Kinoeye: New perspectives on European film

Vol 1
 Issue 1 
3 Sept
2001

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Bela Tarr's Werckmeister Harmoniak (Werckmeister Harmonies, 2000)HUNGARY
The melancholy of resistance
The films of Béla Tarr

Thanks to his opus magnus, Sátántangó, Tarr has long been admired internationally by cineastes. His latest film and a recent retrospective in London have broadened his appeal. Peter Hames examines his career so far.


"Who is Béla Tarr?" runs the title of an article in an American film magazine. To the initiated, he is a Hungarian film-maker who has built a growing reputation on the festival circuit with a trio of uncompromising films—Kárhozat (Damnation,1989), Sátántangó (Satan's Tango, 1994) and Werckmeister harmóniák (Werckmeister Harmonies, 2000), which, particularly with the latter, seem set to mark the first genuine international breakthrough by a Hungarian auteur since Miklós Jancsó in the sixties.

Why Béla Tarr and not Péter Gothár, János Rósza, György Fehér, or other talented directors? The answer probably lies in the extreme formal challenges presented by his work. His most radical film, Sátántangó, runs for over seven hours, is in black and white, has a script that is the reverse of feel-good and is, in its lack of concern for linear narrative, incomprehensible. After ten minutes of looking at a herd of cows, Hollywood executives would leave; it would never receive funding from Britain's Film Council, and it has no chance of screening in a multiplex or being shown on television.
Bela Tarr's Satantango (Satan's Tango, 1994)
Sátántangó: Long takes and high formalism
It is the polar opposite of the blockbuster and the Miramax-backed foreign-language Oscar-winner. It is a slap in the face of consumerism and corporate taste.

In March, London's National Film Theatre ran a complete retrospective of Béla Tarr's work, the first time that a central European director has been accorded the honour in many a year and, given the fact that his name is totally unknown to British audiences, a commendable initiative. Béla Tarr was also present to discuss his work after a screening of Kárhozat, which opened for a London run at the end of that month.

Masks off

Tarr began to make films while he was still at school. His first feature film Családi tűzfészek (Family Nest,1977) was made at the age of 22 and it was only after this that he attended film school. It formed part of the genre of "documentary fiction" films that began with István Dárday's Jutalomutazás (Holiday in Britain,1974) and continued into the early eighties. Tarr was assistant director on Harcmodor (Stratagem,1980) by Dárday and György Szalay and made his second two contributions to the genre with Szabadgyalog (The Outsider, 1981) and Panelkapcsolat (Prefab People,1982), widely regarded as one of the most successful.

The general principles of the documentary fiction school included the use of non-professional actors and a pre-planned storyboard combined with improvised dialogue and the use of hand-held cameras. The aims of the film-makers were primarily political—the depiction of reality with the mask off.

Családi tűzfészek examines the problems of a young couple forced to live with the husband's parents in a one-room flat. Every week, one or other of the couple visit the social services to press their claims for an apartment. An official explains the system—decisions are made once a year on a points basis. But they are given conflicting advice and there are always "exceptions." The son has just returned from military service and the film focusses partly on the issue of whether his wife has been faithful in his absence. His father is in favour of throwing out "the whore" who, it later transpires, had rejected his advances.

Filmed largely in close-ups and mid-shots, the film nonetheless exhibits a formal progression from the chaos of family arguments and cross discussions in the opening scenes to the analysis of the problem, concluding with a focus of the impact on individuals, verging on the technique of staged interview. The use of music is always pointed. The opening scene ends with official music on the radio as the table is cleared (recalling a similar scene in Miloš Forman's Lásky jedné plavovlásky/A Blonde in Love). Cheerful pop music accompanies the rare pleasure of a family outing and is later used to ironic effect. The film's raw indignation suggests the impact of experience.

