It is a boiling hot summer day in Vienna. On my way to the event space Halle E at centrally located MuseumsQuartier I can see some tourists cooling their feet in a fountain, others trying to cool off with little electric fans or ice cream. It is a sleeked, ostentatious, and very clean place. Whoever gets lost will find a thousand signs to lead the way, golden pigeon shit drips from the roofs of museums, nobody dares to touch someone else, and everybody hides behind huge sunglasses. It’s the first world, baby! Distress appears only when someone needs to find a toilet. As soon as it is found we feel better and we continue living, enjoying, and worrying about the future. The “Hotwolee” (Viennese for the upper class) decadently consumes anything with a heartbeat, culture is an endless repetition between Schiele and coffeehouses, someone sitting in Tirolerhof swallows half of his Kaiserschmarrn up, in the park around the corner they photograph a thousand withered roses and someone asks why the tram stinks so much. It’s Vienna after all.
Yet, I see a man in the crowd who seems to follow the same path as I am. He doesn’t wear shoes, his arms just limply hang next to his hips, a potbelly shines between his torn clothes in the sun. From time to time he utters a sort of grunt, he curses in Hungarian. I don’t know what he says but I imagine he complains about what he sees and I couldn’t agree more. Together we arrive at a door. Next to it we discover some small posters announcing Béla Tarr’s Missing People. Yes, Béla Tarr, the retired filmmaker. Has he made a film again? When a couple of months ago news dispersed about a new project by the man who famously announced his retirement from filmmaking after a screening of his The Turin Horse, it spread like wildfire. However, the Hungarian filmmaker dismissed the claim of a new film as untrue. The project he worked on together with Wiener Festwochen (a big cultural festival in Vienna taking place in May and June) would not be a film, he said. He didn’t know what it really was, but not a film. As it happens the work which I was about to see during a final rehearsal invites thinking about the essence of film language. Where does cinema start and where does it end? Yet, we can also just simply call it Expanded Cinema, for that is basically what it is. Expanding the notion of cinema is a consistent step for a filmmaker who arrived at a subjective endpoint concerning the language of cinema. Tarr bursts the cinema open. He does it with a lot of feeling. But let’s take one thing at a time.
In front of the entrance more women and men gather who normally are not part of events during Wiener Festwochen. A young man who lost his hand and together with his two dogs sits in a wheelchair waiting for the door to open, a woman who searches a waste-bin for bottles, a quiet man with a beard who offers a friend something from his collection of thrown-away cigarettes. They wait and talk. A woman with high-heeled shoes appears and gives everybody vouchers for one drink. She says that we will need it during the show. Actually I was told that this particular screening would be for press, too. So far I don’t see any press people, but I find a lot of pleasure standing among people who don’t check their phones every minute. It is not that those waiting with me have no mobile phones, it is just they really seem to care what will happen behind the door. Shortly before I discover that press people and crew members waited a bit further down the alley, I begin to observe the observer…that is me. It won’t be the last time during the almost ninety minutes that would follow.
Why am I so fascinated with these people? Is this already a part of the show? Organizing a press screening together with the protagonists of Missing People reveals an important aspect of Tarr’s work. It is about questioning and overcoming social borders. The formalist Tarr chooses to blend cinema and world, rich and poor. Nothing and nobody is allowed to stay on just one side.
The doors open. We visitors leave the heat of the rich city and enter into the leftovers of a decadent party. Everywhere glitter and gold, dozens of emptied beer bottles, wine glasses on bar tables. In-between a red carpet leading towards a humongous screen. The remains of an orgy. Everybody left, nobody cleans up. On both sides of the whole one additional screen is placed. Under each of those screens we can sit between utensils usually connected to homeless people: Bags, pieces of clothing, blankets. Some objects such as a beautiful embroidery design will only get meaning later in the evening as something one of the protagonists creates. Everybody sits between the flotsam, the objects oscillate between cliché and individuality.
After some time Tarr enters the room and announces that we have to wait a bit longer because one of the protagonists hasn’t showed up yet—it is called Missing People after all. It is hard to ignore how working with marginal and forgotten people has developed into a kind of genre in recent years in art and cinema. In its worst cases it might become a spectacle of compassion, an art that receives a lot of funding while organizations that bring food to those in need fight for survival. However, asking questions about the necessity of these kind of projects is wrong headed, I think. Art should have a reason and a necessity following different standards. Nevertheless Tarr takes quite some risk with Missing People. He succeeds because he presents his most cautious and tender work to date. It is an assertive, yet, modest searching for graceful images. Tarr makes possible to live for a short time with those we normally don’t see, he makes us look at them and he makes them look at us. Moreover the show is fueled by the sublime gesture of liberation. The people are allowed to act, to transform, they become and dream with cinema (or whatever you prefer to call it). Even if the scenery is a decadent party I quickly forget the world I was coming from.
