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In search of truth
Béla Tarr interviewed
The acclaimed master of the long take explains to Phil Ballard why his films aren't bleak, don't count as cinema and are inspired by Breugel and why Tarkovsky is just "too nice" for him.
Béla Tarr views himself as an outsider—both of the trappings of any political or social structure and also of the film community. Starting in the late 1970s with low-budget films inspired by American director John Cassavettes in their use of gritty, urban realism, his films strived to show a contemporary reality that was absent from other works of the period.
After a transitional period in the 1980s, his late visual style emerged: black and white photography, transcendentally long takes and slow camera movements, and a mise-en-scène that emphasises decay and degeneration. Anglophone critics have frequently interpreted his more recent films as being allegorical, philosophical or religious, and humourlessly bleak (Guardian reviewer Peter Bradshaw said that any responsible cinema manager would "demand your tie and bootlaces on the way in") and have compared the director, sometimes unfavourably, with Andrei Tarkovsky.
Tarr takes issue with all these points, as indeed he did in this interview, which took place at the offices of his UK distriubtor Artifical Eye in March 2001. Also present was his collaborator and partner Ágnes Hranitzky, and all plural references made by Tarr include her.
Could you talk a little about the reason behind your very long takes?
What can I tell you about this generally? The people of this generation know information-cut, information-cut, information-cut. They can follow the logic of it, the logic of the story, but they don't follow the logic of life. Because I see the story as only just a dimension of life, because we have a lot of other things. We have time, we have landscapes, we have meta-communications, all of which are not verbal information. If you watch the news it is just talking, cutting, maybe some action and afterwards talking, action, talking. For us, the film is a bit different.
And what about your approach to narrative?
We have a different kind of narration. For us, the story is the secondary thing. The main thing is always how you can touch the people? How can you go closer to real life? How can you understand something about life, because as we talk a lot of other things are happening. We don't know, for instance, what is happening under the table, but there are interesting, important and serious things happening.
Of equal significance?
It is full of meta-communication. That is the reason why we like to cut: always for the meta-communication. We just follow the real psychological process, not the story, not the verbal information.
You work primarily with the same close-knit group of people. You are obviously very comfortable with László Krasznahorkai (your co-script writer), Mihály Vig (your composer) and Ágnes Hranitzky (your assistant and editor). Do you work as a collaborative team or do you accept the auteur theory that the director is the main source of the work?
I am a very autocratic guy and everything is in one pair of hands. Film-making is not a democratic process. I must decide everything. But I would be crazy, a madman, if I didn't listen to my composer, cameraman and my writer. I must listen to them because I involve them in this work and they want to do their best for the project, but the final decisions are obviously mine. Ágnes and I have the same opinion; we have the same point of view about life. That's the reason why when we are working we don't talk about art or philosophical questions or theoretical things. We just work and talk about the concrete situation: what is happening, how we can work with the actors, how they can be deeper and deeper? That's the most interesting thing.
Do you accept the criticism of your work that it's bleak? It appears to have very little hope.
No, because I think we are full of hope. If you make a film you can believe it will still exist in the next fifty years and somebody can watch this film later, which is the biggest kind of optimism.
The hope is the actual creative process?
So you don't accept the existential idea that the human condition is absurd?
No, it's not absurd. The world is moving and turning and people are seeing films. This is our film, that's all. We just want to show to you and to everybody how the human condition is. That's all. We don't want to judge anybody. We don't want to make any interpretation. We just want to show something of what's going on.
Do you believe that your themes are universal, that your work is not just a statement about the malaise in Hungary?
Yes, we make Hungarian films, but I think the situation is a little bit the same everywhere. If you have a chance to make some really deep things I think everyone can understand everything. The question is always the deepness: how you can touch the people. In the beginning when we made our first film [Családi t űzfeszek (Family Nest, 1979)] we thought okay, we have a lot of social problems. We wanted to change the world, and we were very powerful and very young with some new things: 16mm black and white, non-professional actors and the camera, and a lot of bad cutting.
