“All a Man Can Do is Look Upon it”: What’s With the Werckmeister Whale?

[See also How to Watch Werckmeister Harmonies]

And so continues a period of whale-watching at Spectacular Attractions. Having finally made the time to read Moby Dick over the summer, along with Philip Hoare’s Leviathan (a personal account of his fascination with whales, retracing the influences on Melville’s book), I got a bit interested in whales. I’m about to watch Lloyd Bacon’s mad, fast and loose adaptation from 1930, and then I’ll have a go at the other versions, some of which I’ve seen before, none of them recently. There are currently two (count them!) new adaptations of Moby Dick in production, the first a TV mini-series due for broadcast next year. It’s a German production with a British director, Mike Barker, and an American cast including William Hurt as Ahab and Ethan Hawke as Starbuck. The second is one of those “re-imaginings” that can bode so badly for all concerned, but it might just be crazy enough to work. It’s to be directed, alarmingly (but tellingly) by Timur Bekmambetov, director of gun-fetish gravity-mocking action movies like Wanted, and has no cast attached as yet. I’ll offer some updates as and when I can find them.

All this whalery was reawakened in my brain while rewatching Bela Tarr’s Werckmeister Harmonies recently. In it, a Hungarian town is visited by The Prince, a mysterious (and never seen) demagogue concealed in the trailer that houses the main attraction – an enormous embalmed whale. Local postman and cosmic thinker János is fascinated by its presence:

A giant whale has arrived. This mysterious creature from the sea has come from the far-off oceans. … Just see what a gigantic animal the Lord can create! How mysterious is the Lord that he amuses Himself with such strange creatures.

Tarr always grumpily resists allegorical readings of his work, but the whale, so momentously large and incongruous in its surroundings seems like one giant, stolid symbol dropped into the heart of the film. The temptation to decode it is irresistible, but it seems to defy easy interpretation, pushing one instead towards descriptions of its monstrosity, or its moving displacement from its home.

Jonathan Romney wonders about the whale, too:

From the very start rumours are rife about the universal disruption heralded by the anticipated eclipse. But is any of it really caused by the arrival of the whale, or is the huge dead creature, with its glassy eye, simply the impotent witness to human destructiveness?

The whale and the prince arrive as one, occulted in the same container. The whale is the diversion, a sideshow that hides the malevolent force of the prince (although it is never conclusively proved that the prince is directly instigating unrest in the town, rather than merely watching it happen and revelling in the chaos). The Prince, we learn, was himself an exhibit that got out of hand to become an independent demagogue. The whale might be associated with the arrival of chaos, but it has no malevolence of its own.

It might seem like the stuffed whale is a surrealist incongruity, a giant symbol of death that cancels out the concrete realism of the setting and cues the viewer to find allegorical significance in the situation of this Hungarian town. But Philip Hoare’s wonderful book Leviathan, or The Whale includes mention of travelling shows of embalmed whale carcasses touring from town to town in the first half of the 20th century. The film replays a form of spectacular entertainment that is clearly out of date – it’s a sad and joyless image, notable for its aura of decay rather than any sense of achievement over the feat of capturing, landing and parading the monster.

Embalmed Whale on tour

Try and imagine that the animal at the core of the film is a big stuffed bear, or a giant hippo. Would it be the same? I doubt it. Whales, the largest creatures on Earth, are also rarely seen, and certainly very few people ever get to see them. Even television footage of some species is rare. Try and find underwater footage of a blue whale – even the combined fisheries of Google and YouTube will pull up empty (inter)nets. For centuries, the only views people got of whales was when they were impaled, slaughtered and carved up on the decks of shapes or beached, hideously distorted like (as Hoare puts it) deflated inner tubes. The only way to show them off in their original shape was to stuff them, stripping them of their majestic grace and reducing their visual impact to the single category of massive scale.

This may be the reason for the remarkably over-dramatic representations of these creatures, which give them the hyperbolic, nightmarish aggression they surely possess only in the feverish recollections of seafarers’ tales.

Melville’s Moby Dick must be literature’s most sustained attempt to grasp and describe the mysteries of the whale. For the most part, this means that the author described the mechanics and traditions of whaling in painstaking detail, cataloguing the means by which the whale progresses is reduced from feared monster to slabs of meat and barrels of oil. The White Whale’s refusal to be captured and so reduced, its body seemingly impervious to attack, is what sets it apart: it is a symbol that won’t be tamed, an idea that won’t submit to the fantasies of mastery projected onto it by Ahab. And yet, even as the narrator’s descriptions soberly record the anatomical deconstruction of the whales, there is still space to sing to its majesty:

Oh, man! admire and model thyself after the whale! Do thou, too, remain warm among ice. Do thou, too, live in this world without being of it. Be cool at the equator; keep thy blood fluid at the Pole. Like the great dome of St. Peter’s, and like the great whale, retain, O man! in all seasons a temperature of thine own. But how easy and how hopeless to teach these fine things! Of erections, how few are domed like St. Peter’s ! of creatures, how few vast as the whale!

Werckmeister Harmonies compiles centuries of mythology and musing about whales into a single sad stuffed carcass. When I first saw the film, I wondered if it was a real whale that Tarr had acquired for use on the film. Like Janos, I inspected its body for clues about its true nature; ascertaining whether or not it was a fake might have an impact on the film’s meaning, that the Prince had used an extra layer of deception in order to mesmerise the townsfolk. He compels them to become a mob, to conglomerate their physical power by joining their bodies into a mono-brained monster – it is only the sight of a feeble-bodied individual that shatters their frenzy and sends them away in shards. Now, I don’t know or care whether it was ever a real whale or not – whatever it is, it has fallen into disrepair and has had so many taxidermist’s make-overs that it is a world away from its vivid oceanic origins. Its skin peels away like torn fabric, the baleen in its mouth is sparse and cage-like. When Janos sees it in the dark of the trailer, it seems more magical, hidden away in the darkness that was once its home, but when Eszter returns to the square in the aftermath of the riot, all of its power has gone. The Prince vanished with it, but the Prince is really just an abstract evil – it made sense for him to hide behind something so utterly, lumpenly concrete.

See Also:

5 thoughts on ““All a Man Can Do is Look Upon it”: What’s With the Werckmeister Whale?

  1. Pingback: Whale-watching: Forthcoming Moby Dicks « Spectacular Attractions

  2. Pingback: How to Watch Werckmeister Harmonies « Spectacular Attractions

  3. Hello Dan.

    I’ve got my own little project going and this led me to your pages. Thank you for the nice collection and commentary you’ve built. What’s the source of the wonderful image at the top?


  4. Pingback: A Whale of a Tale: the Mysterious Case of the Tolchester Whale* | underbelly

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