As acclaimed filmmaker Bela Tarr makes his exit, a look back

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Turin Horse. ()
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At the beginning of February, the Film Society of Lincoln Center held a retrospective of the Hungarian filmmaker Bela Tarr, screening all of his features and culminating in the U.S. debut of The Turin Horse, the film Tarr says is to be his last.

If that’s the case, it’s a stunning and characteristically dark end to a fascinating career.

After more than three decades of filmmaking, the director announced his retirement upon Turin Horse’s completion last year, stating simply that he has “said everything I want to say” and has no desire to repeat himself. (Nor, apparently, do his characters—The Turin Horse and The Man From London, Tarr’s previous film, were all but silent). Tarr likes to claim that no new stories have been told since the Old Testament, and if he were to continue making films, it would be no surprise if narrative vanished entirely.

Over his nine features, Tarr has etched out a worldview of terror, sublimity, and godlessness, one in which repetition subsumes plot. This isn’t to suggest that his films are exercises in endurance, though at their worst, they can be. At his best, Tarr is hypnotic and bizarre, a philosopher of existential despair whose final film is reason alone to see the rest.

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Watching Tarr in sequence is to watch him evolve from the social realism of his early years to the pared-down allegories of his recent work. Best known for his collaborations with Hungarian novelist Laszlo Krasznahorkai—five of Tarr’s films, including Satantango, were written by Krasznahorkai— and his unrelenting long takes, Tarr is the kind of director one either likes or does nor, right away. An old-world filmmaker often compared to Tarkovsky, Tarr was once credited by Gus Van Sant with bringing back “a wholly other cinema” from an era before cut-shots and the accepted manipulation of time and space.

In Tarr’s films, cooking a potato or sweeping a floor takes precisely as long as it takes to cook a potato or sweep a floor, though the activities are saturated with a dramatic, almost 3-D texture that render them transfixing. When asked once why scene of a marching crowd dragged on for five minutes, Tarr responded, “because it was a long way.” 

Born in the southern city of Pécs a year before the 1956 revolution that saw the Soviets solidify control over Hungary for the next three decades, Tarr first made his name on the strength of his 1979 directorial debut, Family Nest. Completed when he was only 22, the film is a claustrophobic, Cassavetes-reminiscent social drama set in a cramped apartment during Hungary’s national housing shortage. Shot in grainy black-and-white, it centers on a young couple whose marriage strains under the arrangement, as the husband’s father questions his daughter-in-law’s fidelity, and social service apparatchiks repeatedly decline the couple’s appeals for separate housing.

Family Nest established Tarr as a key member of the Budapest school—a ‘70s documentary movement committed to the use of amateur actors, hand-held equipment, and improvised dialogue—and earned him some international attention. His other films of this era, The Outsider (1981) and Prefab People, (1982), Tarr’s first to use professional actors, retained the movement’s interest in depicting life under disintegrating Soviet rule, but also began move away from social concerns, gravitating more towards individuals within these crumbling systems.

“At the beginning of my career, I had a lot of social anger. I just wanted to tell you how fucked up the society is,” Tarr remarked in a recent interview. “Afterwards, I began to understand that the problems were not only social; they are deeper. I thought they were only ontological … afterward, I could understand that the problems were not only ontological. They were cosmic.” 

Tarr’s second “ontological” phase brought 1980’s MacBeth, a made-for-TV adaptation shot in two takes—one five minutes long, the other sixty-seven minutes long; and Almanac of the Fall, a stylized set drama about four people living with an old woman in her apartment. After 1981’s The Outsider, Almanac was the second of Tarr’s films to be shot in color (quite luridly so) and he would make two more before abandoning color entirely.

Though Tarr was still experimenting with style at this point, by 1988, he met the two people who were to most radically affect his aesthetic: Mihály Vig, who went on to compose all the music for Tarr’s movies; and Krasznahorkai, whose novels and adapted screenplays served as the basis for the rest of Tarr’s films.

The films that followed—Damnation (1988), Satantango (1994), and Werckmeister Harmonies (2000) account for Tarr’s recognition outside arthouses, and his cult devotion within them. They’re why he’s stylistically associated with rain, mud, and apocalypse, and narratively associated with grim allegories of existential resignation set in decrepit little villages.

Damnation, based largely in a provincial bar, is a Tarrian love story of humiliation and betrayal (which is to say nobody is blameless), while Satantango, a seven-and-a-half-hour masterwork formally patterned on the tango, charts the slow dissolution of a collectivist farm and the messianic return of a town con man. In its famous opening shot, a herd of cows wander for nearly eight minutes across the screen—a rural Hungarian twist on Week End’s ten-minute traffic jam. Here, the bleak groundhog-day repetition of Krasznahorkai’s writing comes into full relief, as scenes take place over and over again in Tarr’s rich black-and-whites. In Werckmeister Harmonies, Tarr pushes the biblical undertones even further, using a travelling circus—and their sinister stuffed whale—as a prelude to apocalyptic chaos.

Tarr’s last film before The Turin Horse was The Man From London, a 2007 adaptation of a Georges Simenon novel. Widely panned for its lackluster screenplay and lead-footed pacing, the film is slow even by Tarr standards. (It’s opening, a back-and-forth tracking shot of a murder on a London dock, is basically all the action we get for the duration of the film; though it does feature one of my favorite moments in any of his films—a strangely funny bar scene in which two old men slowly dance to an accordion while balancing objects over their heads). For a murder mystery—and one starring Tilda Swinton, at that—The Man From London recalls the famous crack about director Eric Rohmer. "I saw a Rohmer film once,” Gene Hackman quips in Night Moves. “It was kind of like watching paint dry." Not long after The Man From London, Tarr announced his eventual retirement.

Though very little happens in The Turin Horse, the film doesn’t suffer for it. Based on the apocryphal story of Nietzsche experiencing a mental breakdown after witnessing a cabdriver beat his horse, the film picks up not with Nietzsche (who lived another 10 years after the incident) but the horse.

Opening with long shot of a Methuselah figure driving through a violent windstorm, The Turin Horse takes place almost entirely in a marooned single-room house over the course of the seven-day storm. The old man and his daughter silently carry out household tasks as the storm rages outside, periodically trying to get the horse to move or eat. (It refuses). Aside from a visit from a neighbor and a roving band of gypsies, there’s little dialogue and even less plot; though certain actions—the old man getting dressed, the daughter preparing dinner—repeat themselves with a discomfiting intensity, as if seen by a predator waiting to strike.

The final scene is of the pair eating in darkness, with nothing good yet to come. Walter Benjamin’s angel of progress—“catastrophe that keeps piling ruin upon ruin”—comes to mind; only progress doesn’t exist in Tarr’s universe: just the indifference of time and inevitability of death. But it is in such fatalism that beauty becomes apparent.

Having stripped down film to its gorgeous bare essentials, Tarr leaves us with a powerful final statement that is no less thrilling for the bleakness of its message.

’The Turin Horse’ screens through Thursday, March 1 at Film Society of Lincoln Center.