The Hard Beauty of Our Life on This Earth

in 61st Berlinale - Berlin International Film Festival

by João Antunes

For the last thirty years, Hungarian filmmaker Béla Tarr has been appointed one of that rare species in world cinema, an auteur. After the now historic screening of his seven-and-a-half hour-long Sátántangó, in the Forum section of 1994’s Berlinale, no-one can speak about new ways of making cinema, and seeing it, without mentioning his name.

With a body of work consistent, in terms of its artistic and aesthetic values, its perfectly identifiable language and with a regular rhytm, which is not always easy in a world where financing movies is an art in itself, it was with a mixture of perplexity and consternation that the director, now 55 years old, announced that The Turin Horse (A torinói ló) would be his last movie.

Only future will be able to tell if it will be so. No-one doubts Béla Tarr’s sincerity, but if this is true in the actual situation, of his life, of cinema, of the world, everything can change, in the near future. And we have already seen some other artists say the same and, fortunately enough for all their admirers, get back on track.

Anyway, being true for the moment, Béla Tarr’s filmography ended with a masterpiece. Even in such a demanding competition as the Berlinale’s 2011 edition, The Turin Horse was the single entry that we could call cinema. In full and clear contrast with all other contendors, which were simple movies, some better than others, Béla Tarr’s work was the only one believing in cinema as an art form.

The horse of the title is supposed to be the one Nietzsche saw being beaten a few moments before going back home and never saying another word until his death, ten years later. But the film, beginning with this title, is not about Nietzsche. There’s no actor playing the philosopher. Nor is it a comment on his words.

The Turin Horse, in its limits as a period piece, mainly embodies the way a visionary filmmaker can speak about today’s world. Not about some of its so-called great themes, but what after all should be considered the main one — the life itself of the common people.

In thirty perfectly crafted shots, long but dynamic, beautiful but sometimes hard, what we can see is the way people fight, against the elements, nature and other beings, in order to survive. In all, we have basically three characters. One of them is the horse. The others are its old owner — a man who cannot move his right arm — and his daughter. They live on an isolated farm. Every day they do the same: they go to the well to fetch water, they eat hot, boiled potatoes — only hot, boiled potatoes — they dress and undress. They sleep and wake up. Again and again…

From a cinematic point of view, The Turin Horse does not give us emotions to fall back on. There is no drama in it, in a classical way. Nor a message. Just a mirror. It’s surely demanding, for a viewer not used to a non-formatted movie. But it gives us the certainty that cinema is alive as an art form and it will continue to surprise us, to touch us, to give us something to talk and think about, long after the screening. If not with this author, at least with someone else, who knows, touched by his marvellous sense of composition, of framing, of setting, of sound atmospheres.

In Berlin, we spoke with Mr. Tarr, who began to explain his purpose with the movie. “We’re talking about just the heaviness of human being. How it’s difficult and heavy to go about your life, your daily life. The monotony of your life. It’s a very pure and a very simple thing.

About where Nietzsche was in all this, he said: “All the Nietzsche stuff, it’s just because at the end we had the question, of what happened to the horse? We started to think the horse has a owner, and this owner maybe has no right hand. And with the horse they are three. And if somebody falls out of this triangular relationship, they die. It’s quite simple.”

Confronted about his decision to stop making films, Béla Tarr explained: “With the movies we have done during these 34 years, it’s really a long, long process. In my first movie, starting from my social sensibility, I just wanted to change the whole world. I wanted to beat the door, to beat the people. Then, I had to understand that the problems are more complicated. Maybe mythological, maybe cosmic. And now I just can’t say anything. Yes, just one thing. It’s quite heavy! And I don’t know how it will be, and what is coming. But I see something that is really close. The end!”

After this answer and asked about it, he denied being a pessimist. “No, I’m not. I was quite happy when yesterday someone came to me and said: ‘Okay, this is sad, and depressing, but I got a lot of energy’. This film made him happy. I’m not a pessimistic guy. If you are a pessimist, you don’t make a movie. I believe someone in twenty years or fifty years will watch this movie, which is very optimistic now, if you see the conditions of the world.”

