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Fade to Black: Béla Tarr, the Anti-Mystic

An exclusive article direct from the new film magazine “Fireflies” exploring the work of the Hungarian director.
Not yet thirty, the Hungarian director Béla Tarr was already making a name for himself both at home and abroad. During the late 1970s and early 1980s his early features earned prizes at film festivals west of the Iron Curtain; in Hungary, however, he remained a marginal figure as the regime did not take kindly to his films’ openly dissenting spirit. This rendered it increasingly difficult for him to make films in his native country and following the independently funded Damnation, he moved to West Berlin, only returning after the dissolution of the Eastern bloc. Upon his return, Tarr got to work on a project that had been gestating for a decade: the 432-minute Satantango, which was released in 1994 and became a cult sensation among cinephiles. The resulting recognition, together with the enthusiastic endorsement of his work by prominent peers such as Susan Sontag and Gus van Sant, turned the forever uncompromising, obstinate outsider into a star of the international art-house circuit.
Then, in 2008, Tarr decided to put an end to his directing career with The Turin Horse, a film about the end of the world. Following its screening at the 2011 New York Film Festival, he famously told the audience:
Seriously, this is my last movie. Filmmaking is a nice bourgeois job. I can make ten or fifteen more movies. I can repeat myself, but I do not want to. I do not want to make copies just to make money. I respect the audience, and I respect my work. And I have the feeling that the work is done. I have no reason to do more... I want to protect my work, from myself too.
As a devotee of Tarr’s cinema since high school, when I’d stay up all night to watch Eastern European film marathons on the Italian state TV’s cultural channel, this was heartbreaking news. Nevertheless, I’ve come to respect his decision as an act of self-determination and accept it like all the things I cannot change. After all, as Tarr and Ágnes Hranitzky (his wife, editor and co-director) have suggested to fans in denial, “you can always watch the old films over and over” – a dry joke that resounds with the lyrics to the song in Damnation that Vali Kerekes sings between sighs and drags from her cigarette at the Titanik Bar:
When artists die, their oeuvre automatically becomes a series of objects to be analysed, classified and shelved. Albeit only figurative, Tarr’s death as a filmmaker is no exception, and it has given rise to a commonly narrated tale of his ascension in the annals of film history. It’s a story in three acts and it goes more or less as follows.
Béla Tarr (1977-2011): Cult Director of Formally Impeccable, Pessimistic Films
ACT I: A Raw and Rebellious Youth
Born in 1955 in Pécs,1 a small city in the southwest of Hungary, Béla Tarr began making short films after his father gave him a 8mm camera for his fourteenth birthday.2 His low-budget early features Family Nest, The Outsider and The Prefab People employ techniques of cinéma vérité: non- or semi-professional actors, original locations, ambient light, source music, improvised scenes and dialogue, and rough, handheld camerawork. These raw films lack the lavish photography and monumental tracking shots of Tarr’s later work, in which the camera – often on a Steadicam mount – performs intricate ballets, gliding and spinning around the actors.
Instead, using an unadorned, gritty aesthetic, they chronicle the bleak reality of working-class Hungarians with palpable social anger. For instance, in Family Nest, family man Laci and his brother rape a young woman on a street corner; after a cut, the three are shown apathetically getting drunk as if nothing happened. This critique is infused with instances of mordant humour, as in The Prefab People, when after a violent on-screen fight and a presumably long period of separation lost in a narrative ellipsis, a husband and wife make peace by buying an expensive washing machine.
ACT II: Finding a Form
In the early 1980s, while working on Macbeth (on closer inspection another story of a dysfunctional couple beset by dirty laundry), Tarr started experimenting with the expressive potential of lengthy travelling shots.3 Tarr’s TV adaptation of Shakespeare’s play consists of only two shots: the first lasts five minutes and is set outside Buda Castle, depicting the three Weird Sisters foretelling Macbeth’s rise and fall; the second is a 67-minute, handheld tour de force that chases the protagonist and his social-climber wife through the castle’s torch-lit tunnels as the witches’ prophecy comes true.