Outcasts

The central character of Szabadgyalog, nicknamed "Beethoven," is a violinist who has been kicked out of music school in Debrecen and now makes his living as a disc jockey. The problem of marriage and responsibility again provide a central focus. At the beginning of the film, a woman gives birth to his illegitimate child and he loses his job at a mental hospital. He marries a second woman but their lack of income provokes a crisis in the relationship. Here the couple have a flat and living with parents is one of the options. Will he, his wife asks, be a permanent outsider despite his talents? Eventually, she sleeps with his brother.

Here, in another tense and unrelenting film, Tarr seems to question the possibility of a stable life and relationships. He has moved beyond the "social problem" script of his first film toward a more elaborate portrayal of character and a focus on the possibilities of formal expression. Most notable here is the scene in which his wife rejects him at a disco, where he is on stage and she speaks up at him from the floor over the noise of the music. An unusual formal organisation and cross-cutting is pursued at length against ear-splitting sound. Perfectly acted, the scene's formal elements are endlessly extended in a way that looks forward to his later work.

Bela Tarr's Panelkapcsolat (Prefab People, 1982)
High-rise domestic drama
In Panelkapcsolat, he tells the story of couple with two children living in a comfortable flat. One day the husband packs up and leaves, and the wife recalls their life together. He spends his day supervising the control panel at a factory while she is confined to the flat and her household duties. An outing to the lido, even their wedding anniversary, degenerates into quarrelling. When he is offered a tour of service abroad, she opposes it, refusing to be left alone with the children. But their separation is no answer, and they are "reconciled," celebrating their new life together with the purchase of a new washing machine. This was Tarr's first feature in black and white, which strongly enhanced its use of naturalist conventions.

A growing interest in form

Tarr's growing interest in formal experiment is particularly apparent in what can be described as his two "transitional" films, a video version of Macbeth (1980) made for television, featuring György Cserhalmi in the leading role, and the claustrophobic and theatrical Öszi almanach (Autumn Almanac, 1985).

Macbeth is an essentially experimental piece filmed in two takes (one 5 minutes long, before the credits, the other 67 minutes). Miklós Jancsó has, of course, taken us here before (notably in Még kér a nép/Red Psalm) but, unlike Jancsó, Tarr is restricted by his text. Filmed largely in close-up with few breaks in verbal delivery, the film achieves a strange poetry, emphasising the internality of the subject and transforming it into a kind of epic poem. From a Shakespearian perspective, however, one misses the space between events, dramatic distance and the conventional emphasis on theatrical mise-en-scène.

Claustrophobia

Öszi almanach again focusses on life in an apartment, but Tarr has now moved away from his documentary style. An older woman owns the apartment and lives there with her son. She is ill, and a young nurse has moved in with her to administer injections, accompanied by her lover. The fifth resident is a teacher.

In this film of resolute pessimism in which sex seems to function as little more than an escape from despair, there are references to impending catastrophe and the absence of and necessity for love. The lover lacks motivation, the teacher has his financial problems and the son covets his mother's money. In the course of the film, the nurse sleeps with all three men, one episode (with the son) functioning virtually as rape. The mother tells the lover that the nurse's sleeping with the teacher is a matter of no consequence, speaks of her loneliness and of the fact that she is a member of "the generation that cannot relax ... the reliable generation." The relations between individuals reflect a "time of indifference"—to recall the title of Alberto Moravia's novel about fascist Italy—and while there is little direct political comment in Tarr's film, it's fair to make the same kinds of inference.

If the subject follows the themes apparent in Tarr's earlier work, the obsession with style marks a new departure, beginning with its quotation from Pushkin and reference to the devil's movement in circles. In the opening scene, the lighting is heavily stylised, one character in red, another in blue and the background in green. Extreme close-ups and confrontational images of opposing heads are used at various stages and the camera constantly frames the characters as if they are in a cage. In one scene, the set is tilted, and an overhead shot of the apartment is complemented by the physical struggle between two men filmed from beneath through a glass floor. Scenes of violent action contrast with those of virtual stasis. At the end of the film, a miserabilist rendition of "Que sera sera" verges on self-parody.

