“The film portrays mortality, with that deep pain which we, who are under sentence of death, all feel.” —Béla Tarr
A voice explains the premise over a black screen: In 1889, Friedrich Nietzsche lost his mind, instigated by a moment when he saw a man whipping a horse in the streets of Turin. We can understand the story in its simplest terms: that his epiphany about his inability to prevent that act of cruelty was the direct cause of his madness. But Béla Tarr imagines the meaning of the incident differently, because no one, he and his screenwriter Laszlo Kraznohorkai tell us, has ever told the story of the horse.
I began to understand Tarr’s conception of the incident’s significance in the middle of the movie, when the man takes the horse out of the barn to go into town, but the horse refuses. The man begins to beat the horse, but his daughter intervenes; it seems that this is not the first time this has happened. The horse has known that she is dying for a long time, and the film hints that she has been fighting the man for just as long. The horse and the man are each other’s doppelgängers: they are both old and nearing the end of their lives. The horse has come to accept her mortality; the man has not. This time, the man relents and takes the horse back into the barn, probably for the last time. The horse has not surrendered. She has won a moral victory. She has accepted her mortality and has chosen the way that she wants to die. The man’s whip in Turin, then, was cruel, but not senseless; he and the horse had been engaged in a fierce debate. The man did not beat the horse because he was strong, but because he was weak. He knew that he had already lost the argument. He beat the horse because he was jealous that the horse had come to accept her mortality before he had been able to accept his own.
We first meet the horse and his owner in a one-shot prologue, which for me was the most delirious shot in the film. The man is wizened. The horse has a ragged mane; her coat is so thin it seems as if she’s naked. The camera’s languorous tracking movements are themselves a poetic meditation on these two protagonists’ senescence, following the horse and his rider as they trundle on, observing them as they pass behind a stand of tall grass, inching closer so we can examine the horse’s skin, pulling ahead and in front so that the horse’s muzzle—charcoal dark with haggard nostrils—begins to take on a symbolic weight, then falling back again to see them from below, dramatically framed against the sky, which is, of course, as gray as can be. The floating camera is accompanied by the movie’s spare musical motif, which similarly reflects Tarr’s obsession with the monotonous repetition at the heart of the human condition.
A string quartet accompanied by what sounds like a Wurlitzer organ plays a rolling series of triplets overlaid with four bars of whole tone chords that emphasize the violas and cellos instead of the violins. These few chords repeat themselves over and over again like the opening sections of one of those twenty-minute Godspeed You Black Emperor songs, the relentlessness of the theme’s reiteration making us yearn for what we expect to be an inevitable, cacophonous climax, but because we know this is a film by Béla Tarr we know that that climax will never come. Tarr knows that climaxes are cheap and that life has no peaks, only the unremitting repetition that leads, inexorably, to oblivion. Tarr plays with the sonic repetitions even when the music disappears, using the sound of wind to the same effect. It seems as if he had recorded only a few snippets of a gale and repeated the same gusts and whistles ad nauseam so that the strings and the wind echoed each other like two complementary sections of a fugue.
One reason I liked this movie so much more than Tarr’s last film, The Man from London, was that his extreme formalism doesn’t seem to be a stylistic flourish for its own sake, but is integrally related to the subject of the film. The movie is 146 minutes long and includes, by my count, 29 shots, an average of five minutes each. A five minute take shouldn’t seem so unusual considering that every waking day is made up of about two hundred discrete five-minute intervals, but most commercial filmmakers manipulate time to make it seem more entertaining than it actually is. But by stretching cinematic time to such extremes, Tarr forces us to examine the mundane trappings of everyday life, but more important, he makes us question the purposes of narrative itself.
Narrative art forms present idealized versions of life, but to do so they only include the most significant parts, while necessarily erasing most of what constitutes our actual existence. We might say that by making the vast majority of our lives invisible; storytelling is itself an example of what the Austrian cultural critic Sigmund Freud referred to as the death drive: that is, narrative’s excisions are the cultural manifestation of our desire to extinguish ourselves. Thus, by forcing us to experience time as it actually unfolds during those moments we’d usually choose to ignore, Tarr is forcing us to face the parts of our lives we normally want to kill. He is forcing us to face death in the same way that he is forcing the horse and the man to face it.
