The World According to Béla Tarr

By András Bálint Kovács (National Audiovisual Archive and Eötvös Loránd University, Budapest)

The holistic vision and world view of great artists often easily confuses the beholder. In order for us to accept the way great art sees the world in its entirety, we must surrender that part of our own limited life experience, with which such an approach does not tally, for the world can hardly be described with one compound sentence. We usually find that it is not things that force us to categorize them into a uniform system, but rather that we are the ones who try to rob things of their colorful , ambiguous, and accidental nature in order to be able to name them. Minor artists, who say but little of the world, think small and are therefore truer to the ultimate diversity inherent in everything. Great artists, by contrast, force their will and vision on the entire world. But it is just this arrogance that helps the recipient to discover in everything what a viewer—stuck in diversity and everydayness—cannot see. Every single thing can be approached in an infinite number of ways. From this infinity all we see is that we cannot unify it, for we are too small for it. The simplest and most useful approach for us is to categorize things according to their function. What we achieve in doing this is that a single thing suddenly seems interpretable—but from only a few viewpoints since its other aspects seem unimportant. We tend not to notice what is of no use to us.

Great artists, however, do not think functionally and do not categorize things based on their usefulness. Therefore, it is through the non-functional approach that they make us see the world the way we have never seen it. All great artists exaggerate, yet it is not exaggeration that makes an artist great. What makes the artist great is that through this exaggeration and enlargement we still recognize the world—a stunning experience. So exaggeration is no exaggeration after all. This is the paradox of great art. We cannot say how and when this experience is born, nor is it certain that it reaches all beholders (let us not forget that we are talking about an exaggeration). Great art is the secret of a given era as well, not only of form. So it is possible that in a particular era no great art is born—not for lack of talent, but due perhaps to little faith, tiredness, or lack of susceptibility to universal vision in a given period.

Béla Tarr's road to great art is an example of how someone can rise above the unexaggerated correctness of small masters submerged in diversity. Tarr saw the darkness of social reality, which for correct functionality was hopelessly impermeable. He started making films at the age of twenty-two in the very realistic and functional style of so-called documentary-feature films, which infused politics into cinema vérité and deprived it of the reflexive nature Jean Rouch had added to it. When he made Family Nest (Családi tüzfészek, 1979), he was immediately accepted as a member of this filmmaking group, whose work was based on this style and who called themselves the Budapest School. Among them Tarr was considered to be the most original talent. No one noticed back then, at the end of the 1970s, that Tarr had in fact little interest in documentary realism. One of the exciting features of Family Nest was that it followed a similar structural pattern to that of Rainer Werner Fassbinder's films seven or eight years earlier, although Tarr did not see any Fassbinder film until 1982. This shows how filmmakers with similar concerns can find similar solutions in different parts of the world with no direct influence on each other. Both directors depicted the environment naturalistically and theatrically at the same time; their characters were banal, but their impulses, passions, selfishness, and suffering made them extraordinary. Both condensed the dramatic nature of naturalistic situations to the point of unreality. Tarr had an eye for the same thing as Fassbinder: to see the spiritual source of the universal drama in the utterly banal figures determined by their environment. He was a theatrical talent, as well, just like Fassbinder, but he never worked in the theater .

His thesis film, however, was an adaptation of Shakespeare's Macbeth (1982). Just as for Fassbinder, for Tarr the precision of the actors' performance became increasingly important with time. Both used actors in a similar way: they could only work with actors who had their own, independent personality and could be inspired to bring the deepest features of their character to the surface. Both made actors of amateurs, since for both, the authenticity of the human expression was the most important consideration. As Tarr put it:

What we never trust is that we can make actors play the scene. Therefore we want it to happen really. We have to select actors who, if put together in a situation, really behave the way they would in real life. So we can never trust ourselves to direct a film. We cannot make a film; I cannot even direct a scene; all I can do is put everything in a pot, and perhaps something will come out of it. When, in The Marriage of Maria Braun [dir. Fassbinder, 1979], Schygulla hits the black man on the head, then looks at her husband…—this is a scene Fassbinder could never have directed. For this scene to happen, they all had to be on the same wavelength of communication, which gave birth to this scene. Directing is not a profession; it is rather a kind of sensitivity. From other filmmakers' work, I like to watch those—by Godard, Cassavetes, or Fassbinder—where the film has personality. When I was teaching in Berlin, this is what I always explained to the kids: you don't just write a film-script, then the dialogue, and then select the actors from a photo-album. I suggested the following: you do not write a script, you do not write dialogue. When you have a synopsis, the next step is to see if you have the characters and the locations. And when you have all of that, you need to adjust the script anyway. So what they learned from me was to look for actors and locations as soon as they had a synopsis, and that only after having found them, should they start writing the dialogues and the scenes, knowing whether the camera would fit into the space and who would play the characters.

