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Critics Explain Their Love for Bela Tarr: A Round-Up

By Austin Dale | Indiewire February 10, 2012 at 12:14PM

In an interview with Indiewire this week, Bela Tarr says that "The Turin Horse" is his final film. It appears he's serious about it. And anyone who has seen a Tarr film knows he would never lie to his audience.
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Bela Tarr's modern classic "Satantango"
Bela Tarr's modern classic "Satantango"

In an interview with Indiewire this week, Bela Tarr says that "The Turin Horse" is his final film. It appears he's serious about it. And anyone who has seen a Tarr film knows he would never lie to his audience.

The Hungarian auteur's films have rarely been released Stateside to anything above a dull roar, but over the years, they have built up a following and expanded their influence; "The Turin Horse" has proved the exception, with a level of attention that includes including a Lincoln Center run and a career retrospective.

In addition, Indiewire has created its own retrospective: We asked critics from our Criticwire network to single out their favorite moments from Tarr's unparalleled career. Here's what they had to say.

Matt Prigge, Philadelphia Weekly

Béla Tarr is not known for his comedy, and rightly so. But judging from the laughter frequently produced during the "Sátántangó" screening this past Saturday at the Walter Reade, you might have thought otherwise. Contrary to his (in)famously miserabalist movies -- one of which is appropriately titled "Damnation" -- Tarr has a sense of humor.

Introducing "The Turin Horse," his threatened swan song, at this past New York Film Festival, the filmmaker noted what a beautiful day it was, then asked the packed crowd, “You really want to see this piece of shit?” Returning after 2 ½ hours devoted to the gradual, all-but-ensured demise of 19th-century peasants -- in characteristically grimy B&W yet -- he shrugged and exclaimed, “Told ya.” Humor peppers even his bleakest work.

Actually, there is nothing funny in "Damnation," but "The Turin Horse" does find time for a fantastic joke involving a visit from our heroes’ overly philosophical neighbor. "Werckmeister Harmonies" has fun in the beloved opening scene with the sight of drunks trying, and often failing, to pantomime the paths of heavenly bodies. "The Prefab People," from his early, neo-Cassavetes period, boasts an after-party sing-a-long that includes “The Godfather Theme,” now with lyrics.

"A surprisingly significant amount of 'Satantango' is downright hysterical." --Matt Prigge

Safe to say, though, that the 7 ½ hour "Sátántangó" is “the funny Tarr” -- you know, except when it’s not. And of course it’s often not, what with its numerous long, droney scenes of people trawling unhappy landscapes and an unbearably sad/unpleasant hour depicting the mental collapse of a young girl prone to cat torture. But a surprisingly significant amount of ‘tango is downright hysterical.

Granted, some of the humor is of the confrontational breed, with Tarr taking a kind of assholish delight in annoying the audience. Not everyone will find amusement in the notorious 10-minute shot of characters drunkenly dancing to a maddeningly repetitive accordion song. That’s despite it featuring one guy walking around balancing a cheese roll on his forehead, plus another who picks fights before collapsing on a bench, wildly kicking at anyone who gets close. Arguably even more amusingly grating is when this lout ekes out a space as arguably cinema’s most irritating drunk, launching into two separate 15-minute rants in which an embellished story devolves into him angrily repeating the same couple phrases ad infinitum. (Suffice to say, you’ll never be able to hear -- or rather, read -- the words “plodding along” the same again.)

Still, a lot of "Sátántangó" teems with more friendly dark and deadpan comedy -- and sometimes actual jokes. At one point the poet-turned-conman played by Mihály Vig, Tarr’s composer since 1984’s "Almanac of Fall," stops and drops to his knees at the sight of fog, seeming to see in it the passing soul of a certain deceased character. A couple seconds after this hypnotic moment passes his co-conspirator handily deflates it: “You’ve never seen fog before?” A section late in, with weary bureaucrats rewording a report in blithely cruel ways, is simply one hilarious line after another. There’s even amusement to be had from the longeurs, as with the two sections on the voyeuristic, morbidly porcine doctor, whose intense sluggishness and need for fruit brandy become jokes in and of themselves.

That a film with a devastating section about a young girl can also include comically exasperating bar behavior -- back-to-back, in fact -- has riled some (including the friend who sat next to me Saturday). It also excites others, who see in such insane ambition a film whose fragmentary nature -- jumping between time frames, characters and even tones over its 12 parts and draining hours -- belies not just a unique sensibility but one that sees the world with a detached bemusement. This trait isn’t always apparent in Tarr’s other, more coal-black serious films. But it’s deafeningly obvious in the frequently funny "Sátántangó."

