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The 2011 New York Film Festival | Beasts Of Burden: THE TURIN HORSE

The 2011 New York Film Festival | Beasts Of Burden: THE TURIN HORSE

The Turin Horse, the latest masterpiece from the Hungarian director Béla Tarr, begins with a black screen and a narrator’s voice recalling a famous anecdote about Friedrich Nietzsche’s nervous breakdown; On January 3, 1889, the philosopher witnessed a coachman beating a carriage horse. The beating was violent and drew a crowd and Nietzsche, overcome by the scene, ran to the aid of the horse, throwing his arms around the animal’s neck and breaking into wild sobs. It was a tipping point for the philosopher, who never recovered his sanity or the lucidity of his writing. But, as Tarr notes, no one knows what became of the horse.

The Turin Horse proposes an answer of sorts, but it is also and perhaps instead a statement on the suffering of others that is at once as profoundly moving as it is formally rigorous. And although the film does feature a horse, a beautiful animal whose vulnerable physicality dominates every scene in which it appears, the anecdote that begins the film may not necessarily relate to the animal alone, but to the human beings who, in concert with the horse, suffer at the hands of a relentlessly unforgiving universe. This is a movie that openly grieves for the state of the world, yet instead of echoing Nietzsche’s sob, Tarr refuses to flinch; better to articulate the depth of his anguished proposal than collapse under the weight of it.

The Turin Horse

The Turin Horse exposes a visceral emptiness at the heart of human relationships; the world depicted in the film is defined by economic poverty, the cruel obligations of family, a brutal natural environment (gale force winds rage for almost the entire story), and, crucially, a collapse of community. Ohlsdorfer (János Derzsi) and his dutiful daughter (Erika Bók) live in a stone farmhouse around which there seems to be no farm at all, just a barn that houses the titular horse. Pinned down by the aforementioned wind storm, the days go by, six in all, and the daily routines of their lives are repeated; dressing, a shot of pálinka, the gathering of water from the well, the cleaning of the horse barn, the boiling and eating of potatoes, undressing and, finally, sleep, which seems to provide a merciful respite from waking life. But as each day goes by, things slowly, perceptibly deteriorate; the wind won’t stop and the horse refuses to eat or take water, slowly starving itself to death. As the horse goes, so go the family’s fortunes. Or does the horse, sensing the end, wither away in empathy with the family’s inevitable collapse?

The Turin Horse

Two crucial moments bring an even deeper sense of foreboding; a neighbor named Bernhard (Tarr regular Mihály Kormos) arrives to borrow some pálinka and launches into a diatribe about the moral and social collapse of the nearby town. “It’s all been degraded,” he says, implying that the economy of human activity has been reduced to a set of transactions that are beneath contempt. This is, of course, deeply connected to the ideas of Nietzsche himself, and Bernhard’s speech could have easily been pulled directly from the backbone of Nietzsche’s early philosophy, which saw him arguing against a European culture descending into degradation and decadence. Ohlsdorfer dismisses Bernhard’s argument as nonsense, but it’s pretty clear where Tarr stands; soon after the speech, as if to prove the point, a truckload of gypsies (the film’s word, not mine), full of wild physicality and anarchic energy that contrasts deeply with the deteriorating conditions on the farm, arrive and drink from the family well. Ohlsdorfer chases them off with an axe, but not before his daughter receives the gift of a holy book in exchange for the water. The next morning, having read a few passages from the book the night before, she discovers the well is dry, the end of the family’s water supply. This action, the introduction of a sort of Christian mysticism to the film’s narrative, only reinforces its Nietzschean perspective. In his book The Gay Science, Nietzsche wrote:

“We Europeans confront a world of tremendous ruins. A few things are still towering, much looks decayed and uncanny, while most things already lie on the ground… The church is this city of destruction…An edifice like Christianity that had been built so carefully over such a long period–it was the last construction of the Romans!–naturally could not have been destroyed all at once. All kinds of earthquakes had to shake it, all kinds of spirits that bore, dig, gnaw and moisten have had to help…”

Ohlsdorfer decides to abandon the farm soon after; the family grabs their small cart, packs it up, tethers the horse behind the cart and sets off up the hill, a reversal of the shot where the gypsies arrive. Suddenly, the impossibility of the journey realized, the family turns back home, their humiliation complete. And always, the wind tears at everything, whipping up dust and dead leaves, punishing any attempts at progress.

The Turin Horse

As always, Tarr’s stunningly photographed long takes will test some viewers’ ability to pay continuous attention, but they are, for those who care to look, absolutely audacious and thrilling. It is the use of the camera and the modulation of light that brings cinematic meaning Tarr’s use of repetition. The changes to the family’s daily routines allow for subtle changes to the way in which they are depicted and, as things slowly turn for the worse, the film itself becomes more and more claustrophobic; where lanterns used to throw patches of light across the actors faces, the screen slowly begins to dissolve into darkness, a darkness which also echoes the condition of the family and the horse. Ultimately, the animal’s silent suffering registers with the greatest effect; daily visits from Ohlsdorfer and his daughter provide the only light to the otherwise shuttered barn. But there is power in action as well; the movie’s opening sequence, a bravura take of the horse pulling a carriage through the unforgiving wind, is breathtaking. Like any of Tarr’s films, a patient commitment to the cumulative power of his storytelling technique is a must. Those who give themselves over to Tarr’s vision will be rewarded with a rich, deeply moving story, a movie of incredibly mastery and power that ranks among the director’s finest works.

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