Filmmaker Retrospective: The Slow Cinema of Bela Tarr
Bela Tarr, who has had a huge influence on contemporary filmmakers like Gus Van Sant and Jim Jarmusch, is one director whose films are more read about than watched. And it is not without a reason. Imagine a seven-hour-long movie made up of just 150 shots! Yes, he is capable of that.
A proponent of the slow cinema movement, where his comrades include the likes of Theo Angelopoulos, Andrei Tarkovsky, Miklós Janscó, Hou Hsiao-Hsien and Chantal Akerman, his films are often a difficult watch given their ponderously sluggish pace.
His camera often fixes its gaze on minor characters or seemingly insignificant details and frequently forgets to blink–lingering on a scene long after its contribution to the narrative is over. But then the purpose of such languid long shots is to make the audience look beyond the ‘purpose’. Because it is when you stop expecting the story to unfold and move forward, you actually start observing. It is in such prosaic, rudimentary details that the beauty of his shots truly reveals themselves.
His long takes are like Pieter Breugel’s paintings (who had a definite influence on the director) where everyone, each figure, even the smallest one in a crowd, has a distinct character. It is amid this mundaneness that he finds heroism and his characters, constituting mostly the marginalised, have-nots of the society, acquire their grace.
These signature long takes are also probably the most apt device to tell a story of everyday reality as these shots transport you to the scene of action (or inaction). It is as if you are sitting at one corner and watching a situation as and when (and if at all) it unfolds—you don’t have the option to select just the interesting bits. The audience goes through the same helplessness, ennui and the sufferings endured by the characters, and like their onscreen counterparts, come out feeling victorious.
Bela Tarr had once said in an interview: “I despise stories, as they mislead people into believing that something has happened. In fact, nothing really happens as we flee from one condition to another….All that remains is time. This is probably the only thing that’s still genuine — time itself; the years, days, hours, minutes and seconds.” And these lines probably sum up the very spirit of his approach towards films. Unlike in conventional cinema that stylishly weaves the significant moments, his films offer an uncut version of life, which is often meaningless.
Apart from the laboriously slow pace, what allegedly makes his films inaccessible is the context, which is in most cases his country’s disillusionment and inability to come to cope with the newly-emerged complexities of the post-communist era. His films are about the decay of social structure and the decline of small, poor, rural communities of East Europe.
In order to truly understand his film, you need to understand the Hungarian situation, its socio-political realities. But he often leaves the context unexplained. There is hardly any mention of where these stories are set, or what the historical background is. And these very aspects are also what make his films universal. Structured in the vein of fables and morality plays, his films talk about the dismal human condition and the disintegration of the moral fabric in general.
Nature plays an important role in the dark dystopian world of his films. And he is often compared with Andrei Tarkovsky. Indeed, like the Russian director he uses ‘dead time’ and landscape to create a sense of duration and distance but what they convey is drastically different. If Tarkovsky lingers on an object to reveal its sublime beauty, Tarr does the same to reinforce its very ‘ordinariness’.
And in an interview Tarr himself explained this: “The main difference is Tarkovsky’s religious and we are not. But he always had hope; he believed in God. He’s much more innocent than us—than me. No, we have seen too many things to make his kind of film. I think his style is also different because several times I have had a feeling he is much softer, much nicer….Rain in his films purifies people. In mine, it just makes mud.”
Most of Tarr’s stories unfold against the stark backdrop of a harsh unforgiving landscapes lashed by forces of nature. However, there is no pathetic fallacy. Nature, in his films does not reflect the mental state of the characters; it is what they physically endure on a day-to-day basis. He creates the atmospheric surroundings that his characters inhabit and draws the audience into it in an attempt to make them a part of the experience.
1. Family Nest (1979)
“This is a true story. It didn’t happen to people in the film, but it could have.” With these lines Tarr begins his first feature film, Family Nest. It is a story of family falling apart under the communist regime in Hungary during the ’70S.
