“The Werckmeister Harmonies” is 145 minutes long. It consists of 39 shots. That’s an average shot length of 3 minutes, 42 seconds. Compare that to a film like “Lincoln,” which had one of the longest average shot lengths of mainstream films released in 2012; its average shot length was 8.5 seconds. ”Lincoln” cuts to a different shot 26 times during one of “Harmonies” shots.
Roger Ebert, among others, thinks this makes “The Werckmeister Harmonies” a great film. (I watched this because it was on Ebert’s “Great Movies” list.) I think it makes it an unbearably slow film. It’s probably possible to make a compelling and interesting movie in 39 shots, but it would be quite a formal challenge, and director Bella Tarr does not rise to that challenge.
What’s more, he doesn’t seem the least bit interested in rising to that challenge. ”The Werckmeister Harmonies” is the kind of film that dares you to give up on it, to walk out of the theater or start sneaking looks at facebook while watching it. Some filmmakers delight in making “challenging” films, or “demanding” films, and they derive a sense of smug superiority when 90% of the audience can’t make it through their work. Bella Tarr is that kind of filmmaker.
Personally, I don’t have much patience for challenging/demanding films. The rest of my life is challenging/demanding enough; I come to the movies, at least in large part, to escape. I don’t mind a film that asks me to pay attention, and then rewards me when I do. I absolutely love a film that is a puzzle to be solved; that’s good fun. But a film that wants to show me four minutes uncut of people walking, silently, from one place to another is just wasting my time.
I will say that the opening sequence of “The Werckmeister Harmonies” is pretty nice. It’s closing time in a bar, but the patrons want our protagonist to explain to them how a solar eclipse works. So they clear the tables and chairs out of the way, and he uses the drunken barflys to illustrate the sun, moon, and earth in their orbits around each other. It’s an odd and beautiful dance, as these gruff, blue collar men circle each other, impersonating celestial bodies.
But after that sequence, I recommend turning the film off and doing something else. The rest of the film just isn’t worth it.
Verdict: Not Recommended