Monday, April 30, 2007

Adapting Krasznahoraki

Laszlo Krasznahorkai's novel The Melancholy of Resistance features a running dialogue between two unlikely friends, the idealistic Janos Valuska, a man confident in the benevolence of the universe and the elderly Mr Eszter, a cynic who has withdrawn completely from life. As the novel's horrible events unfold and a wave of brutal violence is unleashed by a vengeful mob, the two characters reverse their positions and embrace the viewpoint of the other. In adapting the novel for the screen, Krasznahorkai and director Bela Tarr, unable to fully articulate such interior character changes through the primarily visual medium of film, downplay the alterations in the characters' viewpoints, but suggest a lesser change in their outlook through two striking images that conclude the picture.

Tarr's film The Werckmeister Harmonies, like its source, details the arrival in a small Hungarian town of a circus, whose attractions are limited to a giant whale and a mysterious figure (glimpsed only in shadow) known as the Prince. Along with the circus' arrival, a mob of sinister figures, outsiders to the town, congregate in the central square, poised for action. The film masterfully conjures a world on the brink of destruction and towards the end of the picture the tension inherent in such a world resolves into apocalypse as the mob end their waiting and begin marching towards the hospital. Although Krasznahorkai's novel devotes only a paragraph to the hospital attack, Tarr makes it the centerpiece of the mob's actions. The mob brutally assault the inmates until the appearance of a withered, naked old man causes them to turn and begin an orderly retreat from the hospital. As the mob disperses, Tarr's camera remains inside and reveals Janos who, we learn, has been witness to the attack. The camera stays fixed on Janos' face, a face transfixed with disbelief. As Tarr's camera lingers, we sense that Janos' idealism has begun to give way to a more skeptical attitude.

Janos Valuska (played in the film by Lars Rudolph), viewed by many of the townspeople as a simpleton, is characterized by his naive wonder at the universe. He stages a re-enactment of an eclipse in the town pub; he sees the circus' whale as proof of God's greatness; he goes into raptures about the wonders of the stars as Mr Eszter listens politely before mounting his rebuke. In the novel, we learn that Janos' witnessing of the destruction has completely altered his outlook. Looking back on his conversations with Mr. Eszter, he derides his own foolishness and concedes that Mr. Eszter's counterarguments were correct. After bearing witness to (and in some sense participating in) the evil that man is capable of, he can no longer hold the same opinions of the universe's benevolence.

Since Janos' change of outlook is entirely an interior development, it is not well suited for the cinema, an art form which favors outward images. Tarr downplays Janos' change, it is nowhere near as explicit as in the novel, but does call on a powerful image to suggest the alteration in his lead character. In the film's penultimate scene, Janos, confined to a mental institution, sits on a bed, dressed only in a hospital gown, with a blank expression fixed on his face. Mr. Eszter, dressed in black, sits next to him and fills his unresponsive friend in on the changes that have taken place since the mob's attack. Tarr uses a static medium shot to fix his two protagonists in the frame and forces the viewer to acknowledge the changes undergone by the innocent Janos, reduced to a catatonic state when compelled to come to grips with the universe's evil. Finally, as Mr. Estzer prepares to leave, Tarr's camera slowly pulls back, allowing the older man (as well as the audience) egress from the uncomfortable scene. In both the film and the novel, Janos' experience has reduced him to a wordless stupor. In the earlier work, however, Krasznahorkai takes us through the character's disillusionment which finds its conclusion in this catatonia. The film powerfully shows the conclusion, but cannot give us the same details in Janos' interior development. Still, the power of the image is enough to drive home the horror of the transformation.

The film's final scene (a scene not in the novel) takes place in the now abandoned town square. The circus truck has collapsed and the whale sits alone in the deserted marketplace. Mr. Eszter enters the scene and examines the whale. In the novel, Mr Eszter, a former music teacher, has withdrawn from the world because of its stupidity. His only contact is with Janos, who despite his diametrically opposed worldview, nonetheless elicits his sympathy. Forced to leave his house due to a threat by his estranged wife, he comes back with a new attitude. He accepts Janos' viewpoint and is suddenly content with simply existing. He only awaits the return of Janos and plans a peaceful existence with the two men living together. At that moment, however, Janos is off witnessing the massacre, and having his own viewpoint altered.

Tarr downplays the change in Mr. Eszter, a character treated much more thoroughly in the novel, but his final scene does suggest Eszter's ability to reclaim some of his lost sense of wonder through his encounter with the whale. The scene begins with a medium shot of the creature before Tarr's camera slowly pulls away. Eszter then enters the scene and walks toward the whale, with the camera following him. He examines the whale closely, part by part, focusing particularly on the eye. Buoyed by Mihaly Vig's stunning piano and strings score, Eszter's close examination shows his willingness to consider the wonder inherent in the universe that he had previously rejected by his prior refusals to see the whale. His face, open and receptive, shows that Janos' attitude has had some effect on him. It may not be the transformation that Krasznahorkai offers in the novel, but it provides some antidote for the bleak apocalyptic proceedings that have sacrificed the innocent Janos. The younger man's outlook lives on in his elderly friend.

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