"Be More Radical Than Me!": A Conversation with Béla Tarr

Catching up with the legendary Hungarian director, now retired from filmmaking.
Martin Kudlac

Béla Tarr © Zero Fiction Film

The Hungarian auteur Béla Tarr bid a farewell to the active filmmaking at the age of 55 with the 146-minute long reckoning The Turin Horse (2011), consisting of 30 takes. His filmography counts nine features that elevated him into the pantheon of world cinema, earning Tarr epithets as legend, master, cult or visionary, among others. Tarr started shooting films as an amateur at the age of 16, and at 22 he got a shot to make a feature-length film, Family Nest (1979), at Béla Balázs Studio. The early stage of the filmmaker's career marked by Family Nest, The Outsider (1981) and The Prefab People (1982) is defined by social themes and documentary style akin to cinéma vérité. However, the core of his work features his singular aesthetics and bleak visions of the post-communist landscape, notably in Damnation (1988), the cinephiliac 432-minute long treat Sátántangó (1994), and Werckmeister Harmonies (2000).  His distinctive style stems from black and white, spellbinding photography shot in long takes and meticulously choreographed camera movement hypnotically paced along desolate, melancholic, austere and enigmatic imagery what eventually led to Tarr’s label as a radical filmmaker. Michael Guarneri explores in detail Tarr’s works in the article Fade to Black, Béla Tarr, the Anti-Mystic.

Béla Tarr recently inaugurated a new film festival in Slovakia, the International Film Festival Trenčianske Teplice, where the Golden Camera Award for contribution to European cinema was solemnly handed to him. Despite retiring from active filmmaking and devoting his time teaching emerging talents, the filmmaker noted in good spirits, “all filmmakers are junkies.” MUBI had the chance to briefly discuss Tarr's career and his opinions in Slovakian spa town.

NOTEBOOK: How is retirement going?

BÉLA TARR: You know what, I really don’t know how it is going, since I am absolutely fully busy with my film school...

NOTEBOOK: ...in Sarajevo...

TARR: ...yes.

NOTEBOOK: What about the other one you were supposed to open in Croatia?

TARR: No, no, no. It is enough as it is. I have 35 students from all corners of the world, 35 different reasons, 35 different imaginations and I have to take care of them.

NOTEBOOK: That is a big responsibility.

TARR: Sure it is. That’s why you don’t have to ask me how my retirement is.

NOTEBOOK: Are you teaching there with your cinematographer Fred Kelemen?

TARR: Sometimes I invite him to do workshops, but I am inviting a lot of people from around the globe...

NOTEBOOK: Who in particular? Your former colleagues?

TARR: Apichatpong Weerasethakul, Carlos Reygadas, Guy Maddin, Pedro Costa, Gus van Sant, Ed Lachman and lot of others.

NOTEBOOK: Do you consider these the top filmmakers?

TARR: Yes, they are the best filmmakers. I do not like to invite bad filmmakers. If you have a house and you invite somebody, you have a reason to invite that person.

NOTEBOOK: You are a free-spirited filmmaker and you had some problems back in a day in Hungary due to your radical ideas. Is this the approach you encourage at your film school ?

TARR: What do you mean, I had problems?

NOTEBOOK: I meant during the communist rule when the government did not want to fund your films because of your political views...

TARR: Oh yeah, but I have troubles all the time. I am used to it.

NOTEBOOK: But you had run-ins with communists?

TARR: Not only communists. I have got problems also with...

NOTEBOOK: ...capitalists?

TARR: ...yeah, but you know what, I grew up under the communist rule and that was the time of the censorship of the politics, and then there was the censorship of the market, and now we have the censorship of the politics again. I have a déja vu feeling.

NOTEBOOK: What is your approach towards new talents in your film school?

TARR: If you have 35 people and 35 totally different histories, their visions and realities are different. We have Shintos, Hindus, Buddhists, Muslims, all the religions. How can you say “this is the education,” how can I say “this is the direction”? Everybody is different and you have to find a key for everybody. And that is my job, to find it personally and that’s why it is so hard. You need all your empathy to find it.

TARR: What are the biggest challenges for young filmmakers nowadays?

NOTEBOOK: They have to learn and understand how life is going.  That’s all. And of course, they have to trust themselves. Then they will understand life.

NOTEBOOK: Are you following the current cinema?

TARR: I can see there is a big confusion and people are not finding themselves because the market has very strong expectations, and of course, their personal ambitions could be different. And this is what I see now, young filmmakers are really not brave enough. They have to be brave and do not care about any expectations because the expectations are vanishing but the films remain.

NOTEBOOK: Your protégé Laszló Nemes...

TARR: ...he was my assistant...

NOTEBOOK: ...made  a critically acclaimed film Son of Saul, and when I met your former colleague Laszló Rajk, he called the film “the starting point for new film language” [László Rajk: “Personally, I am convinced that Son of Saul is the starting point for new film language, when the space is described by human bodies and their movement within it. And most importantly, space is described by noises so the sound design and sound mix play an important role. We have already seen such films but in this case, you have it from the very beginning until the end. This is what I call a new film language, people do not see the space but they understand. And that is an interesting phenomenon.”] Do you agree?