The big difference between Tarr and the German master is that Tarr almost never lost his interest in a realistic and social depiction of the environment, except perhaps in two films—one of which for him was the beginning of a new artistic period, Almanac of Fall (Öszi almanach, 1985); and the second, his most recent film, The Man from London (A Londoni férfi, 2007), which may be the start of another new beginning. For him, the actor and the scenery were part of the same universe and always remained so. He inherited this way of seeing through Michelangelo Antonioni from Miklós Jancsó, from whom he also inherited the sensitivity for ritual movement—an element he elaborated in his later films. The Prefab People (Panelkapcsolat, 1982) was his first film where one could sense Fassbinder's structure clearly. He made a film about the bare and increasingly hellish everyday life of a young couple in its most complete banality. Contrary to his usual method, though, he used professional actors, making them work the same way amateurs would back then: they had to improvise texts in given situations. He wanted the actors to experience their roles as their own life. Perhaps it was helpful that the two actors were husband and wife in real life.

The result was good, but little. The naturalistic and extensive depiction of the environment contradicted the dramatic condensation. Their world might have been relatively secluded, but the eventuality of the environment and the real life situations continually decreased the dramatic tension. So Tarr took a step towards the eclectic nature, the emotional heat, and the preference for the artificial within post-modern taste, which had bloomed in the fine arts and European films at the beginning of the1980s. In Almanac of Fall , Tarr created a perfectly artificial and closed world, emphatically different from naturalistic reality, and placed his drama, prone to physical and spiritual sadism, into this context. Tarr's technique here was the same as in his previous film: he put the actors into situations and made them improvise so that their impulses and emotions surfaced from the depths of their souls. This artificial pseudo-world was necessary so that nothing would distract attention from the human cruelty, pettiness, and evil that spread everywhere and consumed everything. It was clear at this point that it was not Hungarian housing problems, political conditions, or a special existential state of life that Tarr wanted to speak of, but the entire world. He saw the world surrounding him, as did Fassbinder, as best summarized by falsehood, cheating, intrigue, and hopeless emotional vulnerability, as well as the fatal existential void that follows from all of these. Representation of financial distress is not a necessary property of this world-view; financial vulnerability, however, seemed to be the best context, within which to depict the moral degradation of humankind. What made Tarr's first film especially powerful was the way he simultaneously presented social and spiritual distress and vulnerability as being utterly intertwined. He placed his story within a social layer where Hungarian people had the same personal experience in their real lives. Except for The Outsider (Szabadgyalog, 1980), all his early films are based on the same dramatic situation: people confined in a small space make life hell for each other. But the fact that these people had to share one room and had nowhere to flee from each other was not what made them so horrid. On the contrary: being confined together was so unbearable because they were such horrid types to begin with. They were all the guilty and victims at the same time.

In Almanac of Fall, however, Tarr was only interested in the mere spiritual mechanism of the same situation. Being confined or financially vulnerable are both conditions that lack concrete social motives, and all of the characters are more moral than social examples of desperate parasitism. Here, Tarr was already looking for a world that can be generalized, one that can lend an authentic background to the spiritual drama with the same elementary power as the concretely depicted misery of housing in his first film. Social realism, however, was not fit for this purpose. In the middle of the 1980s, all concrete social phenomena had lost their authenticity and meaning. This very thing became the essence of Tarr's world view: nothing is what it seems, including the social source of human suffering. Underneath all of this lies a fraud that is not to be revealed. Therefore, the world of objects cannot be real either, in the naturalistic sense of the word. Tarr tried to create the semblance of reality in an intensified way, so that the spectator could not escape the feeling that it is his/her own world, so that he/she would see exaggeration as natural and recognize what he/she has failed to see, to which he/she has always closed his/her eyes; so that the spectator would see his/her own world as being just as suffocating as the human relationships in the film. Almanac of Fall was rather a starting point, an intermediary stop between the functional genre, documentary-feature films, and a world-forming vision. This film sought the possibility to generalize, but in a mannerist way, feeling for decorative abstraction. It was easy here to flee from a vision embracing the whole world, for he did not really create a world, only a theatrical set.

