Sátántangó, following its bewildering eight-minute prologue tracking shot of cattle wandering aimlessly around the weathered structures and mud-soaked grounds of a deserted farming estate in rural Hungary, opens with a shot of a dim and basic furnished room gradually filling with morning light as a man named Futaki (Miklós Székely), having risen off-screen out of bed, hesitantly approaches the window to investigate the tolling of imaginary church bells that have woken him from his sleep. The final shot, seven hours later, is its inverse: another man, known as the Doctor (Peter Berling), boards up his cluttered room by nailing wooden planks to the window, the room incrementally robbed of light, the disembodied echoing peel of bells ringing in his (and our) ears as the screen turns a final black. Two mirroring images reflecting opposites: lightness and darkness, a move towards and away from the world, from cradle to coffin, a circle opening and closing. Contained between each of those distant poles is an expansive, and blissfully slow epic of monumental cinematic proportion and cultural standing. Indeed, few films of the past twenty-five years have attained the kind of venerable status that Béla Tarr’s 1994 Sátántangó has achieved, to the point where its reputation as one of the greatest achievements in world cinema has transcended its own materiality as a “film,” and transitioned into becoming a sacred art object that is revered and studied with as much devotion as perplexity. It is not so much a film that you watch, as it is a work of art that lives in you for a while or longer, depending on your disposition. It consumes you as much as you consume it.
Based on the eponymous 1985 novel by friend and frequent collaborator László Krasnahorkai, the film is set in the twilight days of Communist Hungary on a collective farm in serious financial and moral decline. Cut off from the nearby town by the incessant autumn rains, the villagers’s plan to abandon the estate after splitting their year’s worth of pay is interrupted by the imminent arrival of former farm worker turned police informer Irimiás (Mihály Vig) and his sidekick Petrina (Putyi Horváth), whose manipulative powers enable him to hold a god-like sway over the townspeople. So goes a rudimentary summarization of the film’s main storyline, yet it does not begin to suggest the formally intricate architectonics of its construction, the different temporal and spatial linkages that Tarr manages to bind together through shifts in narrative and character perspective by using, as does the novel, the twelve-steps of the tango as its skeletal structure.
Tarr is entirely unconcerned with rushing towards the next plot beat, nor is it really the plot itself that remains with us afterwards. Rather it is Tarr’s radical elongation of time, materially stretching it till it becomes a palpable presence in the body that can you can touch and feel; a monotonous heavy lump that we are all unremittingly shackled to. It is the preoccupation with all things peripatetic, the endlessly long perambulatory shots of figures walking across landscapes pounded by rain and wind and debris. It is the delicate balancing act achieved between evoking the physical and metaphysical world; how reality in the film is simultaneously earthbound, elemental, chained to the here and now with a weighted down corporeality (the rain, the wind, the ticking clocks, the animals, the drunken bodies), and also a medium to realms and revelations unseen, but intuited in the images and sounds; in the haunting mist that rolls across the plains; in the unfathomable sight of horses galloping early morning across an empty town square. It is the interaction between movement and stillness, music and silence. Remember, for example the extended dance sequence in which the villagers get totally shitfaced in the local tavern the night before Irimiás’s impending arrival, the carnival-like accordion score that is played by one of the revelers seemingly without end as the villagers freely and joyously careen across the frame, while the camera itself is bound to its own strict choreography. Or a very corpulent Peter Berling as the Doctor, a reclusive alcoholic whose sedentary routine of boozing and spying on his fellow villagers through his window is direly interrupted when he himself is forced to replenish his supply of pálinka, the camera following him in long extended tracking shots as he heaves his hulking mass across the farm grounds direction town, his breathing audibly labored as he trudges unsteadily through inclement weather. These are just a few instances that highlight the different wavelengths Sátántangó is running on, revealing the complex matrix that make up the life of Tarr’s cinema in all of its hilarity and despair. Whatever your reaction may be to the film, there is no doubt that it is a work of singular strangeness the effects of which are not quantifiable, but are felt and experienced on a much deeper and mysterious level.
I had the good fortune to talk with Béla Tarr a bit over the phone about the Sátántangó prior to its re-release in a new restoration in New York.
NOTEBOOK: Could you talk about your friendship with the writer László Krasnahorkai, the author of the book, and how it informed you coming to make Sátántangó?
BÉLA TARR: You have to know, it was 1985 when we met. A friend of mine gave me the manuscript of Sátántangó, I read it in one night, and I fell in love with the novel and afterwards I called Laszlo—I’d never met him before, I'd never heard of him before, because it was his first book—and that was how our collaboration started. It was very simple and I think he is one the most talented writers in the world. I love his work.
NOTEBOOK: Did you have any problems when you first wanted to make the film in the ‘80s? How did you start work on the film?
TARR: It was mostly a political problem. We couldn't start in the ‘80s because of censorship from the communist government at the time, but by the early ‘90s it became possible to do it and it took four years to do, from 1990 to 1994.
