Viewers who have followed Bela Tarr's ongoing chronicle of humankind succumbing to terminal misery and entropy will find the process reaching its bitter end here (the word is that it is the director's final film, his definitive statement). The Turin Horse is a cinema snob's wet dream: shot in the bleakest black and white with Hungarian dialogue (very little of it), filled with takes that go on for long minutes in which virtually nothing happens, a mood of intensifying breakdown and despair that culminates in complete stasis. Not a lot here for the Great Unwashed, the Batman crowd, but even they will have to admit that the film is stunning to look at, whether or not it really works as a whole and does justice to its colossal theme.
The Turin Horse takes place over six days _ the period of time it took God to create the world as related in the Bible _ and here the act of creation is reversed and cancelled. Tarr prefaces it with a voiceover, in sepulchral tones, relating the anecdote about the philosopher Frederich Nietzsche seeing a peasant beating a horse on a Turin street in 1889, throwing his arms around the horse's neck to protect it, then collapsing on the street and lapsing into the catatonic state, caused by his tertiary syphilis, that would continue until his death.
That story is said to be apocryphal and it is interesting to remember how strongly horses being beaten by peasants figure in the work of Dostoevsky, a writer who had a profound influence on Nietzsche: Roskolnikov's dream in Crime And Punishment and Ivan Karamazov's's allusion to the Russian poet Nikolay Nekrasov's description of a peasant beating a horse on "its meek eyes" in The Brothers Karamazov, both scenes so powerful that no one who reads those novels will ever forget them. Thomas Mann inflicts a similar collapse under different circumstances on Adrian Leverkuhn, the syphilitic composer-hero of his Nietzsche-saturated novel, Doctor Faustus. All of those characters suffer progressive breakdowns, so perhaps Tarr had them in mind, too, as references for his film.
In the voiceover introduction, Tarr concludes the Nietzsche narrative with the statement: "What happened to the horse is not known", but then proceeds to present a possible account, which begins with one of his famous, or notorious, long takes of the horse pulling a cart in which her peasant owner sits. Like the scene of cattle leaving a barn that opens Tarr's earlier Satantango, it goes on forever, but meshes so perfectly with Mihaly Vig's dark-hued, astringent score, with its laborious, rocking rhythm, that it can put you in gear for what is to follow, if you are properly receptive.
THE TURIN HORSE (Hungary, 2011, b&w, 146 min.) Directed by Bela Tarr and starring Janos Derzsi, Erika Bok, Mihaly Kormos and Ricsi the horse. In Hungarian with English subtitles. Extras include Hotel Magnezit (1978), a 12-minute short film by Tarr, an 81-minute Regis dialogue with the director at the Walker Art Center from 2007, press conferences from the Berlin Film Festival, and a leaflet containing a discussion of the film by critic J Hoberman. Available as a region 1 DVD or a region-free Blu-ray disc.
The peasant is (according to IMDB; we never hear his name) Ohlsdorfer (Derzsi), a severe man, perhaps in his late 50s, who shares a weatherbeaten fieldstone and timber farmhouse with his daughter (Bok). This house, with its rough stones and timber, filled with implements and tools that have obviously been used thousands of times, is so beautifully realised that you study every detail as the film makes its slow progress. Cinematographer Fred Kelemen photographs it in a way that brings to mind Walker Evans's photographs of share-croppers' houses in the 1930s American South.
It is set in a bare landscape with no other buildings in sight, with gale-force winds constantly howling and whipping up leaves and dust. Inside, father and daughter live a life so locked into routine that there is no need to speak. The daughter awakens, fights the wind as she goes to draw water at the well, returns to help her morose and foul-tempered father to dress, and boils the potatoes that, with water and brandy, seem to make up their entire diet.