Howard Feinstein, Screen, Variety, Indiewire

"The Turin Horse"
The Cinema Guild. "The Turin Horse"

The mob scene toward the end of "Werckmeister Harmonies." Its existential profundity is unparalleled in Tarr’s films, indeed in most films period, and it also brings together in 12 minutes several of Tarr’s formal (alternation of sound and silence, such as nearly unpopulated farms with rowdy bar scenes) and thematic concerns (the bleakness and perhaps pointlessness of existence, often with an eventual dose of hope). The background is a depressed provincial Hungarian town, in which a freezing winter, the assemblage of perceived enemies from other villages who have gathered in the town square, a wide disparity of wealth and power, unemployment, and the realization that a fraudulent “Prince” has taken advantage of them (he is tied in with the odd stuffed carcass of a whale in the village center; like much in the film, significance is much in the mind of the beholder). The townsfolk have become disoriented, destabilized.

Toward the end of the film, at the end of their ropes—arsonists have just torched much of their village—the local, rough-hewn, typically Tarrish machos form an singleminded, unthinking mob and march in the middle of the night with almost military precision down a very dark street into a locale with vulnerable inhabitants who are easy prey: the sad hospital, a stark, white old building in which single dangling light bulbs are all that breaks up heartbreaking monotony. The obsessed throng, perhaps 80-100 men, run inside, small groups at a time, and begin, like animals, turning over beds, kicking invalids, smashing medical machinery, even battering the one doctor we see. None of them attempts to put a lid on his his rage.

No music accompanies the rampage, neither is there dialogue, from bullying aggressors or patients being tormented. Then an astounding moment occurs: Two of the invaders pull back a curtain, melancholic violin and piano music begin when they see a small, very old, completely naked man, bathed in brightness, standing in a tub facing them, doing nothing. The sight is a quiet, wakening zap to these thugs, and suddenly all of the trespassers, touched, pathetically exit the institution, but now with heads bowed. The reason for this epiphany is a bit uncertain. What exactly reaches their souls and consciousness so deeply?

Near scene’s end the camera lingers on the face, and especially the large staring eyes, of the protagonist, the naïve, simple Janos (Lars Rudolph), so that we now know he has been a silent witness to both the hospital madness and its catharsis. The camera tilts up through the opaque windows one level above the shocked Janos and tracks the humbled men as they shuffle flowly back onto the street. The funereal soundtrack ceases only at the end of the sequence.

Scott Foundas, Film Society of Lincoln Center

I’m sure I am not alone in this, but the opening shot of "The Turin Horse" has scarcely left my mind since I first saw the film nearly a year ago in Berlin. At the time, I wrote:

“The opening shot, alone worth the price of admission, tracks the old man and the horse as they trudge home in the face of the oncoming storm, the camera moving alongside them, then in front, then below, all the while the wind and dust blow and the dirge-like strings of Tarr’s “permanent composer” (per the press notes), Mihály Vig, swell furiously on the soundtrack. In some ways, the man resembles the horse and vice-versa, weary, obstinate, starting to wind down, rallying against the dying of the light. I did not time the shot (apologies to David Bordwell, with whom I once shared the stage at a panel discussion of Tarr's films in Chicago), but my guess is that it goes on for the better part of 10 minutes—and one does not wish it to be any shorter.”

There is also an air of finality about it, one that anticipates the coming apocalypse in the film, and underlines Tarr’s own announced end to his filmmaking (or at least film directing) career. Tarr has always been a master of majestic opening shots—think of the cows in "Sátántangó," or the long pull back from the mining buckets in "Damnation"—but even more than those movies the early moments of "The Turin Horse" conjure an entire world in a single image, the sense of small people struggling to survive in the face of cataclysm, which may well be Tarr’s defining motif. We could just as soon be journeying towards the small Texas homestead from Sjöström’s "The Wind" as to the equally desolate shack where most of Tarr’s film takes place. Which is another way of saying that "The Turin Horse" also heralds the end of a certain kind of filmmaking—not just of the modernist tradition of which Tarr is one of the last prodigious exponents, but of filmmaking as a purely analog labor, where everything you see on the screen exists in real physical space, and the film itself is meant to be projected, on celluloid, on the largest possible screen.