Focusing on the severe housing shortage, it shows how a young couple along with their daughter is forced to live with the husband’s parents and siblings in a cramped up one-room apartment in Budapest. So many people sharing such a small space creates a volatile situation in the house and there are endless conflicts which eventually lead to despair and an intense sense of suffocation.
The couple’s desperate struggle to get a small government apartment so that they can escape the claustrophobia and salvage their relationship, and the incessant streaming of intense political propaganda through the television all reflect the tyrannical regime that is blind to the plight of its people. Tarr touches upon pressing problems like population explosion, severe housing shortage under the new laws and Government red-tapism
This raw kitchen sink drama is shot in a cinema verite style. Shot in shoe-string budget with non-professional actors, hand-held cameras, environmental sound (juxtaposed by occasional use of jarring pop music), on location shooting, and rough editing, it hardly predicts the stylisations of Satantango or a Werckmeister Harmonies (although the ‘shabby bar’ makes its first appearance in this film).
This documentary-like realistic style of his early films has often been compared to that of John Cassavetes’s (an influence Tarr vehemently refuses). Tarr uses tight close-ups to heighten the claustrophobia and often pans to highlight seemingly arbitrary objects, but the choreographed camerawork that was to become his signature in later years, are conspicuously missing in this film.
Also, such a crowded film can hardly make room for the long stints of silence that populate his more mature films and here apart from dialogues, Tarr gives his characters monologues to vent out their feelings, giving an impression of how lonely they are in their individual struggle—maybe staying in such close proximity is alienating them from one another.
There is nothing ‘ambiguous’, ‘cosmic’ or ‘metaphysical’ in this blisteringly realistic drama. However, even at a young age of 22, the world Tarr and the Family inhabits is essentially bleak—where the society in general is rotting from inside, there is oppression, male-domination, hypocrisy, poverty, hopelessness, angst and a general decay in moral values. Although not a great work of art in itself Family Nest reflects the humble beginning of the great auteur.
In his next two films, The Outsider and The Prefab People, he continued more or less in the same vein—thematically as well as stylistically.
The Outsider, his first film in colour (the second and the last being Almanac of Fall) and centres around a bohemian alcoholic musician, who was once thrown out of the Conservatory, takes up various jobs but can’t sustain any because of his drinking problems. He is not any good when it come to relationships either—he insists of paying child support for a child that is probably not his and this effects his present relationship. The film shows the trails and turbulations of the working class and an individual’s futile attempt to fit in.
And in Prefab People, where Tarr first introduced professional actors, we see another young married couple’s slowly decomposing relationship under the economic pressures. The film moves back and forth as Tarr shows the couple stuck in a vicious cycle of complaints and indifference, reel after reel it is the same thing in a slightly different pretext. Arguably the best among his ‘socialist realist’ films, this kitchen sink drama reflects the strife, struggle, and stagnation of the working class in the Hungary of the late ‘70s.
2. Almanac of Fall (1984)
“Even if you kill me, I see no trace, this land is unknown, the devil is probably leading, going round and round in circles.”
With these lines of Alexander Pushkin begins Bela Tarr’s Almanac of Fall. The intense chamber drama oozing post Iron Curtain angst is set in a claustrophobic run-down apartment inhabited by five people: Hedi, the owner of the house, her son Janos, her nurse Anna, and two male boarders, Miklos (Anna’s boyfried) and Tibor (Janos’s former teacher).
The characters are almost clichés: an ill and volatile old woman, a jobless, drunkard son who lives off his mother’s wealth; a conniving young woman who has no qualms in sleeping around with the men (and she beds all three) to forward her own design; a scheming Lothario; and an ex teacher and once a man of good repute now reduced to a petty thief.
The story is a simple one: Hedi is the aged and wealthy matriarch and the other four are after her money and to get that they are vying for her allegiance. In the process the self-consumed characters eves-drop, conspire, manipulate, backstab at the slightest opportunity, falling into new lows each day. The characters share tumultuous relationships, from verbal abuses to violent physical assaults they go through everything, but no one even attempts to escape the situation or the hell house. And this reminds of Jean-Paul Sartre’s No Exit.
