On Wednesday I received the DVD I’d bought of my all-time favorite film in the mail. I was ecstatic. Finally, I would be able to watch this film whenever I want rather than turning to YouTube, the only other place that has the film. I waited until later that night, then put it on in complete darkness and sank into it once more. As I sat silently, transfixed through its 139 minutes, I was reminded why I believed Werckmeister Harmonies to be the greatest film I’d seen, and easily a frontrunner for the greatest film of all time.
It all starts with the opening scene, which is only one shot (two, if you count the beautiful subsequent shot of the main character walking down the road in the icy night). One shot. One nine minute unbroken tracking shot. Yes, that’s right. A nine-minute unbroken tracking shot.
Take my word for it, it is not a stunt. After a while, we become completely unaware of how long the shot is. It is unbroken, but it feels like there are cuts because the camera is nearly always moving, and is rarely static. This opening scene is my favorite scene of all time, in any film I’ve ever viewed. And I’ll tell you why.
Since it is the first scene of the film, there is no context or information I need to give you for you to watch it, but I’ll talk a little about why I love it. In this scene, the main character of the film, Janos Valuska, is standing in a pub (most likely the only sober person in the room) amongst his bar friends and colleagues. It is nearly closing time. They ask him to show them how the stars in the night sky work, since Janos is familiar with that sort of thing. So, Janos proceeds to demonstrate – using people as planets – how the solar system works. One bar patron is the sun, standing in the center. Another is the earth, and a third is the moon. Then Janos aligns the three, and we have a solar eclipse, and the whole room goes silent and Janos tells them how huge solar eclipses are. Then, as all are standing still and quiet, the camera slowly pans back into a light fixture on the ceiling.
I cannot explain in words the meaning of this one brief pause at the light fixture. Perhaps it is the tumbling realization of the beauty of the dialog that has preceded it, or perhaps it is Mihaly Vig’s beautiful piano music, playing its haunting tune in the background. I don’t know. All I know is that this one moment is my favorite single moment in all of cinema. I get extremely emotional when I see it, and I have no idea why. It just affects me so deeply in a way I cannot comprehend, nor do I wish to.
Then the scene continues, still in one shot, towards its end, when everyone is thrown out of the bar. Janos walks up to the owner of the bar, stares into his eyes, and says my favorite single film quote in movie history: “But Mr. Hagelmayer, it’s still not over.” By now, tears are usually running down my cheek, and again I cannot explain why. It’s just so goddamn powerful. And this is only the opening scene, remember! The whole film is nearly two and a half hours long, and there are countless moments exactly like this one, of pure and incomprehensible beauty.
All of what I have said is just words. Words mean nothing when they’re written down. You need to see the scene itself, to grasp its power. Yes, at ten minutes it is a long scene, but it is a beautiful one that is never boring. Give this one scene a go, and let me know what you think in the comments. Thanks.
NOTE: The scene starts at 1:08 in this video clip, and ends at 12:00. Enjoy!