Then, Béla Tarr explained how it all began with his regular screenwriter, László Krasznahorkai. “During an evening in the theatre, in 1985, he was reading some of his work, some fragments, and at the end, he read this short text which is now the prologue of the movie, the Nietzsche story, and he finished his text with this question about the horse.” He continued: “Later, when I came back from Berlin, I saw this house, where we are living now, a very derelict house in the countryside. But it was an amazing building, because it was a former inn. We could see the places for the horses, everything. That was the second time the question came up.”

It then took five more years to put something down on paper. “We wrote a short synopsis, just like a memo. We had a father, a daughter, and somebody who is a foreigner, a neighbour or just a visitor. That was what we knew. But I started Sátántangó and it was pulled back a little bit. Then, when the shooting of The Man from London (A londoni férfi) was interrupted and we had a year just to negotiate with the banks and the new producer about how we can got the production going again, I was really sad. And Lászlo, always generous, told me to forget it all and work on that horse thing. It was like work therapy.”

Speaking about financing, the Hungarian director is very clear about it all. “We didn’t have any script or anything. I knew we had six days, as dramaturgic structure. We knew everything must repeat. That was quite simple. I did not need a script. When we looked for the money to finance the movie we sent everybody just the text. We said that will be my movie and afterwards they could decide whether to trust me or not…”

Seeing the movie, we can think about the characters almost like marionets. But the director does not agree with this take on his movie. “They have lots of emotions. But everything is hidden. And they have tension. They want something, but nothing’s happening. They have to go about life. What are we doing? We are just repeating everything. We are waking up every morning, we are dressing every morning. And nobody says it’s a horror. We just wanted to say something is wrong. I don’t want to judge anything. Because I do the same.”

We then asked Béla Tarr if he was more dissatisfied with life or with cinema. “I really don’t want to stop my life”, he said. “Anyhow, I never think about this. I’m never satisfied. How can I be satisfied? With life. With the movies. I have done my movies. That’s closed. Packed up. I have to do some other things.”

The director spoke also about the way he found and built the settings. “The location has a face. It’s one of the main characters. I found that small valley in Hungary. And this lonely tree. That was totally perfect for me. But there wasn’t any house. I hate artificial settings, so we built a real house. With real stones, real wood. We called some real old professionals, just to build it. We looked at so many pictures to see the architecture of that time, just to be perfect. We also built the well, the stable and the house. The set was ready. I saw the whole movie, immediately.”

Of course, we could not resist asking him about the horse… “We found her, becase she’s a female, in a small village in Hungary. In a horse market, a horrible thing”, he said. “She was already sold. Her new owner, a very brutal guy, was trying to put her into the coach, but she didn’t want to work. She didn’t move. She was our horse. And this terrible brutal guy started to beat her. And I stoped him. It was almost exactly what happened to Nietzsche. Of course we bought the horse, we shot the movie with her, and now she’s totally safe, in a secret place in Hungary. In a beautiful and huge property. She’s eight years old and pregnant.”

In the end, we can imagine Bela Tarr is speaking about the apocalypse. “You know what I think? The apocalypse will be a big, huge event. But in my film the end of the world is very weak, very silent, really nothing. The apocalypse will be something, like a big show. But how will real life go away? Death is always the most terrible thing. I saw it sometimes, unfortunately. How someone is dying, some animal or human, it’s always terrible. And the most terrible thing is that it seems almost nothing is happening. Your heart is broken, but the world is moving ahead.”

Béla Tarr also spoke about his method of filming, building his movies in a few long shots. “Here it’s 30 takes. The Man from London has 32. It’s moving more. That’s why people have this feeling. We are doing a lot of cuts, but inside the same take. Not in the editing room, in the camera. We begin with a close-up, then we open and have immediately four people. We have lots of different perspectives, but do not cut. If you have a long take, you can keep the tension. And you keep the actor in the situation. How can I keep the tension for just three seconds? It’s so stupid. No-one can do it.”

Usually, as bleak as they can feel, Béla Tarr’s movies are impregnated with some humour. Not here… “All my films are comedies,” he admitted. “Sátántangó is a comedy. Lots of people are laughing. You can laugh a lot when watching it. But now we are not in the mood.”