Jonathan Rosenbaum, Former film critic for Chicago Reader

About 75 minutes into "Sátántangó," László Krasznahorkai and Béla Tarr’s ultimate masterpiece (and arguably the greatest single film of the modern era) -- a 450-minute, black and white black comedy set in rural Hungary in which everyone’s a scoundrel, everything is monstrous, and it never stops raining —- the film spends about an hour with a burly doctor, and for most of that time he’s alone. During the first half of this protracted stretch, filmed in very few takes, he’s seated in his shack, drinking himself into a stupor with fruit brandy when he isn’t spying on his neighbors through binoculars, pointlessly recording their precise movements in copious detail in a journal he’s keeping, or snapping at a woman who briefly stops by to deliver his food. We even see him nod off and start snoring at one point, and subsequently stumble to the floor and pass out at another. Otherwise he just keeps drinking, pouring out more and more fruit brandy, and mumbling to himself, and the comic genius of this sequence is in part a demonstration of how much actual labor is actually required to get stinking drunk.

Vadim Rizov, Freelance

I'm not sure who coined the useful phrase "Tarr trudge," which refers not to a moment but the signature recurring element of Bela Tarr's work since 1988's "Damnation." Throughout his career, Tarr's moved from a claustrophobic interior artist to a grand, near-sci-fi stylist of the devastated countryside, where wind howls ceaselessly and nature is unremittingly gloomy. Against this grandly apocalyptic landscape, people move and Tarr's camera moves with them, mostly from behind. I'm not sure why this shot is so hypnotic, but it has something to do with presenting simple visual problems that turn out to require your total concentration: people move away and get closer, the landscape may change (what you can see of it), objects are blown in from behind. This isn't walking as "character development" (it's hard to act with your back!), but a break in narrative momentum into purely sensory pleasures. When Gus van Sant says he owes a lot to Tarr, this and the time-hopping structure of "Sátántangó" is what he's mostly talking about.

Eugene Hernandez, Film Society of Lincoln Center

Films by Béla Tarr are hypnotic. Overcome the apparent obstacles and slide into a mysterious world that takes shape through every moment you spend there. I’ve been able to watch and re-visit a few of his films during this week’s complete career retrospective at the Film Society. Sitting here pondering Béla Tarr for this survey, my mind keeps veering to the power of his music. More precisely, Mihály Vig’s music. A close collaborator with Béla Tarr and Agnes Hranitzky, Vig is a Hungarian music who has composed pieces for many of their films. He even starred in Sátántangó. Vig’s work is not just a soundtrack to black and white movie comprised of very few long takes. Watching “Werckmeister Harmonies” last night for the first time it struck me how integral his compositions are to these collaborations with Tarr and Hranitzky. In the recent interview with Indiewire, Béla Tarr spoke of a “special tension between the actors and the camera” that plays out in his extended, uncut scenes. That tension is apparent in the extended takes that frame “Werckmeister Harmonies.” A playful dance at the start and a powerful coda to cap the tragic tale. The music in these separate scenes envelops the action in a way that is hard to convey. You have to watch (and listen to) these scenes to experience their power. Or as Béla Tarr told Indiewire, “Don't be too sophisticated. Just listen to your heart and trust your eyes.”
Films by Béla Tarr are hypnotic. Overcome the apparent obstacles and slide into a mysterious world that takes shape through every moment you spend there. I’ve been able to watch and re-visit a few of his films during this week’s complete career retrospective at the Film Society. Sitting here pondering Béla Tarr for this survey, my mind keeps veering to the power of his music. More precisely, Mihály Vig’s music. A close collaborator with Béla Tarr and Agnes Hranitzky, Vig is a Hungarian music who has composed pieces for many of their films. He even starred in Sátántangó. Vig’s work is not just a soundtrack to black and white movie comprised of very few long takes. Watching “Werckmeister Harmonies” last night for the first time it struck me how integral his compositions are to these collaborations with Tarr and Hranitzky. In the recent interview with Indiewire, Béla Tarr spoke of a “special tension between the actors and the camera” that plays out in his extended, uncut scenes. That tension is apparent in the extended takes that frame “Werckmeister Harmonies.” A playful dance at the start and a powerful coda to cap the tragic tale. The music in these separate scenes envelops the action in a way that is hard to convey. You have to watch (and listen to) these scenes to experience their power. Or as Béla Tarr told Indiewire, “Don't be too sophisticated. Just listen to your heart and trust your eyes.”