This experimentation continued in Almanac of Fall, a scorching drama set entirely within a dilapidated, old-world apartment. In portraying the volatile and increasingly hostile dynamics between the apartment’s five inhabitants, Tarr consolidated his move towards a conflation of montage-based cinema and long-take aesthetics.4 As he’s explained in characteristic understatement, both styles are based on the alternation of long shots, full shots, medium shots and close-ups; in the former, separate shots are spliced together according to the rules of continuity editing, whereas the latter involves moving the camera through space and constantly framing anew, rearranging the mise en scène.
For example, in one scene in Almanac of Fall, the camera slowly tracks around a man speaking on the phone, completing two revolutions. By means of panning and rack focus, important information is gradually revealed without cutting, drastically escalating the tension. In fluid succession, we see the man’s worried face in close-up as he pleads for a loan; a detail of his shaking hand holding a cigarette; the dirty walls and furniture; a semi-open door and another character’s glaring eyes spying from the darkness beyond; the first man, still talking on the phone, now in a medium shot; and finally, a lateral close-up of the scheming eavesdropper, his profile bathed in ominous red light emanating from god knows where. Throughout the film, the sudden appearance of red light signals that the conflicts brewing in the bluish or greenish penumbra of the apartment have reached boiling point – an expressionistic contrast of warm and cool colours already present in Macbeth.
ACT III: Artistic Maturity
In 1985, Tarr read the unpublished manuscript of Satantango, the first novel by Hungarian writer László Krasznahorkai.5 Tarr was so taken by its gloomy universe that he enlisted the author as his permanent co-screenwriter (and later filmed two adaptations of his books: Satantango and The Melancholy of Resistance, the source novel for Werckmeister Harmonies).
Hence, from Damnation onwards, Tarr’s features are almost exclusively set in the ghostly ruins of mining or rural villages favoured by Krasznahorkai, populated by penniless drunkards swindling one another and infiltrated by government-sponsored agents selling false hope about a bright future. Faced with the brutish meaninglessness of life, some characters commit suicide, like little Estike in Satantango, while others – possibly more fearful, possibly more indolent – resign themselves to living through the same rainy day over and over, hating their neighbour, fucking somebody else’s spouse and slowly poisoning themselves with cheap booze.
Damnation’s last sequence epitomises this impasse. Having reported his lover and her husband to the police out of spite, the protagonist Karrer finds himself completely alone. At wit’s end, he falls to his knees in an abandoned construction site and starts maniacally barking at a stray dog while the storm pummels him with rain. In the two-minute leftward tracking shot that closes the film, we watch him plod through a muddy wasteland until he disappears out of the frame. The camera continues its movement without him, finally halting in front of a pile of earth resembling a burial mound. The message is clear: it doesn’t matter where Karrer is going, he’s already dead.
To emphasise the solemnity of Krasznahorkai’s trademark end-of-the-road scenarios, Tarr turned to his friend Mihály Víg. The composer, who had already written the score to Almanac of Fall, became another mainstay of Tarr’s family of collaborators. His melancholic chords obsessively loop in the films’ soundtracks, accompanying the now-signature Totentänze for actors and film camera that dominate this latter part of Tarr’s career. Lengthy, unhurried and always exquisitely photographed in black- and-white, these meticulously choreographed tracking shots portray aimless walks through wind-battered plains, escapist drinking and dancing marathons, mechanical sexual intercourse, cruelty against helpless animals and people, and so on, earning Tarr the reputation of downbeat aesthete, reinforced with each successive film up until his glorious retirement in 2011.6
After such a clear-cut story of step-by-step artistic development, amply rewarded with sundry prizes and accolades, we might as well think of Tarr living happily ever after in some imaginary pantheon of cinema auteurs. All’s well that ends well, isn’t it?