Deliberately bad cutting?
Yes. It was a movie about the ugliness, the poverty. We just showed the reality. Afterwards, we made other films, but felt the problem is not only social but ontological, then afterwards cosmic. That's the reason you can feel our films are universal, and that's the reason why we moved into narration, time and other kinds of narration.
Can you explain the time, space and rhythm you attempt to create?
It's very simple. In Kárhozat (Damnation, 1988) we have a lonely man who is absolutely alone and we just wanted to show his loneliness in society, his loneliness in the universe. In this case you must be involved in nature and landscape and time. You see he is always getting lost. And that's all. It's always very simple.
At the end, communication finally breaks down and he's left barking to a dog.
Yes, that's the reason he just goes into nature. He doesn't want to talk anymore because his life is over.
The bar where the cabaret singer works is called The Titanic. Do you see the world as sailing to destruction, heading—as it were—for an iceberg because of the flawed nature of the human condition?.
I think the Titanic is a part of European civilisation. And we just wanted to use a little sign of the condition of European civilisation. That's all. Now it is the name of the bar—it's a nice name.
Your terms of reference appear to be conceived of with a biblical, apocalyptic resonance. In this post-Nietzschean world, what are you suggesting: that we need to re-evaluate Christian values?
We think it's best to go back to nature. We are really not religious. We don't believe any kind of religion. It is a part of life, that's the reason why we involved it a bit in the film. But we definitely don't have to create a new religion. We don't want to create any theology—no.
How do you respond to the American critic Jonathan Rosenbaum's reference to your work as "despiritualized Tarkovsky." Do you recognise yourself in that statement?
This is the opinion of Jonathan Rosenbaum. I don't know; it's his opinion. I haven't talked to him about these things. The main difference is Tarkovsky's religious and we are not. But he always had hope; he believed in God. He's much more innocent than us—than me. No, we have seen too many things to make his kind of film. I think his style is also different because several times I have had a feeling he is much softer, much nicer.
Yours is harder?
Yes, he's too nice for me.
I read in a previous interview that you wanted to be a philosopher when you were younger. So do you see your film-making as philosophy by other means: in other words philosophical enquiry using an artistic medium?
No, I gave it up: the whole philosophy and I don't want to be a philosopher anymore. I wanted to be a philosopher when I was younger, but fortunately or unfortunately something happened to me. Now I'm a film-maker, but I'm not a real film-maker.
You've said you're not interested in cinema and you don't know what it is?
I don't know. It is true.
So is there a difference between cinema and what you do?
I hope we are closer to life than cinema.
So when you say you don't know what cinema is, do you mean traditional cinema, commercial cinema?
No. It's all kinds of cinema, just cinema, all cinema.
All cinema? You just don't feel a part of that?
No, that is the reason why I told you something about a kind of narration. For me, when I see something at the cinema it is always full of shit. This is a meaningful question. The difference is: how we go to the people, how we watch the people, how we work with our actors, that is absolutely different. That's the reason why I Iike it – to do these things. Because on the other hand, the making of movies is very, very boring. We just have the script, but we never use it during the shooting. We have some actors, but we don't use actors that behave like actors. We work with them like friends or work with them using only their personalities. For me, the personality of the actors is always interesting. In this case, it doesn't matter whether you work with professional or non-professional actors.
You don't think there is a difference? Some directors think that non-professional actors bring something different.
No, in our case no difference. If you see some of our films, they need professional actors and non-professional actors because we are always looking at the personality. If someone starts acting in a scene we say immediately what are you doing? Don't play it—just be. That's the reason why we are interested in what is happening inside someone. They must live in a scene. If they have no life or real emotions you can see it in their eyes. You can check immediately he is in the situation, he is involved, he is really living in this situation or just simply playing something. If somebody plays it is immediately boring, immediately empty, immediately nothing. You can put it into the garbage. This is not a scene.
