20 October 2011


Screens at CIFF: 10/13 & 10/15
World premiere: 15 February, 2011, Berlin Film Festival

It is with a curious sense of amused embarrassment that I welcome Tarr Béla, one of the most individualistic and incalculably important filmmakers currently alive, to the annals of this weblog with his final film, The Turin Horse. Allegedly, final, of course: no artist who draws breath and has the mental capacity to create can be absolutely trusted that what he calls his "final" work really and truly is, though Tarr has stuck to his story pretty consistently.

And even if he someday caves on this stance, the fact will remain that The Turin Horse feels awfully much like a final statement, tackling as it does one of the most definitive topics available to the storyteller: what happens at the end of humanity, and how the people left alive will deal with that fact.

Not that the film is post-apocalyptic in the conventional sense. Indeed, by all available evidence, it takes place around the turn of the 20th Century: over a completely black screen (though one rather spoilt by the bright white subtitles for those of us who don't speak Hungarian), a narrator recites the anecdote of the time in 1889 that Friedrich Nietzsche was in Turin, Italy, when he saw a coach-horse being brutally whipped; the philosopher ran over to shield the horse from the blows. This event was the beginning of his decade-long slide into total mental collapse.

The film began when Tarr asked writer Krasznahorkai László the innocent question, "What happened to the horse?" as far back as the 1980s, and perhaps this film answers it. Certainly, the moment the story ends, we see a horse, dragging a cart; but maybe it is not the same horse, for clearly we're not in or anywhere near Turin. Nor does his owner, upon returning home (to a homely little hovel, as you'd expect to see in the middle of nowhere in Europe around 1889), tell his daughter about the crazy Prussian who fell upon the horse, weeping. There is, however, a somewhat Nietzschean tenor to what we see; a feeling of emptiness and a slow cosmic death that is in keeping with the writer's famous pronouncement that God is dead, even if nothing within the film seems to hearken to anything specific within Nietzsche's writing, that I am familiar with.*

The Turin Horse depicts six days in the life of the horse, its owner (Derzsi János), and his daughter (Bók Erika). It's not a terribly fun life. They live in the middle of a dry plain, in the center of an apparently perpetual windstorm - you know in Macbeth, where they talk about the "blasted heath"? I never knew what that was supposed to mean, until this picture. It is the very model of a blasted heath: desolate and unforgiving and the very image of hell. Walking across their small plot of land to the enclosure where the horse lives, trying to make it eat, the two lonely humans are buffeted by a wall of screaming wind and noise; sometimes they go in and shut up all the windows and you can just hear the moan of the wind like a dying animal, constant but thankfully muted.

So it is, that these two individuals try their very damnedest to keep it together in the face of shrieking banshee wind and a horse that refuses to eat (and if the horse goes, that's pretty much the end of everything); and this is where we get to the point that The Turin Horse, as has nearly every Tarr film since he broke big in the mid-'90s with the impressively austere Sátántangó, into two irreconcilable camps. On the one hand, you have the people who think it's deathly boring, and not without reason: it is long (a solid two-and-a-half hours; the stated running time is 146 minutes, but the print shown at the Chicago International Film Festival was longer), and nothing happens. Not "nothing". The old man eats a potato, every single day, and since his one arm is no good, he has to do it with one hand and it's quite a production.

On the other hand are the people like me who find the brutal slowness to be absolutely transfixing: who find, that is to say, the endless repetition of potato-eating to be the very heart and soul of cinema. Because the point of this is how repetitive these characters lives are, the same tiny collection of rituals that give form to their lives out on the edge of some cataclysm that seems to have devoured the rest of the universe: the one time they attempt leave, on the fifth day, they simply turn around, because why bother? And so we have those potatoes: the first time it's weird, and the third time it's boring, and the fifth time it's hypnotic, and the final time it is like the crack of God shutting closed the book of the world.

Allegedly, there are 30 shots in the whole movie; I wasn't counting, but that seems fair. As he did in Werckmeister Harmonies - a better film, but it is compared to most things - Tarr includes a number of crazily expressive tracking shots, this time courtesy of his three-time cinematographer Fred Kelemen, that loop around and slink back and forth and turn the matter of wandering around this cramped, dark house and the field of debris shooting through the wind like leaf-shaped bullets into a sick dance between the camera and the set. This ambitious scheme of camera movements serves to give the film a lot more visual variety than an average shot length of 4.9 minutes would necessarily suggest; and that's without bringing in Kelemen's drop-dead beautiful black and white images, the kind where any given frame is excellent enough to hang on your wall, or in a museum.

But yes, it is very long, and it is very light on events; for me, the film seemed to stop having a duration of time - I was legitimately unable even stab at how long shots or moments went on after the first day or so - and the slow movement through the character's very static and repetitive lives served only to increase the desperation of it all; attempting to maintain the normal in the face of that wind and that endless nowhere on every side. For other people, it's stultifying. And the thing is, I don't even know that Tarr is an acquired taste, so much as somebody you either like or you don't; and this is awfully typical of Tarr, even if it's a hair shy of his very best work, while being a gratifying improvement on the sometimes erratic The Man from London. Mesmerising, ghastly dull - they are value judgments and impossible to treat objectively, particular in a case like this. So let me say, in all subjectivity, that The Turin Horse was one of the finest and most sublimely harrowing depictions of the End Times that I have ever seen in a movie, and leave it at that.



