Filmmaker Retrospective: The Slow Cinema of Bela Tarr

4. Sátántangó (1994)


In the beginning there was…well an 8-minute long shot of cows grazing in a muddy landscape. The background is equally interesting—that of barns and crumbling buildings. For the first one minute, the camera refuses to make any movement, when it does it leisurely tracks the herd rarely panning sideways. We see a cow vainly trying to mount on another; the mooing gets louder, the herd crosses the muddy field and after a rather long walk finally disappears behind the row of houses.

That’s all that happens! But seemingly insignificant and tedious opening shot sets the mood of Bela Tarr’s magnum opus that will last for almost seven hours during which we will see a group of characters wander and trudge through the same mud and slush of the rain-lashed landscape. The bovine bunch reflects the collective identity of these people; and like the brainless cows they will blindly follow one another and eventually all will end up in the same rut. Also, through this shot, Tarr acquaints the audience with the place these characters inhabit, an almost deserted, small, squalid village of 1980s Hungary where everything is in a shambles—houses, moralities and the society in itself.

Based on Laszlo Krasznahorkai’s book by the same name, it is not a story about a particular character but a group of people, more so, a story of amorality digging its roots into the society loosening its very fabric.

The community farm has collapsed and the few remaining inhabitants have just sold off their community-owned cattle and are waiting to receive a lump-sum amount. Once they get the money, they will all leave the village. However, within this small group, a few are planning to hoodwink the rest and abscond with more than their fare share.

Suddenly, news spreads that Irimas, the master swindler, who they had thought to be dead, is on his way to the village. The villagers get apprehensive that he might again sweep them off their feet with his grand plans and take away the money. And yet they wait for his arrival and eventually fall into his trap losing not only the cash but whatever little property they had.

The story is not a long one. What makes it run for seven hours is Tarr’s narrative style (which acted as an inspiration for Gus Van Sant’s Elephant). In-keeping with Laszlo’s slow-paced, minutiae-laden baroque narrative, Tarr films the story using languid camera movements and extremely long takes (the film consists of just 150 shot!). The pace of the film also gives the audience a sense of the dull and dreary life in such villages.

Sátántangó (1994)

The non-linear structure of Laszlo’s book takes inspiration from the six-step-forward and six-step-backward (it has a total of twelve chapters, 6 move forward and 6 go back) movement of a Tango. It reflects the very nature of the society—like in a tango, for each six steps forward, it goes six steps back. And Tarr retains the same rhythm. Not only is the film is broken into six sections, where each can be viewed as a separate episode, making for an easier view; but he creates the tango with his choreographed camera movements and long takes and use of overlapping time–the story moves backward and forward; multiple storylines unfold within the same time frame and intersect; one event is observed from perspectives of different characters.

One of the best examples of this, and also one most poignant scene in the film, is when a little girl named Estike cruelly kills her cat with rat poison for no apparent reason. She then takes the dead cat with her and walks towards the woods where she finds that her brother has duped her off her little savings. She confronts him but realising that it’s a lost battle, relents and trudges her way back to the village where she briefly stops to watch people dancing at a small pub. She keeps walking, still carrying her cat, and around morning arrives in front of a dilapidated building where she consumes the same poison she gave her beloved cat and waits for death to embrace her.

Next we see the Satan’s Tango–a group of inebriated people are dancing haphazardly to the tune of an accordionist in a bar. We slowly realise it is the same Danse Macabre we had seen through Estike’s eyes a few minutes back. It is reinforced by a close-up of Estike, gazing inside the bar from one of the windows. The effect is profound. Knowing what tragic fate awaits her, we wish something in the scene changes, and the little girl is saved.

The film ends with the ‘doctor’– a curious character who maintains a notebook on each of the eight characters of the group, documenting their lives in detail—returns home after spending several months in a medical facility where he ended up after suffering a fall on his way to refill his stock of fruit beer. As he sits by the window staring at the empty streets, he suddenly hears the rings of a church bell—this is exactly where the film had begun, with him hearing the ringing of the bells and the whole story now seems like a figment of his imagination. But was it?


5. Werckmeister Harmonies (2000)

Werckmeister Harmonies (2000)

Laszlo Krasznahorkai’s 1989 novel The Melancholy of Resistance serves as the source material for this film. Again the setting is a small, bleak, unnamed village-town of Hungary, but we get a respite from the rain and muck, it is winter. The film begins with a quintessential Tarrian shabby country bar. It is closing time. The bar owner splashes water in the fireplace snuffing off the last flames. János Valuska, a popular village do-gooder walks in.

A total solar eclipse is due and the villagers are apprehensive. In an attempt dispel the myths surrounding the event, with the help of three drunk men, he acts out the changing position of the planets that will cause the natural phenomenon. And ends his case with the promise that at the end “there come light again”. Till the sun rises again, all we need to do is bear with the darkness.

As he walks out of the bar and walks through the deserted street, the chiaroscuro created by street lights is stunning. As the shot progresses, Valushka’s silhouette becomes smaller and smaller until darkness engulfs the whole frame. What Valushka had acted out few moments earlier, Tarr creates with his lighting—an allusion of the eclipse. It foreshadows that something ominous is about to happen—“There is husbandry in heaven”, as Shakespeare’s Banquo would have said.

Evil penetrates the town in the form of a circus truck casting gargantuan shadow over a row of houses—a scene reminiscent of the monster shadow of the balloon vendor in The Third Man.

In the hotel where rumours have started trickling in that a circus is coming to town with a huge stuffed whale and ‘Prince’—a mysterious character(never seen in the movie) who is supposed to have dark powers. In nearby villages entire families have started to disappear. Are these all urban legends or tell-tale signs of an Apocalypse?