Well, not quite. Just like History with a capital H, film history loves to make up catchy slogans, useful as pull quotes and fodder for online listicles. Forgive me if I refuse to join the applause for the visually stunning, contemplative masterpieces of Hungarian miserabilist Béla Tarr, aka the ultimate auteurist’s auteur. To me, the way Tarr is routinely labelled as a formalist, reduced to the status of a stylish pessimist, is a reactionary misunderstanding. The formalist label belittles his work as art-for- art’s-sake filmmaking, disengaged from real-world problems, whereas the pessimist charge signals a fatalistic ideology that regards life as cruel, rotten and inevitably tragic, when actually, defeatist wallowing is absolutely contrary to Tarr’s cinema. “First of all,” as he said in an interview with Gary Pollard, “if you are pessimistic, you don’t do anything, and you [...] don’t want to communicate with people.” Second, consider that Tarr never loses an occasion to proclaim that his films reflect his unconditional love for humanity and his opposition to the mystifications of the powers that be.
To illustrate, let’s refer to a favourite scene of mine. Some twenty minutes into The Prefab People, industrial worker Robi and his six-year-old son are watching a political programme on TV. A spokesperson of the Socialist Workers’ Party summarises the history of mankind from a Marxist perspective: socialism was born as an antidote to the capitalist revolution that overthrew feudalism; some unspecified day in the future socialism will defeat imperialism and communism will usher in a just, classless society. The child is clueless about all these isms and his father feels obliged to fill in the blanks. Unfortunately, he’s as confused as his son. His explanation, a bumbling recital of leftist mottoes, satirically underlines the abyss that separates the official version of reality from the harsh day-to-day of the Hungarian people. With this scene, more than simply exposing state hypocrisy, Tarr indicts history as a sterile rhetorical construction in which human beings disappear behind big words and abstract ideas.
It’s not surprising that one of Tarr’s favourite paintings and declared influences is Pieter Bruegel the Elder’s Landscape with the Fall of Icarus. In the painting, the mythical hero is reduced to a splash in the distance, whereas the foreground is dedicated to unnamed peasants attending to their daily chores, ploughing fields and pasturing sheep.
This earthbound perspective is adopted throughout Tarr’s cinema, often finding expression in his peculiar brand of humour – for example, in Werckmeister Harmonies’ dazzling, ten-minute opening take, which depicts drunkards enacting a solar eclipse in a filthy tavern somewhere on the Great Hungarian Plain. While the stupefied-drunk men rotate around themselves and each other, clumsily performing the motions of celestial objects in “the boundlessness where constancy, quietude, and peace, infinite emptiness reign,” a sweet piano melody kicks in to underline the moment’s cosmic blissfulness. The planetary waltz is brought to an abrupt end when the barman gets fed up and throws everybody out. Another example is the scene in Satantango when grandiloquent charlatan Irimiás dictates a letter to his sidekick Petrina. Irimiás prattles on and on about eternity and the universe, describing how everything unfailingly falls into its rightful place, until an old man brings them their dinner – a steaming bowl of bean soup – which immediately takes precedence over the pseudo-philosophising.
Lofty aspirations are never kindly portrayed in Tarr’s films. In Satantango, the doctor is a grotesque recluse trying to distil everything he observes from his window into elegant prose, refusing to actually participate in the real world. Meanwhile, as he writes and boozes locked up in his ivory tower, the village succumbs to the machinations of the police captain and Irimiás, who exploit the peasants’ dreams of wealth to divide and rule the community. In Werckmeister Harmonies, Mr Eszter devotes his life to an intellectual endeavour of the highest magnitude: confuting Andreas Werckmeister’s foundational rules on keyboard tuning in order to revolutionise Western music. At the same time, his wife, her lover and a shady circus performer called The Prince start an actual revolution by exploiting the villagers’ fear of anarchy. Indifferent both to academia and political conspiracies, the film’s doomed protagonist János Valuska is the prototype of the young artist with his head in the clouds, and thus a kindred spirit to András, the capricious violinist from The Outsider who is incapable of functioning as a husband, father or worker.