StephenM said...

I have yet to see a Bela Tarr movie, but I think I'm going to have to get around to it one of these days. I think I'll start with Werckmeister Harmonies, though, because my local library has it and it seems to have something of an actual story to it. Maybe.

One thing I have to ask: In so many of your reviews, you have little red asterisks that seem to be links to some further comment or joke that I would like to read. But whenever I click on them, they just say I don't have access to that page, and nothing I do lets me see it. Why is this? Is it just me? Or do I need to click in some particular way to make it work? Or are these asterisks not really public links and I should leave them alone?

Tim said...

If you just hover over those points, they pop up with footnotes. For some reason, Blogger decides in the middle of publishing to turn them into links to the "edit post" function, and I haven't figured out how to turn that off.

Also, Werckmeister is definitely the best place I can name to start with Tarr.

Ghostdog said...

I agree Werkmeister is probably the best place to start if you have never seen a Tarr film but I have to say that this film has grown more and more on me since I saw it at the Chicago Film Festival and arguably may be his best film.

It is fitting (though sad) that this is to be his last film. Though its hard to imagine where he could go from here. The final image kind of brings together the essence of the film cycle that started with Damnation. Unless he radically changes stylistically it would seem to disrupt the perfect ending.

One could argue that the repitition of shots (though from different perspectives) could echo Nietzsche's theme of eternal recurrence but thats only speculative.

The film, imo is really about that question, "What happened to the horse?" And moreover how we all in some way, ARE that horse.

I dont want to give anything away (because so little happens from a narrative standoint) so will just generalize but I think the film can be summed up in 3 shots. The opening shot of the horse straining to pull the wagon (where the harness was clearly designed for two and begs the question where is the other horse)

The devastating shot of the last time we see the horse... It's a completely non action filled revelation, painterly perfect and one that is incredibly moving. It is then when you will completely underdstand why he is acting the way he is and give you a portent for the future.

The final shot/scene of the film with the daughters' change in temperment and the last line uttered by the father.

While comparisons could be made to Bresson's Au Hazard Balthazar with the animal as protagonist this is pure Tarr.

You are correct when you say Tarr is a love it or hate it. Most will hate it, though if you are one of the lucky ones that can assimilate with it, it is an amazing and haunting experience that will stick with you forever.

Again, my own my own selfishness would love to see another Tarr film but I also think it would ruin what is perfect closure to what started with Damnation that of the slow and agonizing move towards stasis.

Thanks for the review

Tim said...

Thank you for one heckuva thoughtful comment! It's especially useful to me since I don't have very strong knowledge of Tarr's early work - I have never seen Damnation, for one - and it's surely enlightening to hear that Turin Horse fits so neatly in as the capstone of his career.

The Caustic Ignostic said...

Finally saw this today. Right after leaving the venue, I tweeted, "Jesus, this made CRIES AND WHISPERS look like CAROUSEL."

I'm not sure how I feel about it, but I'm definitely more in the "That's what art should feel like" camp, rather than the "Boooooring" camp.

David Greenwood said...

I'd love a Tarr retrospective, but I wouldn't dare you to sit through all of his stuff in a short period of time. You'd go mad.

I've loved his work since Damnation, though I've never been able to get through more than about five hours of Satantango. I found it unbearably cynical, and at times it felt like Tarr was intentionally annoying the audience to no greater effect (One scene involving a crazy man rambling repetitively in a bar, for example). The style was solid, but I think 2.5 hours of Tarr is the perfect dose.

Still... Satantango had possibly the greatest opening shot I've ever seen, and I'm grateful for that.

Tim said...

I suspect that the shortest Tarr retro I would ever do would be a once-a-week pattern. Because they are not films to be run through; and watching them too close together wouldn't just be bad for me, it would be bad for the movies, I think, because they'd tend to bleed together.

That said, if they ever come out in a tolerable form on home video, I'd be tempted to carefully, and slowly, write them up, Satantango and Werckmeister Harmonies especially. Shockingly, the Blu-Ray of The Turin Horse does not seem to have kicked off a run of Tarr in hi-def.

David Greenwood said...

They're all now available on US DVD, even his pre-Damnation films. You can even get them from netflix, which is how I got into them. The Turin horse blu ray is so phenomenally good that it does hurt to go back to dvd quality... of course that doesn't stop me from owning them just the same

The Facets DVDs are just fine, really. The only irritating thing is that funky Hungarian aspect ratio he used to use, which sadly means they're window boxed. The quality is good though.

Tim said...

We'll have to agree to disagree on the quality of the DVDs, I fear. I haven't seen all of them, admittedly, and I'll concede that Damnation looks fine for a print that's probably not in great shape to begin with, but I thought that Werckmeister looked VHS quality. It is, in truth, good that we have them on DVD at all, but it's a dead certainty that the later ones, at least, could look better.