The title refers to the baroque musical theorist Andreas Werckmeister. György Eszter, a major character in the film, gives a monologue propounding a theory that Werckmeister's harmonic principles are responsible for aesthetic and philosophical problems in all music since, and need to be undone by a new theory of tuning and harmony.
In a 2016 poll by BBC, the film was listed as one of the top 100 films since 2000 (56th position).
It is set in an anonymous, desolate, isolated small town in Hungary during Soviet times.
The film starts with János Valuska conducting a poem and dance with drunken bar patrons. The dance is of the total eclipse of the sun, which disturbs, then silences the animals. It finishes with the grand return of the warm sunlight.
János' older friend György is a composer, and one of the intelligentsia. György observes the imperfection and compromise of the musical scale (as defined by Andreas Werckmeister a historical theorist). György proposes changes to the scale to make it more harmonious.
György's estranged wife tries to leverage her political and social status by giving György a list of names to recruit for the "clean up the town movement" (with the blessing of the police chief).
However, a stuffed smelly circus whale and its star performer, "The Prince", come to town in the silence and darkness of night. János philosophizes about God and the whale.
János goes to the post office to pick up newspapers for delivery. The workers are unsettled by the ominous signs of the circus' arrival and are disturbed by the cloud that settles over each town it visits.
György's struggling cobbler brother gets the list and passes it on to the agitated throbbing masses in the town square who are unhappy at public services failing. György's former wife sleeps with the drunk gun toting police chief.
The presence of the whale and the Prince stir up the masses. János overhears the circus master losing control of his faceless Prince, who is becoming drunk with his own voice of revolutionary dogma. The circus master disowns him. The Prince, now free, inflames the masses, and the people riot. The rioters are brutal. Their inhumanity almost seems normal and natural. When the rioters finally come to beat a helpless old naked patient, they see their impotent, sad and powerless selves.
After the riot, János comes across the diary of a rioter. It explains that the rioters did not know what they were angry with; so they were angry at everything. Then it recounts the mobs horrendous rape of two working class post office girls.
János comes across his killed cobbler neighbor who got naively involved in the riot. János is told, by this cobbler's wife, to leave town for his own safety.
He is intercepted by a helicopter. He finds himself committed to a mental institution with caged beds (a tool of the time for dealing with political dissidents). János appears drugged and broken.
György, his composer friend, is evicted from their society house but gets to live in a shed in the garden whilst György's former wife, with her new status as a collaborator, now occupies the big house with the police chief. The intelligentsia is displaced by political opportunism.
György tells a vacant János, in the ward, that if he is released from the mental institution they can live contentedly together in the shed with his piano. György also mentions that he has re-tuned the piano so that is now like any other, a personal capitulation apparently abandoning any present hopes of reform. János just stares.
It finishes with György looking directly into the eye of the whale, then, walking away and looking back at the now sad and disheveled whale, destroyed by the rioters the night before, its rotting carcass slowly enveloped by the fog which gets whiter and brighter. Warm bright sunlight returns.Lars Rudolph as János Valuska
Peter Fitz as György Eszter
Hanna Schygulla as Tünde Eszter
János Derzs: Man In The Broad-Cloth Coat
Đoko Rosić: Man In Western Boots
Tamás Wichmann: Man In The Sailor-Cap
Ferenc Kállai: Director
The film can perhaps be seen as an allegory of post-World War II Eastern European political systems - told as a black-and-white cinematic poem with 39 long, single-camera takes. It examines the brutalisation of a society, its political systems and ethics through the metaphor of a giant, decaying circus whale and its star performer, "The Prince", who makes rousing speeches.
One of the significant reoccurring themes in this plot, is the subtle transition between light and darkness. The first appearance of this motif is a lamp in the bar, moving to a door into the darkness. The circus arrives like a Trojan Horse in the darkness of night. A window is opened as a glimmer of hope and dressed to shut out the world. The antagonist, The Prince, is only ever seen as a shadow.
György proposes changes to the musical scale to make it more harmonious. This Utopian approach to music represents a flawed, naive idealism that never can be achieved; it is not developed any further in the film or the book. It is just a statement indicating that human governance will always be flawed.
The smelly circus whale is perhaps a metaphor for a bloated political system, with the unseen Prince representing the power of politically inspired, emotive dogma.
The unsettlement of the post office workers by the ominous signs of the circus' arrival is perhaps a reference to the spread of the externally imposed centralised monolithic government system onto all the Soviet buffer nations just after the war.
The film is shot as a visual poem, and has been described as both beautiful and haunting. Lengthy single-shot scenes with a hypnotic and rhythmic pace build up to the peaceful observation of the thuggish destruction of the hospital and its patients. The patients they are destroying in the hospital are themselves.
Werckmeister Harmonies received much critical acclaim. On Metacritic, the film received an weighted average score of 92/100 (based on eight reviews), which translates to "universal acclaim". Based on 39 reviews, Rotten Tomatoes reports a 97% approval rating, with an average score of 8.5/10.
Lawrence van Gelder of The New York Times called the film "elusive" and argued that it "beckons filmgoers who complain about the vapidity of Hollywood movie making and yearn for a film to ponder and debate." David Sterritt, writing for the Christian Science Monitor, awarded it a full four stars, remarking, "Tarr wants to stir the imagination and awaken the conscience of his audience rather than divert us with easy entertainment."
In The Guardian, Richard Williams compared Tarr to the greatest directors and perceived Werckmeister Harmonies as "a bleak vision of chaos and capitalism." Film critic Roger Ebert described the movie as "unique and original", writing that it "feels as much like cinema verite as the works of Frederick Wiseman." He went on to add the film to his "Great Movies" collection in 2007.
In the British Film Institute's decennial Sight & Sound poll, 10 critics and five directors voted Werckmeister Harmonies one of the 10 greatest works of cinema ever made — placing it 171st in the critics' poll and 132nd in the directors' poll. According to They Shoot Pictures, Don't They, a website which statistically calculates the most well-received movies, it is the 11th most acclaimed movie since 2000.