No matter how different Almanac of Fall was from his earlier films, the road leading to it was no less difficult or painful than the one leading on. He had to learn the form, which turns the authenticity of superficial depiction into something universal. After Almanac of Fall it was not possible to see how Tarr would find a way forward. Professional isolation, the perfectly hopeless political stagnation between 1985 and 1987, the complete moral decadence in the country, and the deaths of Fassbinder, Gábor Bódy, Miklós Erdély, and Andrei Tarkovskii added to his bad mood and depression. Although we had known each other before, it was in this period that we became close friends. We had long conversations about the death of modern film and its possible successor. Our discussions always returned to the way Tarkovskii and Fassbinder used travelling; we compared their long takes and whether or not there was a new way—not yet tried by filmmakers—to play with time. This was not just an empty helplessness. He was searching for the solution to a very concrete problem: How can one create the feeling of reality in an artificially created pseudo-world? It was clear for him that continuous composition and time had to play a key role in this. But what was camera-movement to be like, what was the time that made the image universal while the world remained very concrete? In other words: could one use Tarkovskii's time-management in a non-natural world that was not artistically formed? It was clear that Tarr was looking for a style rather than a theme or story. He knew he had to surpass the abstract set stylisation of Almanac of Fall and to return to a seemingly realistic portrayal of the world while keeping the feeling of universality and the speech of the entire world, and not let it fall back to the eventuality of social problems.

It was at this time that he read László Krasznahorkai's Sátántango and met the author. It was clear right away that this novel was meant to solve Tarr's problem. Human situations in it were very similar to those in Tarr's earlier films. He found the social environment (worn down characters on the verge of misery and corruption) very close to his heart, while the structure of the book was based on a time-game with composition. It seemed that Krasznahorkai answered Tarr's problem of how to treat time. The answer was: “eternal return.” Monotonous repetition, infinitely slow and ruthless seclusion could raise even the most earthly, most worn down, most extreme, and most unique-seeming world from its uniqueness, from its concrete historical and social facts, and create a whole other world of it. And so it became possible for Tarr to bring back his naturalistic world-portrayal while standing on the borderline between artificiality and reality. This was the most important characteristic of the human world he portrayed. Krasznahorkai saw the same thing as Tarr did in the world: endless destruction and misery disguised as redemption and elevation.

In his early films Tarr reduced this process to a concrete social environment or to the evil nature of the human soul; but the fact that cheating was inherent in the world itself, in its pseudo-nature had never become a central theme, except for Almanac of Fall, where the emphatically artificial set alluded to it. Tarr felt that now he could cross the Rubicon. Without leaving his realistic portrayal of the world too far behind, without having to give up portraying real misery and ruins, he could now show that this misery and ruins were the reality of a pseudo-world, a result of cheating and conning. The way the world is made makes people believe in redemption and love. Trust is a way to redemption. And when people believe this and, therefore, leave themselves unguarded for a moment, this pseudo-world strikes down mercilessly and takes from them the little they still have. The misery of the world is not a result of financial or political situations, but an abuse of the last remnants of faith in humanity. Krasznahorkai's novel was special in that it depicted the process of going down rather than the static condition of misery—not a disrupted world, but continuous disruption. This became the common denominator between Krasznahorkai and Tarr. Monotonous slowness is the time of this ruthless crash, the form of inevitability is the eternal revolution, which became the basic element of the three great Tarr films made with Krasznahorkai.

Although the script was complete, no studio was ready to venture into adapting Satantango. Tarr then turned to another project and co-wrote Damnation (Kárhozat, 1988) with Krasznahorkai, the atmosphere, setting, and human figures of which suited the world of Satantango perfectly. Even the story would have fit in the novel. Human relationships in this film are just as ruthlessly instrumental as in earlier and later Tarr films. Everyone cheats on everyone, they abuse each other, while all characters dream and talk of something great and noble. They do not lie to themselves, only to each other; they really believe in redemption, but they always give a reason as to why they abuse and cheat others. They genuinely believe that they will succeed in becoming decent people in spite of the fact that circumstances now require another man to be trampled upon. And since they all reason and act accordingly, the result is the eternal revolution of physical and spiritual destruction. He who began at the bottom finishes even lower, while he who started high merely seems to win.