Right at the beginning I rediscover the grunting, cursing man. He does not understand why he should sit at the sides, so he decides to sit down in the middle of the hall and lights a cigarette, inflates a balloon, and begins to talk about the booze on the table. After a while he will begin drinking from it whenever he pleases. Again I am not sure if he is part of the show but I decide that the staging is not what counts now but the meeting. A meeting which presents us with an idea of how to live. And I ask myself why I need an aesthetic experience to have such a meeting. Whatever I try to make out of it, a show like this as part of an art festival in the Austrian capital will always be part of an elitist world no matter how fiercely it attacks this world. The same is true for this text which, at least, does not pretend to be something else. At the end of the day Tarr voluntary or involuntary demonstrates how artistic creation is always a helpless endeavor. The harder it tries to break out of its boundaries, the stronger this powerlessness resonates.
With only few exceptions the action takes place on the big screen. All the scenes Tarr shot together with his long-time director of photography Fred Kelemen are set in the very place we are watching the images in. Cinema and set merge, the reality of the film is the reality of the cinema. Each time a scene takes place on the sides of the room, the images are projected on the additional screens on the side to emphasize the doubling of realities. This is not very imaginative but it fits the concept. With exception of the finale, this is cinema. A cinema that holds a first surprise for aficionados of Tarr: Color! The first sequence accompanied by the same minimalistic, elegiac, and sometimes sentimental music that will almost run throughout the whole piece is a long pan across the tables and the carpet until behind a curtain a first hero appears, dressed in rags, to play a tune on panpipes.
During the shot the color fades into Tarr’s characteristic black and white. In a mode of consternation and supported by too many fades to black, portraits of homeless or marginalized people Tarr has cast over a couple of months in Vienna alternate with group scenes in which all of them arrive or eat or dance. During the portrait shots the protagonists present something they love to do, a talent or a daily activity. A man prepares his sleeping place, another dresses his doll and a woman makes herself up while another combs her hair. With the exception of the continuing music Tarr restrains. What we see seems to come from the people not from the director. There are some very touching moments such as when we see a couple, embraced under jackets and blankets, talking tenderly to each other. It is an image of love I have never seen before. For Missing Peopleputs away many prejudices, such as that missing people are always lonely people. Altogether it is clearly a work by Béla Tarr: Long shots, drifting music, and an absolute interest in emotional movements inside human bodies.
When a friend of the man who still moves in the middle of the hall appears on the screen to say a prayer, the man suddenly kneels in front of the screen. He prays with her, teary-eyed he applauds. Moved, he takes two glasses with some wine and brings them to the woman who was sitting right next to me watching herself on the screen. For them the film is over now. They touch glasses and talk. Especially in the scenes Tarr shows a group of people instead of individuals I catch myself in the meeting with the other. For example, when the camera turns around in a circle and the missing people dance (some more, some less) around it. I ask myself why I look at those people. Missing People, just like some films by Wang Bing or Pedro Costa, plays a double game. There is a real interest in the reality of those people which can even lead into making me a better person. I see the world differently, I see different people, and maybe I even decide to help more. But then there is also the idea of those people as heroes, they become an aesthetic experience, an illusion on the screen. For minutes they are not missing, they are very present. They are cinema. Tarr is not interested in their stories or their daily life, he tells it all through the sensual presence of their bodies. In them a drama of our age takes place.
The room itself is really only used at the end, when the screen opens to reveal a row of benches and tables. Right before, some spotlights highlight the objects in the room. They appear like memories of people we never see, people we just saw on the screen. It is a proof of their existence. Behind the benches there is another screen and a live accordion player sits in front of it. On the screen portrait shots of all protagonists are visible. With the voucher everybody can get a drink and sit down. Conceptually the idea could be that after bringing down the last border (that of the screen itself) we can all sit together and talk while the missing people are looking at us instead of the other way around. But then I find those close-ups much too powerful, too important for the project for them to be projected behind people drinking and talking. Tarr risks forgetting about the presence of those people because of an idea. I think the images are strong enough to destroy borders all by themselves. I decide not to sit down. The man sat down right in front of the screen. He is more interested in the accordion player than in the screen. Next to me sits the man in the wheelchair with his dogs. He watches himself on the screen. I ask myself what he sees without knowing what I see myself. Yet, I think, both of us generally understand the simple fact that we are seeing and what power and responsibility comes with it.
One last remark about René Rupnik, one of the protagonists of the film. For years I watched films together with him at the Film Museum (meanwhile he is banned from visiting the cinema). He is known as the math professor obsessed by feminine curves from Ulrich Seidl’s The Bosom Friend. He also appears in Seidl’s Paradise: Faith in his chaos-stricken apartment. Some actors would do a lot to have his filmography and he didn’t even have to pretend to be someone else. During screenings at the Film Museum I experienced him as a devoted cinephile who from time to time uttered noises of excitement such as when Ava Gardner appeared on screen. In Missing PeopleI spotted him eating, drinking wine, and reading Ovid’s Ars amatoria. The only conversation I ever had with him was during a retrospective of late Godard at the Film Museum. He turned to me and said he preferred the early Godard films, especially Contempt because in it “you can see the butt of Brigitte Bardot for ten minutes.” As Tarr in only few images succeeds to show what a graceful human being Réne is, he proves that cinema (expanded or not) still lies and tells the truth 24 frames per second.
Original published in German for filmdienst.de. Translation by the author.