When I asked Béla Tarr if he ever suspected that his seven-hour “Sátántangó” would resonate 25 years after it first screened at the 1994 Berlinale, the semi-retired Hungarian filmmaker hunched forward in his chair and responded with the raspy, “who gives a fuck?” grumble of a barfly at last call: “I’m not prophetic,” he grinned, revealing a well-punctuated set of teeth. “I was just an ugly, poor filmmaker. I still am. I don’t have power. I don’t have anything — just a fucking camera.”
When it comes to auteurs who look as if they could be characters in their own movies, the 64-year-old Tarr has to be near the top of the list, somewhere between Wes Anderson and Clint Eastwood. I met him on a brittle February afternoon, when he sagged through the lobby doors of Berlin’s Savoy hotel in a thick winter coat and a sour cloud of cigarette smoke. The stringy gray ponytail that slipped under the back of his hat was the same color as the stubble on his chin and the light in his eyes; Tarr didn’t seem pale so much as monochrome, as if he’d traveled back to the German capital via one of the signature black-and-white tracking shots that galvanized his reputation as a slow cinema godhead.
A quarter of a century had passed since Tarr unveiled “Sátántangó,” and now he returned to the same theater to premiere Arbelos Films’ 4K restoration of a seismic masterwork that would encapsulate the auteur’s apocalyptic vision. Adapted from the László Krasznahorkai novel of the same name, and maintaining the book’s dance-inspired chronology, “Sátántangó” tells a Möbius strip-like story about the collapse of a farming collective in post-communist Hungary, news of which inspires a mystical charismatic vulture of a man named Irimiás — played by composer Mihály Vig — to “return from the dead” and prey on the desolation he finds among the desperate and easily manipulated townsfolk. Things end as they began: In darkness and ruin and the sight of cows being coerced towards their own slaughter.
Much has changed for Tarr, his people, and the world at large over the last 25 years: He quit making features after 2011’s “The Turin Horse,” Hungary joined the European Union, and the planet rushed headlong into the information age. On the other hand, to watch the pristine new print of “Sátántangó” is to recognize that much has also stayed the same or slumped backwards: Tarr is still railing against the cynicism he sees on all sides, Hungary has repeatedly embraced an authoritarian Prime Minister who the filmmaker refers to as “the shame of our country,” and even the most democratic bastions of Western civilization have been reintroduced to the pitfalls of populism. When history repeats itself, clarity can be easily mistaken for clairvoyance.
“I wasn’t trying to see the future,” Tarr said, pounding the table between every breath. “I was just watching my life and showing the world from my point of view. Of course, you can see a lot of shit permanently; you can see humiliation at all times; you can always see a bit of this destruction. All the people can be so stupid, choosing this kind of populist shit. They are destroying themselves and the world — they do not think about their grandchildren. They do not think about anything other than how they can survive this shit. And it’s very, very sad. But that sadness provokes. It pushes you to do something.”
Tarr looked into the abyss until his gaze calcified into a hard stare (and perhaps the most nihilistic film of the 21st century), and then — having achieved a feeling of perfect clarity — he stepped back into the shadows. “Film by film, I invented by my cinematic language,” he said. “This language is my language. It came from me. I cannot repeat it. I cannot use it for other shit.” It was the same logic he’s espoused since first announcing that “The Turin Horse” would be his last feature. Judging by the current state of things, however, it may seem like Tarr did not do enough.
And yet, in a perverse way, the recursive arc of recent history only underscores the full power of his allegorical films: “Sátántangó” has always been synonymous with the time required to watch Tarr’s work, but seeing this movie anew reveals the time required to see it clearly. A complete and devastating story is told over the course of “Sátántangó,” but seven hours and 12 minutes was never going to be long enough to capture a power cycle that turns an entire people against themselves.
Twenty-five years, on the other hand, might be sufficient for someone to recognize the full scope of Tarr’s magnum opus, and to look at the moral inertia it’s dancing with from a different perspective. Tarr’s cinematic language is best expressed through the weight of time, a burden that can be felt in both individual shots as well as the films that comprise them — in the way those films condense that language into a contained snow globe of hard sorrow, and the way the years then shake their stories full of new life. The longer that time continues to cocoon “Sátántangó” on both sides, the more it will transform before our eyes.
This is by design. “Since ‘The Almanac of Fall,’ my goal has always been to make timeless stuff,” Tarr said, referencing the bleak 1985 thriller in which he first mumbled through the basic sounds of his self-invented tongue. “That’s why you do not see any cars in my movies, or if you do see a car it has a kind of eternal form.”
