A bar in a provincial town. A strange dance is underway, with three drunken patrons enacting an eclipse, sun, moon, and earth circling and interposing. The dance is choreographed by Valushka, an “innocent” and utopian man. Outside, the town is caught in frost. Soon, hundreds of people will occupy the main square, waiting for the newest attraction in town, a giant stuffed whale, together with a little Prince (we will see only his shadow, and hear his shrill and dictatorial voice). Soon the order of the town will be disturbed, obscurantism and chaos will spread, sparing none. Werckmeister Harmonies, by Hungarian director Béla Tarr, a 2-1/2 hour film in black-and-white, is one of those films where knowing the story doesn’t prepare you for what you will see. And what you see is probably a masterpiece. I say “probably” because I don’t like the word masterpiece, but while watching it you feel that from the first scene to the last, nothing about this film is contingent. Nor the film itself. I found Béla Tarr’s number and called him as he was having a drink in a bar on the “croisette,” waiting for the evening screening of his film. An hour later, as darkness was slowly descending on this warm provincial town, we started the recording.
Eric Schlosser: After 10 days of Cannes, it’s by far the most impressive movie I saw and one that I find totally justified in every option it takes, visually, dramatically. Even though it presents you with a different reality, an unspecified location and time, that reality strikes you as totally unquestionable and somehow familiar. How did you define the visuals of your film, especially the near absence of editing, which makes absolute sense here, unlike most movies where long takes just demonstrate skills?
Béla Tarr: You know it’s a long way from my first film till now (laughs). It’s step by step, from film to film, everything is moved a little bit, changed a little bit . . .I often have the feeling that we make always the same movie, just always a little bit better. We try each time to make a little bit better. So the style was never a question, you know, it’s coming from the last movie, the last movie was coming from the previous movie, and so forth . . . I cannot tell you many things about it. Have you seen my last movie?
No I haven’t, but wasn’t it a short film?
No it was a long one (laughs), seven hours long.
I was thinking about Journey to the Plain, but you mean Sátántangó.
Yes, Sátántangó, before that short one, it was shown a lot of times in the States. Where are you living?
I live in France . . .
Oh . . ., yes, it wasn’t shown.
I haven’t seen your previous movies, you’ll have to forgive my “innocent” questions. So it was a seven-hour movie filmed as well with long takes.
Yes we used also long takes . . .[Agnes Hranitzky, Tarr’s editor and partner in life tells him something in Hungarian] . . .Oh yes, it was seven hours 15 minutes (laughs).
Can you tell why you use the long take as your main narrative instrument?
You know I like the continuity, because you have a special tension. Everybody is much more concentrated than when you have these short takes. And I like very much to build things, to conceive the scenes, how we can turn around somebody, you know, all the movements implied in these shots. It’s like a play, and how we can tell something, tell something about life . . . Because it’s very important to make the film a real psychological process . . .
You want the film to be like a journey, that’s what the long take does . . .
It’s difficult to imagine that some of the scenes could actually be filmed, like the one in the hospital. This mad crowd going from one room to another, beating people up.
It was simple . . . it was two days. The first day we rehearsed, we made the construction, the choreography and everything, and then we just started shooting. It was a little bit difficult because of the extras, the action, but we did it step by step, we started with the camera, first position, second position, third position, we fixed everything, afterwards we rehearsed all together, and that’s all.
Is it the longest take of the film?
No, the longest is the first one, in the bar. It’s 10 minutes and 20 seconds. Because afterwards the camera runs out of film. Kodak cannot make it longer than 300 meters, which is about 11 minutes.
So that’s your only limit . . .
Yes (laughs), this is my limit, this fucking Kodak (laughs), a time limit. A kind of censorship.
I imagine that everything is staged, nothing that we see in the frame happens by accident.
Yes, absolutely, it’s impossible otherwise. Everything is controlled from the sky to the ground. Every scene is carefully composed. We must do it, because if something is wrong, with long takes, you must start again from the very beginning. And it happened many times.
Do you conceive the choreography yourself?
Yes, it’s simple, we don’t need a choreographer. You come from right, you come from left . . .that’s all.
How much time did it take you to shoot the movie?
I don’t know exactly, because we had a lot of interruptions. We couldn’t shoot the whole movie together. It lasted three years total. We had a lot of difficulties with the financing, then we found solutions for the financing but we had problems with the weather, sickness, you know, everything that happens that isn’t necessary. I think it was around 68 days . . .
Yes, three seasons, three winters.
The photography is stunning. You worked with the director of photography of Sátántangó, Gabor Medvigy.