Tarr presents all of this in the greatest detail on the first day. The potatoes are eaten by hand hot from the pot, first by peeling off the skin, then breaking the starchy inside into pieces and sprinkling on a little salt. No words are spoken, and the entire meal is shown in real time. Later Ohlsdorfer hitches the horse to his cart, but when she refuses to move he begins abusing her until his daughter intervenes, the first in a series of episodes that point up a deep relationship, and similarity of roles, between the daughter and the horse. It's the closest thing to a loving relationship that the film permits.
The day is like all others except for this refusal of the horse to play its usual role, and one other detail that Ohlsdorfer notices before they sleep: the woodworms have gone silent. These are the first hints that things are shutting down, and with each of the successive five days these signs of the end of days accumulate and intensify. A neighbour appears to ask for brandy and, when asked why he did not go into town for it, says that the town has blown away. He then launches into an extended jeremiad about how humans have annihilated the world through a pattern of acquisition and debasement. After almost an hour of silence and monosyllables, his torrent of talk galvanises the film, like Lucky's tirade in Waiting For Godot, and changes its tone, even after Ohlsdorfer angrily shuts him up.
On the third day the horse stops eating and a group of gypsies in a carriage drawn by two elegant white horses appear to take water from the well. They offer to take the daughter with them to America, but are soon chased away from the well by the snarling Ohlsdorfer. Before leaving they give the daughter a book, a religious text that warns that a place that has been defiled by bad acts cannot be used for good again until it has been purified, in case we have missed that point so far. They seem to be another of the failed saviours like the scam artist Irimias in Satantango and the evil Prince in Werckmeister Harmonies, who materialise in Tarr's films, especially since on the next day the well has gone dry.
As The Turin Horse continues to strip down existence until even fire fails to give off light, Tarr is venturing far into Beckett territory, and at his peril. Tarr is no Samuel Beckett when it comes to creating valid characters, and his message is darker: Beckett's characters are determined to go on, no matter what. But the only compelling character in this film is the horse. The others are largely two-dimensional ciphers with nothing of the vitality of Beckett's inhabitants of a dying universe, and it is hard to care whether they go on or not.
Their ritualised lives, configured only for survival, make their point, but the characters themselves are not substantial enough to bear the philosophical weight that the grand, end-of-days theme heaps onto them. Even the thing suspended in a jar narrating Beckett's novel The Unnamable strikes more sparks in its interaction with the world than the two people at the centre of The Turin Horse, and the Nietzsche-Dostoevsky link comes across as something of a free ride.
There are technical problems, too. Tarr's long takes establish the special rhythm that makes his style so striking, but here they work against him at times. Everyone knows that directors use wind machines and other apparatus to create their illusions, and no one believes that Tarr and his crew waited for authentic windy days to shoot the outdoor scenes here. But by holding the camera still for so long, with so little taking place to distract the attention, it is impossible not to notice eventually that some trees and plants are blowing wildly while others remain still, attention is drawn to the filmmaking process, and the illusion is compromised.
Also, watching this humourless film with its vast solemnity, I found myself wondering from time to time how one could go about parodying it. In a way, scenes like the opening one of the horse and cart are parody-proof, or could serve as their own parodies. Pauline Kael once wrote that she couldn't help giggling as she watched Resnais's Last Year At Marienbad for the first time. A subversive stratum of silliness was enough to break through the film's powerful style in her mind. I can imagine the same thing happening here for some viewers.
In an interview at the Berlin Film Festival included as an extra on this disc, Tarr hints that his theme is the uncertainty experienced in complementing mortality and the unpredictable future. But his co-director Agnes Hranitzky takes things further when she grandly states that in their earlier film Satantango they had finished cinema as a genre and exhausted it. But since then they have produced three more movies including Werckmeister Harmonies, arguably Tarr's masterpiece.
Both of those films are richer and settle deeper into the mind than this one does, for all of its visual beauty and intriguing detail. But no one who is interested in Tarr's work should miss it, and the Blu-ray transfer is impeccable.
About the author
- Writer: Plalai Faifa