Films by Béla Tarr are hypnotic. Overcome the apparent obstacles and slide into a mysterious world that takes shape through every moment you spend there. I’ve been able to watch and re-visit a few of his films during this week’s complete career retrospective at the Film Society. Sitting here pondering Béla Tarr for this survey, my mind keeps veering to the power of his music. More precisely, Mihály Vig’s music. A close collaborator with Béla Tarr and Agnes Hranitzky, Vig is a Hungarian musician who has composed pieces for many of their films. He even starred in Sátántangó. Vig’s work is not just a soundtrack to black and white movie comprised of very few long takes. Watching “Werckmeister Harmonies” last night for the first time it struck me how integral his compositions are to these collaborations with Tarr and Hranitzky.

In the recent interview with Indiewire, Béla Tarr spoke of a “special tension between the actors and the camera” that plays out in his extended, uncut scenes. That tension is apparent in the extended takes that frame “Werckmeister Harmonies.” A playful dance at the start and a powerful coda to cap the tragic tale. The music in these separate scenes envelops the action in a way that is hard to convey. You have to watch (and listen to) these scenes to experience their power. Or as Béla Tarr told Indiewire, “Don't be too sophisticated. Just listen to your heart and trust your eyes.”

Peter Howell, Toronto Star
 

Difficult as it is to choose a single synaptic moment from such a singular filmmaker, I have to go with the scene in "Werckmeister Harmonies" where a skulking Lars Rudolph contemplates the unblinking eyeball of a dead stuffed whale.  The giant orb fills him and us with awe and fear, peering not blankly but with ominous intent.  After so many years of Bela Tarr commanding our attention to the screen, the screen suddenly stares back, and it's at once terrifying and glorious.
 

Gary Kramer, Gay City News

Oddly, regrettably, I had never seen a Bela Tarr film before I went to see "The Turin Horse" at the New York Film Festival last October. When he introduced the film, Tarr playfully asked the audience, "It's so nice outside. Are you sure you want to be here and see this arty black and white piece of shit?" He endeared himself to me instantly.
 
I loved the scene with the gypsies in "The Turin Horse," maybe because it showed a playfulness in all the austerity. Then, last week, during a screening of "The Story of Film" there was a clip of two characters in "Sátántangó" walking down a hallway, wind blowing litter all around them. It made my heart rush. And I knew I had to see all of Tarr's films. Perhaps I'll work backward through his filmmography.
 
"Tarr succeeds at putting an 'end' in 'ending.'" --Michal Oleszczyk in 'The Turin Horse'
Michał Oleszczyk, Programmer, Off Plus Camera IFF
 
As "The Turin Horse" slowly draws to its magnificent closure, we realize that the potato shared by the man and the girl may well be their last one. By now, the movie's organizing principle has been the circular repetition of a numbing daily routine, of which a shot of pálinka and a potato were crucial parts. With all the water dried up in the well, the protagonists have to rely on potatoes for nourishment, and on pálinka for some much-needed kick. When we see them for the last time, tentatively sharing their actual last supper, their haunting, emaciated faces seem to have been chiseled by the ever-lashing wind. Even more than a pair of starved human beings, they resemble two eroded sculptures. Tarr succeeds in putting the "end" in "ending": when I was leaving the theater, I felt as if I was entering a period of mourning. I have just seen a world turning to black-and-wide dust before my eyes in slow motion.
 
John Lichman, Freelance
 

Everyone admires the bar sequence in "Sátántangó," but it's the twelfth sequence ("Just Trouble and Work") that captures the satirical contempt behind Tárr's work. Two military bureaucrats, one of whom is the Captain that previously chastised Irimiás (Mihály Vig), now are editing and rewording a letter sent by him. The exact nature is never revealed, but there's a vaguely threatening nature to how Irimiás has "improved" himself.

But for the editing we witness, there are no threats or idle promises. Instead the edits are due to the vulgar and humiliating descriptions of the townspeople who now work under Irimiás. The military officials debate back and forth on polite ways to describe "a loose woman" and struggle to reword "On the nature of the schoolmaster, if one were on a bridge and hesitating before suicide, all he would need is to think of the schoolmaster; then he'd jump." It's perhaps the most comic sequence next to the last one and it's amazing visual reference point for the audience.

 
V.A. Musetto, NY Post
 
Bela Tarr was present when "The Turin Horse'' screened at the Filmex festival in Tokyo in November. He summarized the film thusly: "Every day you're getting weaker and life is getting shorter and shorter.'' But this also could be said to be the message of most of his films. He also said that the horse driver was portrayed by a professional actor and his daughter by a dishwasher in a Vienna restaurant who doesn't want to be an actor.

This article is related to: Bela Tarr, Film Society of Lincoln Center, First Person, Interviews





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