Berlinale 2011. Béla Tarr's "The Turin Horse"

David Hudson

Notes will follow, but first, an introduction:

"Among cinephiles the most anticipated competition entry by far was The Turin Horse, the latest — or, as he has claimed, the last — movie by the Hungarian master of miserablism Béla Tarr (Sátántangó)," writes Dennis Lim in an overview for the New York Times of the Berlinale as it'd played up to Wednesday. "Inspired by Nietzsche's supposed encounter with a horse that was being beaten on the streets of Turin, the film, set entirely on a weather-beaten plain, is a stark allegory of the human condition. It's nearly devoid of dialogue and scored to an incessant dirge and the musical howl of the apocalyptic wind. With only a handful of competition films yet to screen, The Turin Horse — along with Asghar Farhadi's Nader and Simin, a Separation, an intricate moral drama from Iran — looks like a front-runner for the top prize at the closing ceremony on Saturday."

Observations from a review worth reading:

In Screen, Jonathan Romney notes that the film is comprised of "a mere 30 long takes" and that, in this "paring down," Tarr "and regular collaborators Ágnes Hranitzky [editor and co-director], László Krasznahorkai [co-writer] and Fred Kelemen [cinematographer] have come up with a gauntly beautiful, stripped-down quintessence of the director's style… Composer Mihály Vig contributes an intermittent score, leaden with organ and abrasive violin, that alludes to folk music while also invoking the repetitions of minimalist composers such as Steve Reich. The omnipresent sound of a raging gale has a quasi-musical presence of its own. As for the horse — which figures less than expected — it is mostly a solemn, impassive background presence, and a focus for the enigmatic drift of the film. Is the horse a repository, like Bresson's donkey Balthazar, of human suffering? Or does it embody the universe's absolute implacable indifference to humanity? The Nietzsche prologue, seemingly tangential to the main action, enigmatically bolsters the effect of parable."

Almost as an indirect answer to those questions, the "Director's Notes":

"Our film follows up this question," wrote Tarr in 2007. "What did in fact happen to the horse? Olsdorfer, the carter, and his daughter live out their lives on their farmstead. They subsist on hard work: their only source of income is the horse and the cart — that's what they live on. The father takes on carting jobs, his daughter takes care of the household. It's a very meager life and infinitely monotonous. Their practiced movements and the changes in seasons and times of day dictate the rhythm and routine which is cruelly inflicted on them. The film portrays mortality, with that deep pain which we, who are under sentence of death, all feel."

A brushoff, barely disguised as a review:

"Fans of Tarr's somber and sedate films will know what they are in for and will no doubt find the time well spent," sighs Ray Bennett in the Hollywood Reporter. "Others might soon grow weary of the measured pace of the characters as they dress in their ragged clothes, eat boiled potatoes with their fingers, fetch water, clean their bowls, chop wood and feed the horse… János Derzsi, as the rugged old man, has a wonderfully craggy, white-bearded physiognomy that bears up to considerable scrutiny, which is a good thing since he doesn't say much. Nor does Erika Bók as his long-suffering and industrious daughter."

Those promised notes:

The Turin Horse is indeed "pared down," not just stylistically, but structurally as well. There's a reason that the film runs a mere two and a half hours — relatively brief by Tarr's standards. "The film portrays mortality." That's the concept and Tarr sticks to it — clean and lean.

A long and furious opening tracking shot follows the horse as it pulls the cart and carter home along a wooded path. The mane flares and waves, the eyes bulge between the blinders, the whip cracks and, though the camera will move throughout the film, it never moves so swiftly and freely or covers as much ground as it does here. Vig's repeated measures, which somehow both underscore the monotony and sound a mysterious warning in later scenes, here drive the horse on, almost as if it were a minimalist march.

The horse is stowed away in its stable, the potatoes are cooked and eaten, the father and daughter retire. Title cards announce the dawn of each day, five six in all, a procession of things falling apart, of things falling away from a center that cannot hold. The father and daughter cling to their routine, a routine so well-worn there's no need for any verbal confirmation of what's to be done next.

So it's all the more rattling when a neighbor arrives in need of pálinka and an ear or two into which to spill the philosophy he's settled on. At length, too. In short, though: the world cannot be made better, only worse, because the powerful acquire and degrade, acquire and degrade in an endless ruinous cycle. When he finally brings his rant to an end, the carter gruffly dismisses it as "rubbish." So much for politics.

A second interruption brings a band of gypsies — just as rattling because they seem to be enjoying themselves, striking a note quite incongruous with the rest of the world of the film. The father sends the daughter out to shoo them away even before they arrive. They ignore her and drink from the farm's well. That's when the father bursts outside with an axe. As they pull out, one gypsy quietly slips the daughter a book — in return for the water, he says under his breath. Later the daughter reads, syllable by syllable, a passage that sounds biblical though it's most likely not from the Bible itself. The passage is another warning. Because a place has been desecrated, a punishment will be meted out. The next day, the well is dry. So much for religion?