Word and image

All three of Tarr's subsequent features are the result of his collaboration with the writer, László Krasznahorkai, a leading novelist whose work has achieved recognition outside Hungary via German translations. Only one of his novels, Az ellenállás melankóliája (The Melancholy of Resistance, 1989), the origin for Werckmeister harmóniák, has so far been translated into English. [1] Sátántangó is also based on a novel by Krasznahorkai, while Kárhozat was developed from a short story.

Kárhozat is close to being a genre film in its story of love and betrayal, a theme that Tarr has described as being very simple—even "primitive." Karrer lives a withdrawn life in a mining community where his evenings all end up in the Titanik bar. He is offered a smuggling job by the bar's owner but passes it on to Sebestyén, husband of the singer at the bar. In Sebestyén's absence, Karrer and the wife sleep together and Karrer seeks a lasting relationship. He considers denouncing Sebestyén to the police. On Sebestyén's return, there is a confrontation between the two men and the bar owner takes the woman to his car, where they have sex. The next day, Karrer denounces them all. In the final scene, Karrer approaches a waste tip in the pouring rain where he confronts a barking dog. Getting down onto his hands and knees, he barks at it until it is forced into retreat.

However, what is most striking about the film is its style—the emphasis on formal composition, the use of the long take and the sequence shot, the slow movements of the camera and the experimentation with sound and time. It is worth recalling Antonioni's comment on his own films that his main claim to fame lay in the reinvention of cinematic time—a claim that could also be made for Tarr. Other film-makers who could be said to work in this tradition include Jancsó, Andrei Tarkovsky, Theo Angelopoulos and Aleksandr Sokurov. Tarr, however, maintains a much stronger sense of narrative, even if it is subverted in various ways.

Getting closer to life

The opening shots of Kárhozat indicate that we should not expect anything like a conventional development. The camera is placed behind Karrer's head as he looks out through an open window, black coal buckets move towards us, and we hear nothing but the runners on the wire. The camera moves slowly forward until the head fills the whole of the screen. The scene then shifts to the bar where there is a panning shot taking in a range of people, bored, drunk or asleep.

There is a long held shot of beer glasses, the off-screen sound of balls on a pool table and the sound of accordion accompaniment by the player at the bar. Outside, it is pouring with rain, and dogs pass. In the framing of images, there is an obsessive emphasis on the textures of walls and plaster with the film's characters placed in front. In one sequence, accompanied by a pan, walls alternate rhythmically with group portraits of human misery. The accordion music attains a strange, hypnotic and hallucinatory quality. Flat, sideways images of cars become two dimensional icons. The film's mise-en-scène functions as a counterpoint to the story.

Tarr says that it is not his objective to tell a story but to get closer to people—"to understand everyday life." But he points out that even his earlier films were unconcerned with psychological processes. His interest was always in the personal "presence" of his actors. Kárhozat provides a kind of circular dance in which the walls, the rain and the dogs also have their stories.
Bela Tarr's Satantango (Satan's Tango, 1994)
The rain falls down on a humdrum town
The human protagonists are matched by the scenery, weather and time. However, it is also an artificial world, since the town was constructed from seven locations and, in some instances, houses and sets were specially built. The driving rain is almost transparently artificial.

A diabolical masterpiece

Tarr first read Krasznahorkai's Sátántangó, their second collaboration, as an unpublished manuscript in the late eighties. The story gradually reveals the failure and destruction of a farm collective during a few autumn days, partly seen from the perspective of different characters. Tarr notes that the form of the film, like the novel, is based on the tango, a factor apparent in its use of overlapping time, its twelve sections and the choreography of its camera movement.

The film begins with a much-quoted opening scene in which cows move from a shed towards the right of screen. The camera moves with them, tracking alongside to take in walls, outhouses and hens. The whole sequence is accompanied by haunting and reverberating sound. A narrative title informs us that the whole town has been cut off by the bog, mud and the incessant rain. "The news is that they are coming," announces a title. The narrative voice is that of the doctor, who watches events and records them from his desk at the window, the film returning to him at the end as the narrative begins again.

