'The Turin Horse': A tale of animal and human deprivation, and an invitation to feel Nietzsche's pain
Screening some of the most highly anticipated films of the season, along with special programs and series focusing on directors and avant-garde work, the 49th New York Film Festival starts on September 30 and runs to October 16. Take a look at the schedule and purchase tickets here.
In 1889, Friedrich Nietzsche apparently witnessed the beating of a horse on the streets of Turin. He threw his arms around the horse's neck, sobbing, and then lost consciousness. He then had a mental breakdown from which he never recovered, and never wrote again. That's the story, anyway.
Hungarian director Béla Tarr's latest film, The Turin Horse, starts out with the Nietzsche story being told in voiceover, against a black screen, and the voiceover ends with, "We do not know what happened to the horse.” Now, perhaps, with The Turin Horse, we do. Unfortunately, for all its power (the cinematography is beyond compare), the tedium of the film is difficult to overcome, and while it gives the audience a lot of time to think and ponder the implications, that is not necessarily a good thing. Existence is hopeless. The majority of humanity has led lives of quiet desperation since the beginning of time. The Turin Horse is uncompromising in its deliberate pace, its insistence on monotony (monotony being reflective of what most of existence is like) and its cloistered sense of despair and resignation. Cinematically, it is a masterpiece. Story-wise, not so much.
Starting with the Nietzsche story is a masterstroke, and the long opening sequence of a giant furry horse pulling a man on a broken-down cart through a rocky, bleak landscape, with the haunted and driving score of Mihály Víg thrumming underneath, is stunning. The camera is restless and obsessive, moving in to the horse, pulling back, riding alongside the cart, swooping around in front. Because of the Nietzsche anecdote, projecting emotions onto the horse is what The Turin Horse is all about, and is its strongest element. You feel for that damn horse. Its despair seems to be palpable. It plummets into a depression over the course of the film. It stops eating. It refuses to move. It seems to shrink.
Told over the course of six days, The Turin Horse shows the everyday monotony in the life of a poverty-struck (putting it mildly) father and daughter. The mostly wordless pair live in a tiny stone hut in the middle of an empty field. A wind storm rages outside for days on end. They have a barn for the horse, and a well, as well as a potato patch. "The First Day," states a title card, then "The Second Day," etc. Each day unfolds in the same manner. The daughter dresses the father. She starts the fire in the stove. She goes out to the well with two buckets. She comes back inside. She boils water for potatoes. They sit at the table and eat the potatoes with their fingers. Then they go outside to attach the horse to the cart. Sometimes the horse refuses to move. Then they go back inside. The daughter undresses the father and he falls asleep in his bed. Occasionally, either he or she will sit on a stool and stare out the window.
We see this routine six times over. Each time is slightly different, the camera angles altering with each successive day. By the sixth time we see her go to the well, we know the routine. It is how the camera frames her, either from the left, the right, below, or from the perspective of the doorway of the hut, that brings visual interest. The point seems to be the examination of the drudgery of daily existence, and through the monotony compassion arises. This is what it was like, says Béla Tarr's film.
The father is played by Béla Tarr regular János Derzsi, and he is a scowling, ravenous presence, reminiscent of either an angry aging Greek god, or, in the repeated foreshortened shots of him in bed with his feet sticking out, of Mantegna's "Dead Christ." His eyes follow his daughter around the room. He barely speaks. One of his arms doesn't work.
Erika Bók, another frequent Tarr collaborator, plays the roughened workhorse of a daughter, who betrays compassion only when dealing with the Turin horse. They are kindred souls. She pets its nose, trying to comfort it once it stops eating. But other than that, she does her duty every day, without complaining. What's to complain about? Water needs to be fetched, potatoes need to be cooked.
Two events arise to break up the monotony. A neighbor (Mihály Kormos) stops by. He brings a rumor from the outside world that something catastrophic has happened. A city has been swept away. The wind sweeps across the plains unimpeded by civilization. The neighbor sits at the table, drinking palinka, and, in one long take, talks about the sins of humanity and how mankind is responsible for the destruction of the world. God should take some of the blame, too. It is the longest speech in the film. Nietzsche-inspired, obviously, and Tarr's themes of the hopelessness of existence are laid bare, but by that point in The Turin Horse it is unnecessary. We already understand it.
The other event is when a group of howling gypsies descend on their valley, whooping it up as they try to use the well. They are a vision of joy and connection, of a world where people actually might, you know, have some fun. But they are treated as unwelcome interlopers: the father chases them off his land with an axe, as the daughter stands against the wind, watching them go. The film misses their presence.
Meanwhile, the horse is on a quiet path of civil disobedience. The heaving strength of its movements in the opening becomes unimaginable as the film plods on. Life begins to drain out of it. The horse is the star of the movie. The horse is the focal point. I wanted more of the horse.
The windstorm intensifies with each day, and the situation grows worse, if that is possible. The well runs dry. The embers won't light in the fire. It seems that Doomsday has actually arrived, but father and daughter are so defeated by that point that they just sit at their table, eating their last potato, waiting for the end to come.
It can't happen soon enough.