Hard to say. It would probably be too easy to designate the beating of the horse (mentioned in the opening narration but not actually seen) as some sort of original sin for which the father and all his kin must suffer and then perish. Ultimately, a reading of any sort is unnecessary fat on this magnificent bare bone of a film.



You'll have seen the trailer. The Berlinale posts the film's pages from its catalogue and video of the press conference.

Along with Ildikó Enyedi, Benedek Fliegauf, Szabolcs Hajdú, Miklós Jancsó, Ágnes Kocsis, Márta Mészáros, Kornél Mundruczó and György Pálfi, Tarr has signed an open letter to "friends of Hungarian cinema" protesting, as Fabien Lemercier puts it at Cineuropa, the "recent year-long appointment of producer Andrew G Vajna as government commissioner for the film industry with the task of strengthening the sector's competitiveness."

Update, 2/18: "It sailed, at times, awfully close to self-parody," writes Shane Danielson at indieWIRE. "But unlike the world it depicted, it pulled back from the brink, as much by dint of its own absolute and unwavering conviction as by the apocalyptic force of the images. (At moments, it reminded me of Soviet nuclear-terror movies like Lopushansky's Letters from a Dead Man.) By the end, the lights had gone out, the world was done, and the thought of seeing another movie, then or ever, seemed faintly absurd."

Update, 2/19: Scott Foundas at the newly redesigned site for the Film Society of Lincoln Center: "Tarr has been directing films for more than 30 years now, has been hailed as a visionary by the likes of Susan Sontag, Jim Jarmusch and Gus Van Sant, has been the subject of retrospectives at MoMA and other important museums, and yet has only recently begun to penetrate the defenses of North American art-film distribution. (Werckmeister Harmonies received the smallest of limited releases in 2001; The Man From London, Tarr's lone movie made with 'international' stars, a slightly larger one in 2008.) Now he has made a film that is both one of his best and also perhaps the most acutely concentrated expression of his aesthetic (which may, in turn, open the film to a larger audience). It also, undeniably, feels like the end of something — if not of Tarr's filmmaking career (as he hints in the film's press kit), then at least of a certain tradition of 20th century European modernism, of which Tarr has been one of the last dedicated exponents. Nietzsche would have loved it, and wept."

Updates, 2/22: It's Béla Tarr Day at novelist Dennis Cooper's place: Interviews, texts, stills and clips.

Robert Koehler has put a hell of a lot of thought into his review at, and I'd urge you to read it in its entirety for its keen observations, provocative speculations and its wide open questions. Hard to know where to sample, but I'll go with this, the arrival of the neighbor who's come to fill his bottle of pálinka: "He's a pivot point, a man facing defeat, certainly a foreshadowing of the European disasters to come, but also a universal warning of the collapse of culture. This scene will surely be examined exhaustively by critics and writers, since its one of the rare scenes since Satantango in which Tarr and Krasznahorkai place their thematic cards on the table in something other than purely cinematic terms; it's an aria in an otherwise nearly wordless opera… Open readings and possibilities characterize The Turin Horse from start to finish, and this scene is no exception: The man, plopping his hulking body down at the dinner, could be a parody of every movie drunk opining about the world (or Beckett character who whips enough energy to muster a speech), seeing nothing but darker and darker prospects with every progressive swig, or he could be the kind of visionary who circulate through the worlds of Tarr's films, phony or not, with some perception of the way the world actually is. Beyond his conclusions that any chance is dashed for the forces of good and excellence to triumph over the forces of rottenness (an interesting argument to hear on the week that certain forces of good in Egypt triumphed over medievalists and autocrats), he's here to deliver the word: God is dead."

Update, 2/24: Der Tagesspiegel reports that comments Tarr made in an interview that appeared in the paper on Sunday (2/20) have led to an angry phone call from Hungarian culture minister Géza Szöcs and criticism from Gulyás Balázs, who runs the company distributing The Turin Horse, Mokep. In the interview, Tarr claims the Hungarian government despises intellectuals "because they're liberal and oppositional; they call us traitors to the fatherland." Tarr also criticizes the government's severe cuts to support for the film industry, which has prompted the Hungarian producers union to counter that Tarr actually receives "significant subsidies" himself. Even as government supporters criticize Tarr for his comments, others are going after him for distancing himself from the interview: "I'll not fight, discuss or argue in this way. I find it very degrading that all this is smearing the reception and success of the film and dragging it down to the level of everyday politics."

Update, 3/29: For David Bordwell, this is "another exercise in an earlier entry called Tarr's 'postlude' vein, presenting what remains of life after history has more or less ended. Yet these are no stick figures in a metaphysical meditation. Virtually without psychology, father and daughter are defined through their sheer physical weight and movements. They confront the blasted landscape when they pass outside and the wind tears at them, but once inside they shift to the window to watch. The image of an observer trying to understand a harsh, senseless world beyond the walls is one we've seen in the opening of Perdition, and in the scene in which the obese doctor in Sátántangó planted at his desk tries to write down everything he sees happening outside."

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