PRINT February 2012


Béla Tarr’s The Turin Horse

Béla Tarr, The Turin Horse, 2011, still from a black-and-white film in 35 mm, 146 minutes. Ohlsdorfer (János Derzsi) and his daughter (Erika Bók).

“WHAT IS THIS DARKNESS?” a woman asks her father near the end of Béla Tarr’s The Turin Horse as a sudden, fathomless obscurity descends on their isolated hovel. Of all contemporary filmmakers, the Hungarian director is the one most acquainted with the night, the cosmic desolation he infers from the vileness of humanity manifest in stark, tenebrous settings besieged by relentless elements. In Tarr’s sodden, seven-and-a-half-hour masterwork Sátántangó (1994), his characters walk out in rain—and back in rain. In The Turin Horse, a fierce, incessant wind shrieks across the steppe, awhirl with dust and detritus, battering the house and barn where father and daughter exist in a kind of medieval perpetuity. When the storm finally abates at film’s end, it brings not relief but suspension: A silence falls upon their abode so utter that it portends the end of the world. In what he has announced will be his last film, Tarr remains indifferent to anything less than the absolute.

This “sad, windy movie”—Tarr’s self-mocking appraisal of the film—was inspired by the story of Nietzsche’s encounter with a cab horse whose owner was thrashing it in the street. The weeping philosopher saved the poor beast from its tormentor, an event that some say precipitated Nietzsche’s madness. Based on a short story by Tarr’s “permanent” collaborator, writer László Krasznahorkai, that imagines the horse’s life after the incident, the film grants a lead acting credit to Ricsi, the mare that incarnates Nietzsche’s nag and was chosen, we may infer, for the “infinite sorrow” (as the script puts it) in her eyes. But like the abused donkey that is ostensibly the central character in Robert Bresson’s Au hasard Balthazar (1966), the animal remains a secondary player in a drama of human iniquity and suffering. Turin chronicles six days in the lives of an old man, Ohlsdorfer, and his grown daughter—the mother is missing, unmentioned, though her photograph is briefly glimpsed—whose existence long ago settled into the rhythms of quotidian ritual. Their unvarying morning routine begins with the daughter helping him dress—he has a game right arm—after which he takes two shots of pálinka, a clear fruit brandy. (When he instead swigs straight from the bottle toward the end of the film, the variant heralds impending disaster, as the slippages from the habitual do in the final entropic hour of another epic of ritualized domesticity, Chantal Akerman’s Jeanne Dielman [1975].)

Set in a world of scrub and stone, on a remote plain punctuated by leafless Tarkovskian trees, the film, which Tarr has called “hand-made,” encloses its metaphysical enigmas in rough-hewn tactility. Turin records the austere rudiments of the pair’s daily existence—the sole boiled potato that serves as their repast, occasionally adorned with a little salt; the daughter’s grim trek to the well to fetch two pails of water—and announces each similar diurnal regimen with a biblical-seeming intertitle: “The First Day,” “The Second Day,” and so on. (Viewers intolerant of Tarr’s structuralist repetitions have been known to groan when the fourth or fifth iteration arrives; Tarr denies us the seventh day, no doubt because the idea of sanctified rest lies beyond his ken.) The camera fastens on objects in lingering close-up (a flask of booze, the barn door, two wooden plates, a salver of salt) while the highly worked sound track exaggerates the squeal and rattle of a horse-drawn cart or the howl of the unremitting gale, the lineaments of this blighted life described with materialist precision even as Tarr leaves much else vague or unstated: the geographic and period setting; Ohlsdorfer’s occupation; the age and name of the daughter; the name and nature of the unannounced visitor; the cause of the escalating calamity that befalls the house; and the force or event that prevents escape from these cursed environs. The time of year is also difficult to discern: Tarr insisted on shooting between seasons to avoid sunshine, rain, snow, and vegetation, to impart a certain timelessness, all the better to turn his tale into myth. (Those who situate the film in the tradition of classic Neorealism, as a record of household dailiness, ignore the elaborate technical means—wind machines, a helicopter, dozens of lights, a sound studio for postdubbing—on which the director relied to achieve his effects.)

Tarr has always employed space to signify his characters’ confined lives, from the claustrophobic apartments of Family Nest (1979) and Almanac of Fall (1984) to the squalid collective farmstead in Sátántangó. The Turin Horse turns house and yard into a huis clos even as it emphasizes the vastness of the steppe that surrounds them. (One wonders how far the “neighbor” who drops in to buy a bottle of pálinka has traveled; in one of the film’s dour jokes, he appears to arrive from next door.) The repetitiveness of Ohlsdorfer’s existence, itself a bleak succor, is disrupted by increasing adversity. The sky blackens with ash; the horse refuses to eat or drink; the well goes dry; and the oil lamps gutter out, leaving the house in impenetrable darkness. Father and daughter pack the cart with their few belongings, determined to flee with the horse, and laboriously traverse the hill with its one barren tree, only to turn back and resume their unraveling existence. What they have encountered over the horizon that forces them to return remains unknown, in one of many Beckettian moments in a film whose sense of absurd endurance—“Tomorrow, we’ll try again,” the father says at the end of the fifth day—sometimes plays like eschatological vaudeville. (Ohlsdorfer’s strange name appears to have been derived from that of the world’s largest nonmilitary cemetery.) At this juncture, the film’s script describes the futility of escape: “For long minutes they stand motionless and, as the time passes, it becomes ever more obvious that whatever direction they set out in will be completely hopeless.”