Yes, but you know, we did this movie with seven cameramen. Gabor was the one who made more than the others. We had one American, two Hungarians, two Germans, and one French. Gabor made nearly twenty scenes, the German who is a Steadycam guy made five important scenes, the French cameraman made the closing scene. I was really aggressive, you know, because I have a very strong imagination about the picture, I can tell very clearly how will be the first shot, second, etc.
The film is adapted from a book by László Krasznahorkai.
The writer is a friend of ours, we made together three other movies. We know each other very well, we know everything, it’s very easy to work together. He is a good writer, but his language couldn’t be used directly into the film, so we changed many scenes. You can’t compare literature and cinema, it’s two different languages.
Why did you want to adapt this particular book? How did you relate to the story ?
The whole thing started . . .well, we read the novel and thought it was good, but we didn’t want to make a movie about it. And about five years ago we met in Berlin with Lars Rudolph, the actor who plays Valushka, and we immediately thought that we had our Valushka and that we had a reason to read the book again. The real reason we decided to make the film is because we met the person who could be Valushka. We were influenced by his personality and afterwards we started to work on the script.
In French francs it’s about 10 million, so less than 1.5 million dollars. Half of the money came from Hungary, 3 million francs from Germany, 1 million from France, and 1 million is still missing. So it’s a very small budget. But it was very hard for Béla to find the money in Hungary. In Germany, Arte, ZDF are involved, but in France I’m alone, it’s private money.
How did you meet with Béla Tarr?
Two years ago, someone told me that Béla Tarr had some difficulties with his film, so I went to Budapest and screened five takes. It was so completely crazy, unbelievable, that I decided to help him. The film was stopped at that time. You know, during the screening of the rushes, I don’t speak German or Hungarian, but I could see and feel what could be the film. The script is not really what matters with Béla, he writes the script only for the producers (laughs). I was so impressed that I could only help him. The budget is very small, it’s nothing, but it’s so difficult to find money in Germany, in France. Some people Béla knows helped him, from Rai 3 in Italy for example, but it’s very little money. Arte also put very small money.
Béla Tarr: We started the movie without the whole financing. If we had some money we ran and shot. Then it stopped. It was very difficult for the actors, you know, because they are Germans, they are used to a normal life, to shoot a movie for certain days, finish it and then everybody goes home. So it was not like shooting a movie, it was like a part of life.
Did you find a distributor for France?
Yes I think so, we have some propositions to distribute the film, we’ll have to decide next month who can distribute the film.
Who can distribute it the proper way . . .
. . . yes, it could be a big success but for a certain audience.
Béla Tarr, is your work influenced by other filmmakers?
I remember some movies from my young years, it was the time when I saw many movies. Now I have no time, and I don’t like to go and watch movies as I used to. But people like Robert Bresson, Ozu. I like some Fassbinder movies very much. Cassavettes. Hungarian films too.
Did you attend a film school?
I went to film school after my first movie. Because you know at that time everybody needed a diploma. It was communist time, if you wanted to be a filmmaker you had to study in the official film school. But first I made a movie (laughs).
Did you suffer from censorship?
I think censorship is always there. Then it was the censorship of the state and now it’s the censorship of the market. Some differences but . . .
Otar Iosseliani, the Georgian director, was telling me the same, that the censorship of the big audience is worse that the censorship of the state, because you only get money for movies made for the big audience.
Yes, he is right. Because during the communist area you knew you had to make some tricks here and there, like a snake, and if you were very fast and you had some good ideas, you could do it. I really did what I wanted. We had a lot of difficulties, but finally we could make the movies.
Can you tell me about your collaboration with your wife, Agnes Hranitzky?
We’ve been working together for nearly 22 years. You know she is the editor, but we have no cuts (laughs). The whole movie is 39 takes, and Sátántangó was around 150. We decide everything about the cutting during the shooting. 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 . . .[Agnes Hranitzky interrupts him . . .] Oh yes, she just reminded me that we made Macbeth for the Hungarian TV nearly 18 years ago, and it was only two takes (laughs).
And how did you first meet?
We worked together on a movie a friend of ours was making. She was the editor and I was helping on something. And when I made my first movie she just came to me and helped and afterwards we were always together. We are living together. It’s a very simple story.
Can you tell in your own words what the movie is about, or rather, what do you want the audience to understand about the film?
I have a hope, if you watch this film and you understand something about our life, about what is happening in middle Europe, how we are living there, in a kind of edge of the world. That’s all. After you see the film, I think you know a bit better.