Tarr’s isolated intellectuals, oblivious artists, sham messiahs and aspiring dictators illustrate his humanist credo. As implied in the parodic history lesson from The Prefab People, teleological ideologies are nothing but fabricated narratives that, by promising this or that ideal future, rob us of the most precious and irreplaceable thing we have: our life in the here and now. There are no gods or masters to save us, no prearranged paths to follow, no eventual deliverance – in other words, our day will not come.
Granted, this isn’t exactly a cheerful message, but it doesn’t make Tarr a pessimist. This outlook opens up a space for us to do something with our lives in the present. Even if Tarr would never admit it given his trademark anti-intellectualism, I believe his philosophy shares many of the liberating ideas that Jean-Paul Sartre puts forward in Existentialism is a Humanism. Tarr’s friend and frequent cinematographer Fred Kelemen captures this affinity when he says that “Béla is no mystic. He’s a de-mystifyer, an anti-mystic. Driven by this heartbeat, which is the echo of the world of disappearance, he shatters the myths of nationalism, capitalism, world-view absolutism, which surround us as political, economic, religious ideologies and rob us of the sight of a freer, wider plane.” In his current position as dean of the Sarajevo Film Academy’s Film Factory programme, Tarr also advocates the power of human agency, inciting budding filmmakers to take concrete action and, as written in his mission statement, “use their creative powers in the defence of the dignity of man.”
More than any of the above examples, it’s the pálinka-sharing scenes punctuating each of Tarr’s films that most powerfully reject the association of pessimism with his cinema. By consistently showing common people singing, dancing and talking shit while getting plastered, Tarr insists that it’s possible for human beings to overcome the rationale of profit and establish bonds of friendship and solidarity.
Unfortunately, these moments of communal harmony are the exception and not the rule: once the drunken stupor vanishes, man is once again a wolf to his fellow man. Rather than lament this irremediable tragedy, Tarr’s filmmaking is driven by an urgent yet unattainable desire to preserve the fragile and the ephemeral, to immortalise what must decay and disappear.
Whenever someone asks Tarr about the three different stages in his career, he answers, “Please, don’t split my life!” To paraphrase the statements he’s been repeating for the last two decades: there are no phases; it’s always the same film, over and over again. I urge you, don’t obsess over the style. It’s not a matter of long takes versus shot-countershot, black-and-white versus colour. Putting too much emphasis on formal aspects overshadows the fundamental gesture at the heart of Tarr’s cinema: showing human beings – especially the humiliated and dispossessed – struggling for existence, cohabiting with their neighbours, acting kindly and lovingly as well as cruelly and treacherously. (Though a humanist, Tarr is certainly no moralist.)
Human beings are central from the first feature, looking for decent living conditions in late 1970s Hungary, to the very last, crunching raw potatoes on the verge of extinction. Fittingly, Tarr’s philosophy is perfectly condensed in the conclusion of his final film, The Turin Horse, in which a carter and his daughter are gradually deprived of every means of subsistence over the course of six days. As my friend Marco Grosoli notes in his monograph Armonie contro il giorno. Il cinema di Béla Tarr, we never see the seventh and last day of the film’s anti-Genesis because, etymologically, ‘apocalypse’ doesn’t mean annihilation but ‘disclosure’ (indeed, in the Bible, the apocalypse occurs in the Book of Revelation). The paradoxical revelation in The Turin Horse is that there is nothing to be discovered at the end of time. After the sun and all fire on earth inexplicably go out, it’s perhaps the cold light of this new understanding that bathes the film’s closing shot, allowing us to see the father and daughter as they sit at their dining table on day six, silently waiting for the end. It might be too late for them to do anything else, but it’s not too late for us to wake from the torpor of our daily lives and take action. Our seventh day has yet to come.

Originally published in Fireflies Issue #2: Abbas Kiarostami / Béla Tarr. Special thanks to editors Annabel Brady-Brown and Giovanni Marchini Camia and art director James Geoffrey Nunn. Issue #3: Claire Denis / Jia Zhangke is now available for pre-order. For a peak at what the article's beautiful print layout looks like, see below:

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