In lieu of an origin story, Tarr set the table for an anecdote about the trip that broadened his horizons and granted him the permission he needed to pursue a harsh cinema of seemingly uneventful long-takes. “Most films just tell the story,” he said, “action, fact, action, fact, I don’t fucking know what. For me, this is poisoning the cinema because the art form is pictures written in time.” He coughed hard between breaths, as if expel that sickness. “It’s not only a question of length,” he said, “it’s a question of heaviness. It’s a question of can you shake the people or not?”
So far as Tarr is concerned, Marvel movies aren’t the problem as much as they are the clearest symptom of a broader disease that has spread between genres. “Most shit today… they aren’t films, they’re just comics,” he said. “It’s just blub-blub-blub, a bubble of a sentence and then we go to the next section.” Forget about Netflix: “I’m just deeply sorry for somebody who is watching movies on this shit because they miss everything.”
Our problem, Tarr argued, is that most cinema leaves us stuck on the surface. “People just tell a fucking story and we believe that something is happening with us,” he said. “But nothing is happening with us. We are not really part of the story. We are just doing our time, and nobody gives a shit about what time is doing to us. It’s a huge mistake. I just did it a different way.”
Happy that filmmakers like Tsai Ming-liang and Lav Diaz have run similar marathons with the slow cinema torch, Tarr waves away the suggestion that it took bravery and conviction to pull off “Sátántangó” — to spend years trying to secure funding for a seven-hour dirge that was only ever going to screen at festivals and specialty theaters. “Film is a language, and there are languages within that language,” he said. “This is my language. How can I communicate with you without it?”
Tarr never intended for “Sátántangó” to shadow his entire career (“I was a relatively young person, I did not understand”), but he insisted that making this bleak epic was more enjoyable than it looks. “It was really, really big fun,” he said, without a trace of sarcasm. “We were in the countryside, far from everything, and it was good. It was two years. … Really odd things happened. But we created a kind of family and enjoyed it very much.”
Tarr wouldn’t say if “Sátántangó” was his personal favorite (“I’m like a fucker who has nine kids — all of them are different”), but he insisted “Sátántangó” played the same to him now as it did 25 years ago. He still remembers every shot by heart. He can even tell you exactly when a fly buzzed onto the camera lens during a long-take that he decided to leave in the final cut. Still, for all of the personal memories and cinematic details that have always made it impossible for Tarr to extricate “Sátántangó” from the time it was made, he’s never had any interest in anchoring this story to the particulars of the political decay that had inspired it.
“Politics makes everything too simple and primitive for me,” he said. “Social instability is a constant in my films — all the time of course I am talking about poor people, miserable people, people who never had a chance. Always that has been equal in my work. But everywhere is the same.” He cited the soul-crushing finale of “The Turin Horse,” in which the lead characters flee over a hill to escape their desolation, only to return across the same ridge after presumably spotting familiar horrors on the other side.
Tarr himself has yet to suffer such a fate. While he will never unretire from feature filmmaking, recent years have seen him dabble in museum shows, including a visual hymn to Vienna’s homeless population, and an Amsterdam installation that complemented his oeuvre with one final scene expressing his rage about Europe’s ongoing migrant crisis. But even that piece, which may never be formally (or legally) screened anywhere else, only ventured so close to the ephemeral: “By the end, that exhibition could have touched on political issues like border fences and all the horrible shit that Hungary has done to refugees, but I had to ignore it because…” He trailed off.
Tarr doesn’t aspire to affect change so much as provide viewers with a more lucid perspective on their place in the world. He wanted wanted to make films that would feel timely all over again in 25 years; films that institutions would feel compelled to restore because they seemed perennially relevant for one grim reason or another; films in which people could always find some dark reflection of their own particular despair. Even now — maybe especially now — he still trusts in people to look.
“Listen, when I said ‘poor ugly filmmaker,’ it’s because I don’t have power,” he said. “As a filmmaker, you have to believe in the people — in their power — because if you do not believe in the people then why do you make film… for what? If you don’t have hope, you do not do a fucking movie. You don’t do a movie for the money, because the money just comes and goes. It’s not about the money. It’s because you are such a big fucking maniac who believes in people; who believes that people will watch and people will be touched. It’s because you still believe that people are good, sometimes they just do stupid things. They will pay the price for that by the end, but they do not see it now. So what can filmmakers do?”
Then he answered his own question: “This is our job.” And while Tarr might be retired, revisiting “Sátántangó” makes it clear that his movies will continue that work for a long time to come.
The 4K restoration of “Sátántangó” opens at Film at Lincoln Center on October 18. A nationwide rollout will follow.