Cosmic images

The first section of Sátántangó is spent in anticipation of the arrival of Irimias who, together with his Romanian disciple, Petrina, is reported to be heading towards the village. There had been rumours that he was dead. He eventually emerges as a Messiah-like figure who cheats them out of their money and their expectations. It's possible to interpret the break-up of the collective farm as the end of Communism and the promises of the false Messiah as the introduction of capitalism, but the Tarr/Krasznahorkai approach can be more properly described, in Tarr's words, as "cosmic."

Again, the film's formal devices dominate. Some scenes, with their elaborate and slow camerawork and noises off-screen become exercises in visual experience and a sense of time in their own right, recalling the structural aesthetics of the Canadian sculptor and film-maker Michael Snow (for example in Wavelength, 1967). In one scene, a fly becomes a significant structuring element. Camera movement with its slow zooms and vertical movements, particularly when combined with music, plays a dominant expressive role.

The long take, depth of field and use of the steadicam produce extraordinary images—figures walking away from the camera into the far distance, figures walking forward in close-up for extended periods, cameras on the heels of Irimias and Petrina, surrounded by rain, wind and cascading rubbish. The film's endless walking (of Irimias and Petrina to the farm, of the farmers to their "promised land"), "plodding along" according to the conductor Kelemen's endless pub monologue, seems to lead nowhere.

Comedy or miserabilism?

Scenes often last for a great deal of time, extending well beyond the film's narrative requirements. While this is to be anticipated, they also go beyond what might be described as normal observational necessity. Two examples are the endless dance sequence in the pub and the scene where the doctor writes his notes, drinks his brandy, arranges himself at his desk and gets up to go to the lavatory. Here, it is the logic of the events that determine what we see. Tarr has remarked that most contemporary cinema provides no time or space to understand people, why they behave the way they do, "what's going on under the surface."

Bela Tarr's Satantango (Satan's Tango, 1994)
Cod philospophy from a false prophet
Questioned on the inherent melancholy of the long take, Tarr alleged that his films are comedies—like Chekhov. They look at reality, and human life must inevitably be regarded as funny. Yet this humour is sometimes made explicit. Petrina, like Sancho Panza, is always ready to comment on Irimias' fake poetry or fake mysticism, even though Irimias shows no such self-consciousness. Irimias' expression is always serious while his language is banal, comic and patronising, like that of a political leader.

Scenes involving the police when, earlier in the film, they discuss the virtues of work with the shiftless Irimias and Petrina or later, when Irimias reports on the new "workers" he has delivered, are deliberately comic—but also sinister, since they represent and act for the powerful. As Irimias and two disciples approach an empty town square, a street disgorges a herd of horses like refugees from a Jancsó film. "The horses have escaped from the slaughterhouse again," is the apparently ironic comment.

Tarr is again concerned with the "presence" of his characters. For this reason, he explains, he always works with friends, whose personalities' own reality is somehow present on screen. This sounds remarkably like an updated version of neo-realism. Arguing that films should be made with more openness, fairness and honesty, he regards his audience as partners. Audiences can, after all, he argues, use their eyes.

In several interviews, Tarr has referred to the terrible state of contemporary cinema and of the need "to kick the door in." Although he first used the term in connection with his debut films since, as he puts it, there were rules you could not transgress, criticisms that could not be made, a social reality that could not be shown—one suspects that his targets are now wider. He still wants to examine a reality that is routinely excluded from cinema.

The end of the world as we know it?