You have to understand. This man [Lázsló] was living in the Hungarian lowlands, and he saw a lot of things in the reality of how people were living, and of course he transformed it and created this beautiful novel. I understood when I started working on this project that I cannot do any kind of adaptation. I had to go back to the Hungarian lowlands, like him. I had to see how life is going on out there, and I had to find the film language, I had to figure out how I can get the same stuff that he did in the novel. By the end, I spent two years in the Hungarian lowlands filming, I can tell you I know all the houses, I know all fucking roads, I know everything in this part of the country. By the end of my time there I could find the way to film and afterwards we could use the dramaturgical structure of the novel, and of course we did not have a script, we had only the novel and my vision. That's all we had.
NOTEBOOK: What about the sense of time that you found in that place?
TARR: Hey man, if you are sitting in the Hungarian lowlands, I'm sure it's the same in the desert in, let's say, Arizona, when you are out there: there is no time, no distance anymore, you can go hours, weeks, and you don't see anything. You are out of time; you have a different sense of time then when you are living in a town. And so, the slowness of the drama came from this. You know, you have to understand that first you have to know the life of the places and then afterwards you have a feeling for how you have to film it.
NOTEBOOK: Is this how you found the language, which has become a signature of your work, of the long takes?
TARR: You have to know, if you watch my first movies starting with Family Nest , and you can see how the takes became longer and longer. And if you see Damnation you'll see that the kind of style for Sátántangó was almost ready. So you know it was step by step. You are thinking about the world and you are thinking about what you did before and what you have to do. You have new questions, and you cannot give old answers to new questions. You have to force yourself to go ahead, and that's how it happened. It came slowly, and of course after Sátántangó we did it some more, in other shit, and by the end in The Turin Horse we only have 29 takes. Time, anyway, is a part of our life. Time and space, and you cannot ignore it. I know most of the films are ignoring time, because they are just going through the storyline, they are just telling the story: action, cut, action, cut, action, cut, and making it clear to us what is happening. But we don't know what is happening in the world, really. And I am interested in the world, not just in filming it.
NOTEBOOK: How did you cast Mihály Vig, who also did the music for this film and others of yours, in the role of Irimiás?
TARR: I have to tell you, when we did the casting, we knew the shooting would be long with long shooting days, I think in the end it was 120 days, and I needed somebody who could really understand this and someone who was capable of joining us, not only physically but also mentally, spiritually understand what all this crazy shit is. He was a friend of mine, I knew him since 1983 when we made our first movie together and we met all the time. And, I have to tell you, I count the music as a main character and we record the music before the shooting, because I have to know my main character before the shooting starts.
NOTEBOOK: Was music playing on set during the takes?
TARR: Yes, sometimes but not always. When we needed it for the dolly guy, for the movement, we played it, like, of course, in the dance scene.
NOTEBOOK: The dance scene is probably my favorite in the film. How did you go about creating a scene like that, did you give the actors any kind of specific instructions?
TARR: Man, if you want to give instructions for this scene to an actor, you are so stupid. You just let them to be free, they were drinking enough, they were almost totally drunk, and I saw it that they were in a good mood for the dancing, and we shot that only once, then it was done. You know everything has to be about freedom. Let them be free. In the case of that scene, I was able to get a lot of spontaneity. Of course, the camera is not free, the camera has a strict choreography, but the actors have to be free, because they have to show themselves. If I give them instructions of how they should do it, I am sure, even if I have the biggest fantasy in the world, I am 100 percent sure that I cannot get the same stuff that they are just bringing themselves.
NOTEBOOK: The scene minds me of something out of a Brueghel painting. Do you see any connection between Brueghel’s paintings and your films?
TARR: The paintings of Pieter Brueghel are all the time with me. I love his paintings and this summer during a big project I did in Vienna I saw many of his paintings. He is amazing and all the time I am pondering his influence. I don't have any influence from any filmmakers, or any other people. But I got a very strong influence from Brueghel. The influence is the empathy. Of course, if I don't have empathy for my characters, then why would I be doing this job? If don't love the people, if I do not understand the people, if I do not show them tenderly—this is why I am doing this shit. Man, I am not a filmmaker, I am not a part of the film industry, I am just a human being. For me, the camera is only a tool for showing how I see the world. That's all.
NOTEBOOK: Final question: What is your relationship to Sátántangó now twenty-five years later?
TARR: Of course, the same how it was twenty-five years ago. This is one of my kids. Do you know any father who doesn't love his kids? I do not think so. When we did this restoration, I was watching, take by take, and I have to tell you that I did not want to change anything. For me it's totally okay, you can take it or leave it, it's up to you.
Béla Tarr's Sátántangó (1994) plays in a new restoration October 18 - 24, 2019 at Film at Lincoln Center in New York.