Director: Béla Tarr and Ágnes Hranitzky
Writer: László Krasznahorkai and Béla Tarr
Cinematographer: Fred Kelemen
Producer: Gábor Téni
I had never even heard of Bela Tarr up until about six or seven years ago when I watched Damnation (1987), providing that rare experience of a filmmaker providing an incomparable experience. He is, hands down, the most underrated filmmaker to ever live and I have no idea how or why so few know about the guy (though it’s obviously changing).
With Damnation, I knew I was watching a near perfect film within seconds; watching as a long dolly shot tracked from the image of a ski lift, moving back through a window and further to a man staring out. Often when we think of long takes we imagine steadicams (Boogie Nights (1997), Children of Men (2006), Goodfellas (1990),) or cranes (Rope (1948), Touch of Evil (1958)), always moving and following characters. Rare is it for a long take to focus upon the composition, using a subtle movement in order to reframe an object or subject again and again and again. I attempted this exact style with the post-intro opening office shot in my film Road to the Well (2016); starting in a close up on our lead and pulling out to reveal the office where other subjects came in. While I think I was miles from Tarr (attempting to balance too much performance, exposition, and utilize an underwhelming set design), it set up a challenge I can’t get out of my head.
Bela Tarr wouldn’t remain married to this format, but many of these subtle moves provide the images that have burned into my mind. Of the circus in Werckmeister Harmonies (2001) and I believe doing a Godard Weekend-type parallel dolly shot) to Damnation’s wide, locked master that shot across a fog laden town square where some subjects ever so gradually come into focus. His films provide the feeling of a dream, though never the surrealism; committed to finding the most beautiful and often haunting images possible.
The last time I attempted to watch The Turin Horse was in my parent’s basement while home for Christmas a few years back. It’s two hours later in Chicago and my parents go to bed around 8 or 9pm, meaning by 6 or 7pm LA time, I’m in a dark, empty house with everyone asleep and the only good television located in a dark and cold basement. Being home always provides that strange anxiety that most people I know from LA experience when going home. There’s a kind of regression to the teenage mind mixed with an emptiness in knowing there are few friends to call, fewer that are close enough to meet, and suddenly you recall the feeling that made you leave; of absolute and nearly unbearable boredom.
The Turin Horse opens by describing it takes moments after Nietzsche's infamous episode of throwing himself upon a horse as its owner whipped it; followed by a devastating depression where he went mute until his death from both dementia and series of strokes. I had written my senior philosophy thesis on Nietzsche and his idea of the ubermensch; in which he envisioned the perfect life being composed of a healthy pursuit of creativity, knowledge, and physical well being (the definition of “health” being the purpose of the paper).
My first philosophy teacher is the one who piqued my interest in Nietzsche, and similar to what seems like a third or so of aspiring philosophy students, he’s the one that made me want to major in the subject. Nietzsche is a type of public figure that most people have a strong negative opinion about without knowing much of anything about his work; diminished to both the myth of the horse and his “God is dead” declaration ("The Sopranos" would explore both of these points). One of the best descriptions I’ve heard of the man is that he was as much a cultural critic as he was a philosopher; looking to the world around him and taking all he saw in order to create his own ideas about morality, purpose, art, and spirituality.
The movie opens up moments after the horse episode, following the animal as it pulls a wagon, reigned by the stableman (János Derzsi) as they wade through a strong wind. An eerie string cello score plays over and we watch the man head down the seemingly endless path, until he arrives at his lone cabin in the middle of the field, catching every bit of the wind’s wrath. His daughter (Erika Bók ) puts the horse away and boils him a couple of russet potatoes, which the man sprinkles with a bit of salt, scarfing it down, eating only half and then heads to bed; all while a chilling draft cuts through the cabin.
The next day the stableman wakes, takes two shots of vodka, removes the horse from the table, the daughter helps him saddle it up, and he heads to town again. He then returns and repeats the process. The story then goes on for another two days, where nothing more than the neighbor stopping by for some alcohol breaks up the action; continuing on for nearly the entire two and a half hour running time.
Each movement is captured in its grueling banality and nearly unbearable pace, going on for over thirty minutes. While we know little about the characters, we see that, in terms of capturing their lives, we’re witnessing the most exciting moments. The image of moving back to my hometown rolled through my brain; of having to take an equally menial entry level job, commuting downtown, and repeating it over and over with only two weeks vacation to spare. The combination was so overwhelming that I could not bring myself to continue or even finish the film during the first viewing years ago; possibly the only time in my life where I wanted to finish a film but just couldn’t bring myself to.
Letting my reaction bake for a little over a week since finishing this on my second attempt, I realize that Tarr was exploring the very world that Nietzsche feared most. Recently a filmmaker friend of mine on Facebook talked about how many Americans are raised in homes without any exposure to art; especially as art-itself has become so politically politicized. They are raised to think that success is to make money and have a house, car, good job, and family; all the ideas raised in other existential films, from Fight Club (1999) to Wild Strawberries (1957). However, Tarr abandoned the grand philosophical diatribes and conversations, instead focusing on a world absent of art and culture; where the whole mission is about having a shot of tasteless alcohol to get you through the workday, make a little money to eat potatoes with salt, go to sleep, and repeat. There are no books, instruments, or even anything to look at; nothing to talk about and nothing to hear but the oppressive wind.
It’s easy to extend this routine to most lives, poor to middle class to rich; to exist for no other reason than to keep yourself alive, rather than enriching the soul through education or art or activity or experiences. It creates the paradoxical feeling that although life is the same day to day, time flies by; simply because the mind cannot separate one year to the next; no book, movie, conversation, or creative endeavor to define its chapters. If I had to make a list of films I would never want to watch alone at night, from the fucked up to the unsettling, this would be near the top. It’s terrifying in a way I’ve never experienced.
BELOW: The opening scene, which we'll see again and again and again
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