TARR: I have yet to see the film. I was so busy we kept missing each other, when I was in Hungary, he was not and vice versa, but he will put on a private screening for me. I will see the film in July.

NOTEBOOK: When discussing your work, you are always replying in plural...

TARR: You have to know that Béla Tarr is a brand, not only me. First of all, it's Ágnes Hranitzky, László Krasznahorkai, Mihály Vig and me. These four people were working together for thirty years and we were doing what we did. That’s why I prefer to reply in plural. I have never said any of those are my films because that is not true.

NOTEBOOK: How did the creative process work? Did you divide the tasks or everything was a collective effort?

TARR: Well, I had the final decisions all the time, but they have really big sensibilities and somehow, when we were talking about the life, situations or anything, they had the same point of view. Of course, Mihály is a musician and László is a writer. Even though we have a different language, we somehow think about the life together, not about a film.

NOTEBOOK: You are celebrated for photography. Who was in charge of the camera movement and aesthetics pertaining to cinematography?

TARR: Those were my decisions. All the time.

NOTEBOOK: I presume you did not do storyboards.

TARR: No. That’s stupid. When you are in a space, you have a lot of possibilities to think and you have to decide what you are going leave out.

NOTEBOOK: That means you are experimenting on the set, taking several takes and then...

TARR: ...no, no, no. I decided everything already before the shooting. And when we start the shooting, I know the whole film from the first frame until the last one.

NOTEBOOK: You were starting you career shooting politically engaging social documentaries...

TARR: ...let’s say, yes...

NOTEBOOK: ...but you ended up making films considered metaphysical. How did this shift happen?

TARR: It happened step by step. If you watch them, you can see I went slowly deeper and deeper to understand the problems.

NOTEBOOK: But they are still political, from the first one to the last one?

TARR: Let’s say I have a social sensibility, and of course the films can acquire political meaning, but it is not solely political. Political stuff is a kind of daily activity and my stuff is not like this.

NOTEBOOK: If you say your films can acquire political meaning, do you mean in the process of interpretation or when you are conceiving and shooting them?

TARR: I said I have a social sensibility and I am protecting human dignity. And this is my goal and I do not care about anything else. I do not care if I am hurting someone’s interest or not, political or other. I am just telling what I am thinking.

NOTEBOOK: You said you have the same perspective on life as László Krasznahorkai that’s why you adapted his novels.

TARR: I was not adapting his novels. I discovered his books and afterwards I understood his point of view and we just found each other. And it was very easy to work with László.

NOTEBOOK: You were described as “a cynical mystic.” Can you agree with such label?

TARR: Bullshit, that does not apply to me. I am not cynical and definitely not a mystic.

NOTEBOOK: One of you inspirations was Tarkovsky’s Andrei Rublev...

TARR: I just like Andrei Rublev, but Tarkovsky was a religious guy and I am not.

NOTEBOOK: Are you a secular filmmaker?

TARR: I am just a simple atheist. I do not believe in God, okay. That’s simple.

NOTEBOOK: And the cynicism part?


The Turin Horse

NOTEBOOK: You said you wanted your last film, The Turin Horse, to be about the end of the world.

TARR: The end of life, because we were talking about an apocalypse and those things and I recognized that was not true. The life is just slowly, step by step, disappearing. That’s all.

NOTEBOOK: But you also did a film about Holocaust.


NOTEBOOK: Werckmeister Harmonies.

TARR: That’s not about Holocaust.

NOTEBOOK: But there are some references towards it.

TARR: No, there are none. When we did the film, we believed it will be just a kind of a fairy tale. By the end, we can see how people are marching destroying everything and how the populism is growing up. We can see now how the film became reality. And that does not make me happy.

NOTEBOOK: But there is the famous whale scene which is frankly pulsating with a mystic vibe and it can be also interpreted through religious meanings.

TARR: Hey, the whole fucking film is about three main characters. All three of them have some kind of a relation to eternity. Valuska has a connection to cosmos, Eszter has a connection to clean voices and the whale is coming from a far ocean. And all of them are connect to eternity. And we had seen the other side of their daily lives than their daily interests and the shit of the people—how they are killing, eating those people and those characters like the whale.

NOTEBOOK: Your friend András Kovács wrote a monograph about you and your work [The Cinema of Béla Tarr: The Circle Closes].

TARR: Yes, it’s very long. You know who wrote the best book... Jacques Rancière [Béla Tarr, the Time After].

NOTEBOOK: But returning to Kovács, he wrote that you finished making films because you could not be anymore radical in the boundaries of contemporary cinema. Is this also your sentiment?

TARR: I did not read his book until the end because I became so nervous when he was doing the graphics calculating the length of shots. I said "fuck off." I gave up. I do not care even if he is writing about me. For me, it is a strange shit.