The soundtrack’s dirge-like fugue is the perfect aural signifier that on some level the protagonists are already dead. They follow the same routine every day: they get up, get water, tend to the fire, boil a potato, eat the potato, sit and stare out the window, and clean the plates. The next day they do it all over again. Their meal over a boiled potato exemplifies, more than anything, their comatose existence. Each day, the daughter takes two large and knobby potatoes from a bin and boils them. Then, while they are still steaming, the man pulls the skin off with his one good hand, grabs a few pieces, salts them, and shoves them in his mouth. He never finishes his potato. Inexplicably, neither he nor his daughter ever use a knife or fork. And, in what I still consider to be a grave crime, they don’t have the common decency to add even the tiniest dollop of butter.
The Turin Horse was, not surprisingly, the most radical film I saw at the New York Film Festival. I’ve been worshipping at Tarr’s altar for years (the first time I saw Satantango back in 1998 will always be one of my greatest moviegoing experiences), but I do sometimes find myself wondering, despite myself, if he has the emotional adventurousness to match his formal vision. At this year's festival, I left the theater exhilarated, but it was a very different sort of exhilaration than I felt after I saw Asghar Farhadi’s A Separation, which was also in the festival’s main slate. Farhadi portrayed human characters with the same complexity as the nineteenth century novelists and playwrights who were, perhaps, as much of an influence on Sigmund Freud’s theories of the human psyche as were his patients.
The fact that I found Tarr’s formal audacity unsurprising is perhaps a sign that he may not be nearly as radical as we all assume he is. Farhadi’s characters surprised me throughout his film. Tarr’s characters, on the other hand, have more shriveled personalities than just about any people I’ve ever seen on screen. It’s comical, actually. They barely speak. Their lives are circumscribed by the elements: they fetch water, they tend to the fire, they listen to the wind, and they’re surrounded by dirt. Throughout much of the film, especially the beginning, Tarr frames the daughter from the back or from the side so that her hair covers her face. We don’t ever even learn her name. And let’s not forget their woefully inhumane treatment of the world’s greatest vegetable. The film feels like a commentary about The Human Condition, but if it is, I can’t help wondering if Tarr actually understands—or cares for— human beings. But this is where it gets tricky, because to criticize Tarr on that level seems as stupid as criticizing the Sex Pistols for failing to depict life in all its richness (I can imagine the New York Times review of “God Save the Queen”: “Mr. Rotten’s lamentation that there is ‘no future’ ignores the very celebratory feelings during the queen’s recent Silver Jubilee”). If you criticize Tarr for his characters’ lack of depth, the joke’s on you, because he obviously wasn’t trying to create characters with depth. His concept of human character isn’t a failure, according to this line of reasoning, but an implicit critique of the concept of human psychology propounded in fictions by creative artists like Tolstoy and Freud.
These kinds of argument about Tarr’s inability to find any joy in life miss another salient point: despite his interest in the banality of quotidian existence, the film is one of the most pleasurable movies I’ve seen all year. I’m talking, of course, about the camera movements. The majority of the movie takes place within one room of a cabin. But in those 5-minute takes, the two characters do occasionally engage in some outlandishly exciting behavior like standing up and crossing the barren floor to tend to the few forlorn sticks that make up the fire, and whenever they do, the camera follows them in a style that is somehow both ostentatious and imperceptible. Perhaps the best way to understand a film like this would be to create one of those shoebox-sized coffee table books by Taschen that would consist solely of exquisitely detailed, time-sensitive, and color-coded diagrams that traced the movement of the characters and camera movements, with one page for each shot in The Turin Horse that would be set next to one page for each shot in Alfred Hitchcock’s Rope. I’m sure that some people who saw Tarr’s film didn’t even notice that the camera was moving, but when I did pay attention to the camerawork, I experienced a dizzying bliss. It was in those moments I reminded myself that the characters were not so important because the true subject of the film was the moving frame of the image itself. Seen this way, Tarr’s conception of life is not as barren as I originally thought. He does find euphoria in the world, but only in the work of art that portrays the futility of life. Art, perhaps, is the only reprieve from the face of death.