What unfolds is a story of eclipse of a different kind—initially, the mundane goings-on are overshadowed by the enthusiasm to catch a glimpse of the artificial whale and then the ever-elusive Prince’s shamanistic powers palls the morals of the locals. The sleepy hamlet becomes a hotbed of anarchy—there are riots, revolts, unrests and eventually people go on a mad rampage and attack the town hospital. All this is seen through the eyes of Valushka, who wanders around the streets. He is the modern-day reincarnation of the Shakespearean wise fool.

Werckmeister Harmonies

The 145-minute-long film has just 39 shots and moves smoothly through a black and white world in languid pace through an assortment of long shots, framing shot, extreme long shots, tracking shots and close-ups. The film is replete with Tarrian signature long takes that reflect the novel’s Faulknerian sentences and his camera’s fixation of gazing at people till they reach the vanishing point continues.

It is film of brilliantly executed set pieces–from the first scene of Valushka acting out the movements of the solar system, to the most poignant one in the movie—that of the mob walking resolutely from the town square to the hospital where they ransack each room bludgeoning patients on the way, only to be confronted by a naked, shrivelled, old man in the shower stall, and retreat without a word.

By the end, Tarr seems to suggest that when the society falls in gloom and despair, and dark forces take over, all we can do is endure until it passes; for as Valushka had promised: After the eclipse “there come light again”.

The whale brings with it ambiguity and the story has been interpreted in different ways—that of Capitalist invasion, the turbulent political scenario of Hungary where Communism is breathing its last, life behind the Iron Curtain, the breakdown of old social system and apprehensions about the new one, forces with ulterior motives stoking the fire of revolution and misleading the mass. But ask the director, and he dismisses all the political allegory by saying: “I just wanted to make a movie about this guy who is walking up and down the village and has seen this whale.”


6. The Man From London (2007)

The Man From London (2007)

This time Tarr picked an unlikely suspect–a pulp fiction by Belgian writer Georges Simenon. Titled L’Homme de Londres, the book was already made into films by Henri Decoin in 1943 and by Lance Comfort in 1947.

The story centres on a railway switchman who appropriates a suitcase full of British sterling by chance. In an attempt to ensure a better future, he slowly becomes a true-blue criminal shunning his family and morals on the way.

While explaining his unusual choice Tarr says: “it deals with the eternal and the everyday at one and the same time. It deals with the cosmic and the realistic, the divine and the human, and to my mind, contains the totality of nature and man, just as it contains their pettiness.” With his mastery in creating stark black and white images and haunting chiaroscuro and use of slow tracking shots and hypnotic camera movements, noir might seem just the right genre for him.

The Man From London

But while you might marvel at his techniques, you will miss the chills-down-your spine moments that are part of a film noir experience. Tarr treats Simenon’s page-turner almost the same way he would treat a Krasznahorkai, replete with Faulknerian sentences—instead of using his style to create a noir film, maybe his attempt was to adapt a crime thriller to a genre that he himself has created and mastered.

For the first time the setting and the language is essentially non-Hungarian and the characters are not representatives of a particular social class. But, the formalistic aesthetics reflected in the film, are at best, a diluted version of the Tarr of Werkmeister Harmonies. Nonetheless it is interesting how Tarr re-imagines the much-adapted crime thriller and fits it into his own mould.


7. The Turin Horse (2011)

The Turnin Horse (2011)

Tarr’s ninth and last film (another collaboration with Laszlo Krasznahorkai) begins with a narrator telling the apocryphal tale of how Neitzsche went mad after watching an obstinate horse being mercilessly whipped on the streets of Turin. It ends with a question: But what happened to the horse?

So, does Tarr give you an answer in what follows next? Not really! May be it is the same horse, may be a different one. But the story (or for that matter, most of Tarr’s stories) unfolds in a Nietzshean world where God is dead.

It is a story of how a horse, crucial to the day-to-day existence of his master, suddenly turns stubborn and refuses to eat, drink, and work. It is also a story of a father-daughter duo who keeps on taking the lashings of fate, until they are completely beaten down. But unlike in the case of the eponymous horse that was eventually saved by the German philosopher, no one, not even God comes to their rescue. It is a bleak Nietzschean world where there is no hope, no comfort, no respite– where God is dead.

The Turnin Horse

If Samuel Beckett’s Wait0069ng for Godot is a play where nothing happens twice, in Bela Tarr’s Turin Horse, that happens six times. We see these two characters, living in a decrepit house in the middle of a storm-lashed heath, going about doing their daily chores in a ritualistic manner— the girl dresses and undresses her father (whose one hand is paralyzed), then she fetches water from the well, boils potatoes, both eat one each for each meal with brandy and try to persuade the stubborn beast.

Each day is the same and Tarr’s suffocatingly slow camera captures six such consecutive days in the life of this father-daughter duo– each time from a slightly different angle– during this period their world completely crumbles. We never get to see the seventh day, maybe Ohlensdorfer and his daughter suffered the same fate. It all seems like a parody of God creating the world in six days. Maybe like God on the seventh day they too decided to take a break—a break from life itself.

On the seventh day, Tarr also signed off from filmmaking. He had announced Turin Horse as his swan song and it is a distillation of his nihilistic worldview.

Author Bio: Ananya Ghosh is a senior copy editor with one of India’s leading newspapers. An obsessive-compulsive traveller and an occasional travel writer, she is also a film addict who watches every movie with an analytical eye. She is as enthusiastic to catch the first day show of a Bollywood blockbuster as she is to attend four back-to-back screenings at a Buñuel or a Bela Tarr Retrospective. Although she is having a passionate fling with Lars von Trier films at present, Cary Grant comedies remain the true love of her life.