NOTEBOOK: So you are not a fan of cinemetrics?

TARR: I do not agree with it. But the main issue is that I involve time and space differently into the filmmaking and the film language, and in addition to it I am ignoring linear film dramaturgy. That’s what I was doing.

NOTEBOOK: Do you agree with his statement that you thought you could not be anymore radical?

TARR: I am one of the most radical filmmakers and my problem is...with my kids, I am always screaming at them “Hey, be more radical than me!”  And then it will be fine. This what I can say to young filmmakers “Go and be more radical,” “be more revolutionary than I was.”

NOTEBOOK: But to be radical formally or in the substance?

TARR: Everything. Everything together.

NOTEBOOK: Due to your singular poetics, you are considered as a modernist filmmaker...

TARR: ….yeah, yeah, yeah. You know how many titles I have. I was legendary, the master …

NOTEBOOK: ...you still are...

TARR: Sure, sure. You know what, forget it. I am still alive. That’s why I do not like this labeling, because it is hurting me. I want to just have a normal life.

NOTEBOOK: I did not mean to insult you in any way, just ask whether you perceive your work, your style as part of that period of cinema.

TARR: The title of my last retrospective that was held in New York was "The Last Modernist," which hurts me. How can they use a word meaning last? I do not know.

NOTEBOOK: One would have thought it would be flattering to be in the same category as Antonioni or Godard.

TARR: Sure, sure, sure.

NOTEBOOK: You wanted to be a philosopher...

TARR: ...a very long ago.

NOTEBOOK: Are you philosophizing in your films?

TARR: I am all the time just a filmmaker. A simple filmmaker.

NOTEBOOK: But what would be the kind, branch or period of philosophy you prefer?

TARR: None.

NOTEBOOK: Not even Nietzsche, to whose incident leading to his mental breakdown you are referring at the beginning of The Turin Horse?

TARR: No. When I wanted to be a philosopher I was just finishing high school and I was a very strong leftist. We were young radicals and we said the communists are lying. We have to forget this philosophy thing. It was a very long time ago.

NOTEBOOK: Do you see yourself as an avant-garde artist?

TARR: No. I am not considering myself an artist. Just a simple filmmaker.


NOTEBOOK: Back in the time, you had problems finding somebody to fund Damnation. In the end, you manage to fund it by yourself.

TARR: It is a very long political story that really was the last breath of communism. They wanted to kill us, since we were the new generation of filmmakers. I was doing the film out of the system.

NOTEBOOK: Where did you find the money?

TARR: The film studio had the camera, a little money and a few meters of film stock and that was enough. The film was really cheap, low budget stuff. We did not have money, we were just shooting.

NOTEBOOK: Despite the conditions, the quality persists.

TARR: Of course.

NOTEBOOK: There is this quote attributed to you, “radicalism in the artistic form should influence directly the viewer’s political ideas.” Can you elaborate?

TARR: I don’t recall saying that. You know what, a film is just a film. What I want is for you to go to a cinema, sit in a darkness, watch it and when you leave: how are you? Are you better? Do you feel stronger? Did you get something? Or are you just the same as you were when entering the cinema? And that’s all.

NOTEBOOK: But for example The Turin Horse has this bleak, nightmarish and apocalyptic atmosphere.


NOTEBOOK: You don’t agree?

TARR: No. I do not agree.

NOTEBOOK: So, is it a happy film?

TARR: The same question. How did you feel when you left the screening of The Turin Horse?

NOTEBOOK: Flabbergasted.

TARR: You were stronger.

NOTEBOOK: But that does not mean that some viewers might perceive it as apocalyptic.

TARR: Sure, it does not mean everybody has to feel like this.

NOTEBOOK: You had your own studio Társulás...

TARR: ...yes, that was in the 70s and the 80s, and then I founded my own company in Budapest, T.T. Filmmuhely and we were working there for nine years and now it’s closed. And I left the country.

NOTEBOOK: ...back in the 70s and 80s, in Társulás, you were also supporting young film critics...

TARR: ...we were supporting everybody. When I was working at T.T. Filmmuhely, when we were closing, I had a mountain of scripts on my table.

NOTEBOOK: But since you said what Kovács wrote is bullshit...

TARR: … I did not say it is bullshit. That is just his opinion. He has the right to say his opinion but that does not mean I agree with him.

NOTEBOOK: Sure. But when you supported young film critics, you considered it important. What about film criticism today?

TARR: Honestly, we are in the same boat. The film culture is one unit, including documentary, animation, feature films, film historians, film magazines—it has to be one unit. And we cannot say that one thing is more important than the other. That’s stupid. Of course, film critics has very important job—they have to understand us.

When I have a problem with film critics it is when they do not know how we are making films. We do not have the same vocabulary. Sometimes, I have a feeling I need to invite film critics to push a truck with a dolly just to see it—what it is—to understand our language. When I will be teaching in my school, I would like to take cinematographers, some actors and film journalists in as well since they have to be all together.

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