Tarr’s preference for staging in the long take, one of many stylistic traits he inherited from his compatriot Miklós Jancsó and the master whose name subsumes his own, Andrei Tarkovsky, could well have turned this opus of stasis and repetition into a monument of immobility. Paradoxically, the camera of German director and cinematographer Fred Kelemen rarely stops moving, its motion immensely free and dancelike within the constraints of each extended plan-séquence. (Not counting the intertitles, Turin contains only thirty shots.) “The moving image is . . . a thinking image,” Kelemen said of his approach, which attempts to re-create the activity of thought with fluid, agile camera movement. Thus, the brilliantly executed opening sequence, which contrasts the implacability of a churning dirge of organ and strings by Tarr’s favorite composer, Mihály Vig, with the abandon of Kelemen’s camera, which swivels and sways around the toiling horse, tracking and dollying, moving backward and then to the side, coming so close that one can almost smell the mare’s matted hide and stare into its exhausted eyes, then darting away to situate horse, cart, and driver within the wind-whipped landscape. Inside the farmhouse, in which most of Turin’s (in)action takes place, Kelemen’s mobile camera ironically confers plenitude on the constricted space. (He even resorts to the long-unloved zoom shot, subtly combining it with dollies to accentuate without the usual crudity.) The cinematographer, who employed a great deal of artificial light in both house and barn to achieve the exquisite density of his black-and-white imagery, is justly proud of, for instance, a complicated take he describes as moving “back from the long focal length shot through the window of the distant hills during a foggy day, which is both a zoom out and reverse moving shot back from the father, pulling back to reveal the daughter sewing at the dining table. Inside this shot are many individual shots, each one emphasizing a particular idea.” The few instances where the camera stops to linger include those strange atolls of repose, shot in static, symmetrically centered compositions, in which Ohlsdorfer or his daughter sits on a wooden stool before the window that looks out on the blasted landscape, as if entertaining themselves by contemplating their fate.

Tarr has frequently inveighed against overinterpretation of his work, warning against the hunt for allusions, influences, and symbols, though The Turin Horse all but flaunts its visual references. Two extremely foreshortened shots of Ohlsdorfer, whose gray mane and beard make him the image of Rembrandt’s Abraham, are obviously modeled on Mantegna’s Dead Christ, while both van Gogh’s Potato Eaters and Georges de La Tour’s Repentant Magdalene are invoked, albeit not reproduced. Similarly, though the director has downplayed the importance of Nietzsche despite the film’s derivation from his biography, the recurrence that organizes the Ohlsdorfers’ existence recalls the philosopher’s conception of the eternal return, and the resignation with which they accept their suffering could also reflect Nietzsche’s counsel of amor fati, even if the obdurate pair hardly seem capable of “loving” their destiny.

Tarr’s most concentrated and ascetic work, The Turin Horse departs from its original script, which is considerably more explicit and verbose, full of details and incidents that Tarr wisely excised in the service of ambiguity, subtlety, and sparseness. In the script, father and daughter eat not one potato at each sitting, but several. A metal coffin lies ominously amid the wind-blown debris outside their door. The daughter describes the world as having gone askew and twice mutters, “Fuck your wind.” (That the two rarely broach the storm in the film indicates their animal-like imperviousness.) The unidentified interloper who arrives to buy pálinka and whose voluble rant against the debasement of the world Ohlsdorfer dismisses as “rubbish”—another in Tarr’s long line of false prophets and misleading seers—is named (Bernhardt the Horse Dealer), his monologue runs much longer, and he returns on the fifth day to deliver an even lengthier tirade. The roistering Gypsies who drink from the Ohlsdorfer well on their way to America say nothing in the script, though their reticence is compensated for when the daughter reads, at patience-testing length, from the apocryphal book they press into her hands; in the film, she haltingly recites only a few lines from it. Most surprisingly, father and daughter partake of bread and bacon on the sixth day, after the storm has subsided. In a work of immense privation, of scarce food, inhibited gesture, and hoarded words—the first line of dialogue, “It’s ready,” occurs twenty minutes into the film—such a meal would appear as startling ostentation. In Béla Tarr’s ultimate film, the last supper consists instead of a raw potato accompanied by the father’s command and the film’s closing utterance: “We must eat.” But they cannot. The roving camera comes to rest, locked on Ohlsdorfer and daughter, who stare abjectly downward, paralyzed as the silence that would otherwise be a blessing of cessation envelops them like a death shroud.

Béla Tarr’s The Turin Horse opens at the Elinor Bunin Munroe Film Center in New York on Feb. 10, following the Film Society of Lincoln Center retrospective “The Last Modernist: The Complete Works of Béla Tarr” at the Walter Reade Theater, Feb. 3–8.

James Quandt is senior programmer at TIFF Cinematheque in Toronto.