Although not regarded as a major work in his oeuvre, the film is important in understanding the transition—from gritty realism of his earlier films to the extreme formalism of his late masterpieces.
But what makes this film significant in itself is its mise-en-scene. Tarr uses non-naturalistic lighting scheme and unconventional camera angles to tell this story of moral decay, treating each scene as an independent set piece.
Tarr’s voyeuristic camera goes everywhere—it peeps from behind wall, doors, window; it takes the characters from the top (a god’s eye view from the ceiling) and from under (wide-angle shot taken through a transparent floor, creating an eerie illusion of the characters floating mid-air.
The film (one of his two major colour features) uses an expressionistic colour palette. The shots are lit in blue greys and red oranges with the colour isolating the two characters from each other. By creating such compartments for the characters he stresses upon the fact that despite their physical proximity, one cannot really enter the other’s mental space. However, Tarr doesn’t colour-code his characters. The colours usually reflect their emotional state. In this respect the last sequence deserves a special mention.
Tibor is arrested for stealing Hedi’s bracelet and the remaining members celebrate that they are one competitor down. Shot under pristine white light, it probably symbolises that the rainbow colours of sin that this white contains within itself will soon hit another prism and show their true colours—eventually the cycle to conspiracy, debauchery, corruption, betrayal will continue. It will all go “round and round in circles”.
This is reinforced in the last shot. Once Tibor is taken away by the police, the remaining inhabitants prepare for Anna and Janos’s wedding. But in the final scene we see Miklos partnering Anna in a dance while Janos and Hedi stare at the camera blankly, hinting that the marriage was just a sham and the power-game within the house will continue as before. Tarr chooses the song for this final dance carefully–it is a version of Que Sera Sera, what will be, will be—symbolising the fact that amid this deception and decay, life will go on.
3. Damnation (1988)
“I don’t care about stories. I never did. Every story is the same. We have no new stories. We’re just repeating the same ones. I really don’t think, when you do a movie that you have to think about the story. The film isn’t the story. It’s mostly picture, sound, a lot of emotions. The stories are just covering something. With “Damnation,” for example, if you’re a Hollywood studio professional, you could tell this story in 20 minutes. It’s simple. Why did I take so long? Because I didn’t want to show you the story. I wanted to show this man’s life.”
Nothing explains his films better than these lines. Damnation is an age-old story of love and betrayal. Karrer, a recluse and an alcoholic, lives in a small half-abandoned mining town (we are never told about its exact geographical location) and every evening lands up in a shabby cheap bar called Titanik. He is in love with the bar singer, who is married.
One day the bar owners offers him a smuggling job which he passes on to the husband (Sebestyn) so that he can spend some quality time with the singer (who is never named). However her affection for him is as fickle as it is for her husband. Upon Sebestyn’s return, there is a confrontation between the two men. And at the end, a disillusioned Karrer turns in everyone to the police.
The plot is minimal, dialogue is sparse, and pace is glacial with long takes and the camera moving in extreme low motion. The film is a trailer to what Tarr achieves in his later masterpieces, Satantango and Werckmeister Harmonies. It marks a transition (subject wise and stylistically) from his earlier realist dramas filmed mostly using hand-held cameras to what was to become his trademark—the black and white treatment, extremely long shots, languid camera movement.
The most poignant scene is the last one where Karrer is down on his fours confronting a street dog in the middle of a dirt pile while it continues to pour. Tarr ends the shot with Karrer, having forced the dog to retreat with his animalistic behaviour, walks away. The dolly shot shows rain falling on the muddy landscape as Karrer crosses the frame, Tarr continues shooting the mud and slush before fixing his gaze back on the dirt pile. The effect it has on the audience is of despair as it dawns that there is no way to escape this ruthless world—there is no respite from the muck life produces.
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