Now and Then

Richard Deming on Béla Tarr’s Missing People (2019)

View of Béla Tarr’s Missing People, 2019, Wiener Festwochen, Vienna, June 13, 2019.

IN 2011, the acclaimed visionary filmmaker Béla Tarr declared he was retiring from making movies, and so the recent announcement that he would premiere a new work at this year’s Wiener Festwochen, in Vienna, was met with surprise and, naturally, great anticipation. This new work demonstrates that Tarr has not exactly turned away from filmmaking so much as he has decided to leave feature films behind, having taken narrative cinema as far he could in terms of the form’s expressivity.

Tarr has always sought to challenge and extend the conceptual and aesthetic elements of contemporary cinema in order to create possibilities for ethical revelation. Such productions as A Torinór Ló (The Turin Horse, 2011), Werckmeister harmóniák (Werckmeister Harmonies, 2000), and his seven-hour-plus masterpiece Sátántangó (Satan’s Tango, 1994) are singular experiences that ask much of audiences. With a humanist, phenomenological bent, Tarr’s work often explores the very feeling of time itself, and through exquisitely meticulous long shots and profound austerity it unearths the endless complexity of the particular, the beauty in ugliness, and the surrealism that arises from sustained, intensive attention to the ordinary.

Missing People is not exactly Tarr’s coming out of retirement so much as it is an evolution, or at least an extension, of his negotiation of filmmaking’s formal limits. Rather than a narrative feature, Missing People is instead a work of site-specific expanded cinema. While such an aesthetic turn might surprise some, it remains thoroughly in keeping with the director’s ongoing deliberation on time, embodiment, and physical space.  

Béla Tarr, Missing People, 2019, DCP, color and black-and-white, 95 minutes.

At the beginning of Missing People, members of the audience were led by guides through a back alley of Vienna’s Museumsquartier—an area almost never seen by the throngs of tourists visiting the city—into a medium-size hall, where we were made to sit on bleachers on either side of the space, above which hung two small movie screens. In the middle of the hall stood several high tables on a red carpet, and the remnants of a lively party were everywhere evident. Confetti lay strewn about, and on the tables were champagne glasses, nearly empty wine decanters lying on their sides, ashtrays, and flowers in small, tasteful vases. A different category of detritus framed the auditorium: sleeping bags, empty birdcages, a suitcase, dirty parkas, and other things one might find under bridges or in hidden corners of the city. After we settled in, the lights dimmed and a curtain at the edge of the venue lifted, revealing a large screen onto which images were projected, the same images that also appeared on the screens above the bleachers. Each screen showed the exact hall where we were sitting—the same tables, the same party aftermath—and the camera circled slowly, deliberately, around the space. In the film, the only thing missing is the audience itself. Minutes later, the color drains away, as the image becomes black-and-white. A toothless old man in a large woolen hat and fingerless gloves appears, playing a happy tune on a panpipe. A minute later on-screen, scores of people enter the hall. The camera, always spinning, takes in their assorted faces and diverse bodies, while we remained watching, our necks craning, from the uncomfortable bleachers. Soon the crowd moves to the tables, where they begin to consume chicken, fruit, and wine that suddenly materializes. They don’t eat ravenously or greedily, but methodically, without evident pleasure. These people are not actors but were cast by Tarr himself from Vienna’s homeless population.

The shot shifts from the dining scene to numerous small vignettes played out in the hall. The people on-screen speak with one another; they laugh; some frown; a couple begins to dance; a bearded man reads a German translation of Ovid’s The Art of Love; another puts a diaper on a doll; one woman knits; another recites a payer. In the film’s most powerful moment, a slender man stares into a mirror—the same mirror that was leaning to the side of one of the bleachers in the hall—carefully coating first his skin and then his clothes with likely toxic silver spray paint. When he finishes, he steps under a spotlight and raises his arms, with a tennis racket in one hand and a top hat perched atop his head. His body locks into place as a living statue, the sort of busker found in parks and tourist spots. Watching the lengths that the man goes to in order to prepare himself for his livelihood grants new insight into the personal costs of homelessness, its taxing labor as well as its material depravations. Such is the stuff of compassion.  

View of Béla Tarr’s Missing People, 2019, Wiener Festwochen, Vienna, June 13, 2019.

“The presence of absence” may be a cliché, but the phrase proves most apt in describing the effect of Missing People. Obviously, the disparity between the probable social class of the members of the audience and that of the figures on-screen was ever-present, and it remained a palpable division between the two groups participating in the work. More compelling, however, was the doubling of the physical space, the hall where the audience found itself and the hall in the film. Tarr’s austere monochrome palette only foregrounded the uncanny discrepancy between the images on-screen and the audience’s own direct experience of the space. Eventually, the spatiotemporal suspense at the crux of the project emerged: Did the absence of the people on-screen haunt the audience, or were the audience members—silent, pressed to the margins of the hall—the ghosts, haunters of the site and the people on-screen, locked in a representation that forbade direct engagement? In other words: Who are the missing people of Tarr’s title? At the very least, the rift between the two worlds becomes unavoidable and undeniable.  

At the end of ninety minutes, the screen on the far side of the room rose, revealing picnic tables. Willing members of the audience were led by docents to this area and given a free beer, all to encourage interaction and conversation about the shared experience. Behind the tables hung another screen, which showed, in close-up, the face of every person from the film. These people are now, ostensibly, a part of the audience’s sense of a possible community, a community that formed anew in the hall, in that moment, as part of that event.

Missing People clearly comments on the persistent crisis of homelessness that many municipalities wrestle with, a poignant reality for Vienna, a city consistently ranked at the top of the Mercer Quality of Living survey. Yet Tarr’s work cannot quite escape the moral problem of how to represent marginalized people without also presenting them as victims. Were Tarr’s subjects seen with an audience’s awakened compassion, or were they used to trigger and confirm feelings of liberal guilt? Such is Missing People’s problematic ambivalence, and Tarr’s implicit moralizing risks overwhelming the work’s aesthetic complexity. Still, his desire to create conditions that go beyond mere acknowledgment of a social ill and instead provoke an affective encounter with absence, with the missing (an insight wrested from blindness), shows that Tarr, despite his “retirement,” has lost none of his ambition to use art to transform consciousness and to make manifest that we are, no matter what else, always beings that exist in space among other beings.

Missing People premiered at the Wiener Festwochen in Vienna from June 13 to June 16, 2019.