In Werckmeister harmóniák, the film that seems likely to provide Tarr's breakthrough into the arthouse market, Tarr has adapted Krasznahorkai's novel Az ellenállás melankóliája (The Melancholy of Resistance), the main section of which is entitled "Werckmeister harmóniák." There are obvious thematic parallels with Sátántangó. The setting is a provincial town cut off by ice, but there are also unclear rumours of events to come—this time robbery, violence and maybe apocalypse. A travelling circus comes to town offering to exhibit the biggest whale in the world, accompanied by a mysterious and uncontrollable figure referred to as "the prince," who has the capacity to attract violent followers and whose presence alone is sufficient to trigger his policies of destruction.

poster for Bela Tarr's Werckmeister Harmoniak (Werckmeister Harmonies, 2000)
Hungarian poster for Werckmeister harmóniák
The impact is reflected in the community—the reclusive Eszter, who is conjured out of his paranoid rejection of the world, his estranged wife, who uses the opportunity to organise a group to fulfil her own ambitions, her lover, the police chief, who lapses into an alcoholic coma. Tarr makes something of a concession to convention in focussing on the central character of Valuska, who functions as a kind of holy idiot, repeatedly organising the inhabitants of the local bar into a version of the solar system, but who, in his regular night-time ramblings, becomes attuned to what is happening long before the other members of the community.

By normal standards, the film's style is radical, yet it is more subject to the demands of Krasznahorkai's story than either Kárhozat or Sátántangó. There are nonetheless some striking scenes—the headlights of the tractor pulling the corrugated shed which houses the stuffed whale light up the village in a mysterious and threatening glow, Valuska's nightly perambulations through the village streets, the endless march of workers bent on undiscriminating violence. The destruction of the town hospital becomes a climactic element in the film (which it is not in the book). The callous attack on both the ill and the well (not far removed from the effects of technological warfare) only ends when the main protagonists of violence face the withered and naked body of an old man standing in a bath.

Bela Tarr's Werckmeister Harmoniak (Werckmeister Harmonies, 2000)
Valuska: Man on the tracks
Werckmeister Harmonies is, in many ways, a faithful account of the novel, with the long takes and the sense of time, place and sound providing a visual equivalent to the enveloping prose of the original. In fact, it is worth noting that Tarr, his editor and partner Ágnes Hranitzky and Krasznahorkai take joint credits on these films. Nothing is done without Hranitzky's approval, says Tarr, and Krasznahorkai often re-conceives or recreates his original ideas or inspiration in film terms. It seems fair to accept their claim for joint authorship.

Vision, society and a vision of society

Tarr's concern with the problems of human interaction in small apartments has gradually extended to a wider canvas, the nature of power and relations in the community and the significance of that within a broader perceptual reality. Tarr denies that his films convey any symbolic or allegorical meaning—"film is always something definite—it can only record real things." On the other hand, it is hardly surprising if audiences seek to interpret figures such as the whale or the prince and the repeated biblical references.

Bela Tarr's Werckmeister Harmoniak (Werckmeister Harmonies, 2000)
Finding beauty in strange places
Werckmeister harmóniák certainly explores these issues and promotes reflection on the roots of violence, ever ready to destroy the illusion of a stable social life. But the film also offers us the no doubt illusory search for the perfection of tone and scale sought after by Eszter, the wonder of the whale (a thing of beauty turned into a circus freak show) and the beauty of the film itself, with the grace of its camera movements and attention to the rare sensibilities of everyday sound and perception.

The Tarr/Krasznahorkai films are never far from the threats of apocalypse and damnation, but it is also clear that they offer no easy interpretation. On the other hand, it is evident that their ambiguity is designed to force an interpretative effort—the audience is intended to enter into a partnership not as a means of decoding a secret meaning but as a means of exploring reality. It would be a mistake to view his work in the same light as a Tarkovsky or a Sokurov—he really does want us to re-see and re-experience the world in both social and perceptual terms. The revolutionary quality of the films rests in the fact that these objectives are seen as part of a single project.

Peter Hames

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Also of interest
About the author

Peter HamesPeter Hames is author of The Czechoslovak New Wave and editor of Dark Alchemy: The Films of Jan Švankmajer. He is an honorary research associate at Staffordshire University, programme director of Stoke Film Theatre and programme adviser to the London Film Festival.

Also by the author

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Footnotes

1. The Melancholy of Resistance, László Krasznahorkai, translated by George Szirtes, Quartet Books, London, 1999. (Purchase from Amazon.com), (Purchase from Amazon.co.uk)

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