So you have a script, but do you then throw it away?
No, we have a script for the producers and for the foundations and for getting the money. That's all. And afterwards it's location hunting. We have a basic idea which is maybe in tune with the characters or some other ideas, but we must look for something similar in real life. And this is the reason why location hunting is a very important part, because we spend a lot of time – maybe a year – just watching the people, just sitting there watching the locations, thinking about how we make the film. At the location we must know how to start the scene, how to choreograph the camera, the characters and how to end the scene and do the next cut. It's always happening in our heads. We don't write anything. We just know it.
But you have a co-scriptwriter, László Krasznahorkai, and you draw on his novels. Is the finished film very similar to the original source or do you improvise?
It always depends on what we want. First, we bought his first novel Sátántangó; it was a satire. We liked it very much. We wanted to do it, but we couldn't because at the time the situation in Hungary wasn't good for us. Afterwards, I had an old idea, a story about a women singer; that was the basis of the subject of Kárhozat. We did the script together with him and that was the first time that he had worked with somebody because he always worked alone as a novelist. We always worked and talked about the real life situation. We had the same point of view, but he had a different language. He is a good writer and he is very literate, very well trained. It is very good language, but the film is always different.
After Kárhozat in 1988 you did eventually manage to make Sátántangó (Satantango) in 1994 and then drew on Krasznahorkai's second novel Az ellenállás melankóliája (The Melancholy of Resistance, 1989) for your latest release, Werckmeister harmóniák (Werckmeister Harmonies) in 2000. Will you be drawing on his new novel, Háború és háború (War and War), for your next project?
Our next project is really different.
It won't be with Krasznahorkai and drawing from his work?
No, with him, but based on a Georges Simenon story. We have written the script together. But it's always different. In Sátántangó we kept the chapters and we kept the structure, but in Werckmeister harmóniák we had a different structure and we changed a lot of things. We had new characters and didn't use some characters which were in the novel. It is always different.
I read somewhere that you admire Pieter Breugel's paintings and in comparison with your work they're interesting because their simple truthfulness is something which you try to attain. You talk about your work being simple, but behind Breugal isn't there a highly sophisticated moral commentary going on in his paintings?
Now you are closer to us because Breugal is really important and wonderful, because if you see his pictures there are a lot of people and everyone has a different face and a different look and they have personalities. Maybe just very small ones in the pictures, but they have personalities. That is the reason that we like him very much. When we shoot a crowd of people, like we did in Werckmeister harmóniák, we always want to show their individual personalities because for us they are not just part of the crowd. Everyone has a personality, that's the reason why I like Breugal and that's what I learnt from him.
So that's what you try to achieve: the truthfulness, the reality of a personality?
That's one of the reasons why we make films: to show people, their real personalities.
How do you respond to the fact that your films are often seen as metaphysical?
We don't think about metaphysics or any philosophical speculation because a film is concrete. We use a camera and shoot scenes. If you are a writer you have paper and can write a lot of things about this table. But if you are a film-maker you can just show this table. You can see immediately the kind of table and how interesting it is, but it is still only a table. That is the reason why I don't understand someone talking about philosophical or metaphysical things. No, it's not true. Please, just watch the movie; just listen to your heart. Please, trust your eyes: everything is very clear and very simple. Watch. That's important. Don't think about it too much. Everyone can understand it if they don't complicate it. It's just a simple film. It's a very primitive language.
Our writer, Krasznahorkai, he doesn't understand why we use this very primitive thing which is a film. He can write thirty pages about this table. Everybody has a fantasy and everybody can imagine a table, but if I show you it using the very primitive language of film it is only ever a table.
How well received are your films in Hungary?
Only by the minority. It's the same everywhere: we're mostly just shown in the ordinary cinemas. We're not part of the multiplexes.
You are known as the black sheep of Hungarian cinema. You don't compromise.
We are different, that's all. What can you compromise? It is impossible: we have long takes, very closed structure, very serious forms.
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