becomes obsessed with the eyes of a dead whale. Given the finite and meaningless netherworld laid out in the film, maybe existence in its entirety, or at least the answers to all its questions, can be found in the gaze of a dead whale. Few in the film seem to care about the whale, indicating either the wonders of existence don't exist or are never seen by many. The eyes of a bloated whale are ugly and surrounded by ugliness, but paradoxically the sheer enormity of such ugliness is itself beautiful, and the sheer unlikeliness of its presence is a miracle. Given we're either small things in a universe of giants (the whale, the planets, the void) or big things in a universe of nothing, the whale provides us with a gateway to both. Imagining what it has seen is humbling, but knowing we have power over it is corrupting. Yet the film ends with the rotting whale in an empty town square, it is the unmissable and unmovable stench of the system. Control has reasserted itself and left the whale as the remnants of a system that was overthrown but no-one dared destroy. The establishment, the powerful, the elites, God, the state, the whale - they are all one and the same, all omnipresent and omnipotent. They're in the public square, but no-one cares or dares to interfere. This is why life isn't sad. It doesn't make you cry. Life is actually far more brutal and depressing, and it kills you. You actually end up begging for tears as your body dries up and your only solace is the waterless eye of a dead whale.
One day, we will all die, and we'll gaze upon our finite existence and realise the wonder we can witness is only a speck of a reflection found in a pile of rot left out in the open to dissolve away like our hopes and dreams. Perhaps that gaze is meaningless, as is life itself. We turn around when afar and notice that gaze ultimately lingers on nothing. There is nothing wonderful to look at in this world, and you can't even cry about it. Werckmeister Harmonies is a melancholic masterpiece and I need a drink.