Funny to say about a movie whose immensely cryptic plot can best be summed up as "humanity dances on the brink of cosmic destruction and lashes out violently in desperation", whose characters are almost all nameless townsfolk except for the protagonist who becomes more unknowable the longer we spend time with him, and whose average shot length is a dumbfounding 3.7 minutes - that's a minute long than Sátántangó, y'all - but I'm pretty confident in saying that Werckmeister Harmonies from 2000 is Tarr Béla's easiest movie to watch and process. Which is not something that most people coming blind to the film would be prone to say; indeed, it was not at all the thing I said some years ago when Werckmeister Harmonies was my own first encounter with cosmically-minded Hungarian with the fetish for glacial pacing and languid camera movements.

The thing is, though, and this is easy to lose sight of in conversations about tracking shots and pointedly empty acting and symbolic cetaceans, is that Werckmeister Harmonies is - or can be, rather, if you let it - an extraordinarily pleasurable experience to watch. Not unlike Sátántangó itself, the way it's structured is so modular, with every new shot functioning as a mini-movie (some of which, you understand, are still ten minutes long), it begins to build a kind of fever-dream, anything goes momentum which makes it skim by faster and in a shorter feeling time than anything this slow and long (nearly two and a half hours, with either 37 or 39 shots - I forgot to count for myself) should remotely be able to achieve. Meanwhile, those individual marathon-length takes tend to be so complex and involving and engaging, they somewhat cease to register as as singular tracking shots that therefore insist upon their own length; it's more like being plunged into a vibrant, tremendously present human moment. The film's setting is vague, but the way Tarr and his six camera operators (including his frequent cinematographer Medvigy Gábor; this would be their final collaboration) frame the activity as immediate and active leaves the film feeling like the director's most emphatically present-tense piece since his early social realist projects, though it is of course in a vastly different form than those.

Whether any of that holds true at all, the film does at least begin with a grand gesture of liveliness and creativity that ranks among the most addictively kinetic moments in Tarr's filmography. In the main bar in whatever beaten-down town in Hungary this is, the drinkers enthusiastically greet the arrival of Valuska János (Lars Rudolph, one of three Germans in the three most prominent roles - make of that what you see fit), who will help to explicate something that the men have apparently been confused about. János, apparently more educated than most of the town (though he makes up for it by being impossibly naïve and slow-witted as events progress), is happy to show of his knowledge, and he takes one burly drunk and sets him directly under a light bulb in the center of the room, waggling his fingers, to represent the sun. Another barfly, spinning around as he moves in a circle around the first, is Earth; yet another is the moon.* Once these three boozy celestial bodies are in play, János slips imperceptibly from the language of science to the language of poetry, explaining the phenomenon of an eclipse using heightened and virtually allegorical descriptions of light and dark. Triumphantly, he sets the spheres back on their paths, bringing the whole room into a dance of balletic orbits not usually found in the drunken inhabitants of a small town in Hungary late at night; but such vigorous dances are of course an important thread found in most of Tarr's films.

Two things have just happened. One is that we've been exposed to a profoundly magnetic piece of cinema, reducing human bodies to their most essential qualities as abstract objects in motion, with Vig Mihály's vivid, intense music adding to the sheer joy of watching movement in the gorgeous monochrom that Tarr employed on this movie (it utilises every hue of grey possible from stark white to jet black, and to significant effect, as we shall presently see). The other is that we've just been handed the answer sheet, so we don't have to spend all of Werckmeister Harmonies puzzling what it means: indeed, for a film where so much of the plot takes place on an entirely non-representational level, it's almost dismayingly easy to say what it's "about". Simply put, it is about the conflict between lightness and darkness, both as literally qualities that duel across the film's grey-soaked frames, and as the expected metaphor for how human beings are capable of great savagery and great kindness alike, though kindness does certainly get its ass handed to it in Werckmeister Harmonies. It is also about human beings as inhabitants of the whole cosmos: we are on the one hand immodest specks that can barely be picked out on the planetary scale, let alone the universal one, and yet we're also the only thing that makes up the universe as we live and experience it - in one brazen gesture, that opening dance suggests both the enormity of planets and stars relative to our lives, but also makes human beings the literal equal to planets and stars.

So that, in brief, is Werckmeister Harmonies: how we live in the universe. The title itself is in reference to the German musicologist and composer of the 17th Century, Andreas Werckmeister, whose writings and calculations form the basis of the 12-tone system used by most Eurocentric musical traditions of the last 300 years; it is based in Werckmeister's belief that properly-divided octaves could function as a musical representative of the harmonious, well-ordered structure of the celestial bodies. He is also regarded within the film, by János's uncle Eszter György (Peter Fitz), himself a composer and apparently the most moral man in town, as a perverse adulterer of the true purity of music, and a philosophical criminal. Tarr and his co-authors - Krasznahorkai László, co-writer and author of the source novel The Melancholy of Resistenace, and editor Hranitzky Ágnes, both of them given the usual credit that implies their contribution to be indistinguishable from Tarr's own - don't take sides on this point, but the question of whether or not the universe is in harmony with itself or not is central to the film's subsequent plot, in which György's ex-wife Tünde (Hanna Schygulla) browbeats him into signing off on her unpleasantly small-minded and authoritarian desire to purge improper behavior from the town, signified by the arrival in the black of night, like a shadow swallowing the whole town, of a carnival whose sole apparent attractions are the shadowy, charismatic Prince, and the corpse of a great whale, kept safe in a massive trailer. The whipped-up conflict between two sides that don't seem to even bother defining themselves is certainly a sign of disharmony, as is the final disposition of the whale, rotting and savaged in the morning mist in a crude parody of the inexplicable mystery and majesty it represents when János first enters the trailer to see it. And yet the fluid motions of the camera, blending gracefully with Vig's best score for a Tarr film, certainly puts the stamp of a weird kind of harmony and beauty on even the most brutish events.

It is a film that doesn't bother trying to answer anything, because it is so invested in raising issues and asking questions of the broadest, most sweeping kind: it is the culmination of Tarr's focus on ever more cosmic films, and while it is neither as overwhelming nor as flawless on a moment-by-moment basis as Sátántangó or, I'd argue, Damnation, it still feels like the culmination of what they were driving for. It is a work of stupefying ambition, overreach, and maybe pretension, though I prefer to reserve that word for people who ask the Big Questions without earning the right to talk in such lofty tones as Tarr does in the meticulous evolution of his film from one scene to the next. It is a film one watches to be forced into a state of reflection and contemplation that has nothing to do with plot or theme, but with consciousness, knowledge and its absence, and humanity. I treasure it as much as I treasure any work of cinema.