The film introduced novelties in three important elements as compared to earlier Tarr films. Most significant was the treatment of dialogue. As mentioned earlier, a common stylistic feature of all Tarr's earlier films was textual improvisation, even in films made with professional actors. In this new film, however, not only were the actors' dialogues written, they were also very poetic, abstract, and in sharp contrast with the naturalistic shabbiness of the environment. As in Almanac of Fall, the mannerism of the set created tension with the naturalism of the actors. But here it was the other way around: in a run-down world, run-down and burnt-out people talked in a poetic and philosophical language.

A decisive affect-element of the film's form—a second novelty—was much more spectacular. The imagery and location-use of the film was different from all earlier traditions. Tarr created a world that made a realistic impression in all details, but was essentially non-existent and completely set-like. Tarr and Pauer had travelled through the whole country to find real locations for the scenes, which have the atmosphere of that last moment before complete destruction, when one can still feel that they were meant to serve a purpose, whose ruined memory they now document. Gyula Pauer, the set designer and one of the actors of the film, talked about his work:

We wandered through all the miners' villages and towns in the country. We were looking for an industrial environment that bore the clear and irrefutable imprint of slow destruction and decomposition. What was once meant for dynamic growth and multiplication, what still bore the sign of a nicer and richer future, but was now in an infinitely run-down state, showed only the death of such old illusions. We found numerous such places all over the country. Decades-old dreams of triumphant industrialisation are now slums, where people can barely survive. We have been to miners' villages where only pensioners live now—forty-fifty-year old people—who were pensioned off, since the mine was closed down and there was no other work. These people just sit around in the pub all day. We have been to places where the tubs only brought coal-dust, out of which they built a huge spoil-bank. A couple of hundred people are building a mountain just to have something to do. One can see in the architecture of these places that they were meant for a certain way of life, and now they are utterly unsuited for any other. In booths made of bulking paper, fiber , and tin plates we found townspeople raising pigs and poultry in such incredibly worn-down houses, where seeing the gate and the staircase one would think life had ceased long ago, and people had moved out. We have also been to restaurants, where now only beer is served, since the National Health Organisation closed down the kitchen and forbade drinks to be served, and where there are no glasses for the beer; people drink from the bottle at three-legged tables covered with appallingly dirty tablecloths. This restaurant was once probably a place of which people were proud. Above the entrance, built in the now memorial “Stalin baroque” with a classicist portal and a fake-marble row of pillars, decorated with stucco on the ceiling, an illuminated small model trolley that moved around on the ceiling. The wall may have once been decorated with fantastic mirrors, brackets, and chandeliers. Of all this we now see only broken remains, as if we had trusted naughty children with a nice flat only to find it wrecked on our return. Our most stunning experience everywhere was that this was the result of lives spent in back-breaking toil and not in idleness. At the same time, our purpose in finding these places was not to present a diagnosis of certain devastated areas of the country. The film does not allude specifically to time and place. We deliberately avoided showing any signs of actual politics and economics in regard to this environment. We created the locations in such a way that they reflected the endgame of a world-era, the state of the last moment before final disappearance. The sites are real, but we shot the film in very different locations. Sometimes we only recorded a street scene; sometimes only a house-wall; and we even have a house in the film with an exterior that is in Budapest, an interior in Ajka, and a next-door shop in Pécs. So the film's world consists of real elements, which, however, do not create a real space. (Kovács 18)

This is how the set and landscape were created; this is why they seemed naturalistically real, while the variation of the same atmosphere made them unrealistically hopeless and claustrophobically depressing. The set and the locations were but one element of the visual imagery. The other—the third novelty—was the special camera treatment and picture composition. For Tarr this was the biggest problem. He had an exact image of what composition he needed; however, creating this seemed very difficult. He wanted the camera to move continuously; he wanted certain compositions to fade into each other, while most of the scenes were narrow, closed interiors. What is more, they were intended to maintain a semi-dark and depressive atmosphere everywhere, and to allow only those elements of the real sites to become part of the picture that fit this mood. The movement of the camera had to be descriptive from the outside, while drawing the audience into the film's world. What failed from the story had to be shown visually. The images had to show where this world came from and where it was leading. Continuous movement was needed neither for metaphysical abstraction (as with Tarkovskii), nor for an abstract choreography of human relationships (as with Jancsó), though both artists were close to him. But Tarr did not want any metaphysical dimension—the world of gods or history—to appear in his images. Still, he had to surpass the concrete facts of naturalistic portrayal. If we want briefly to summarize why he needed long takes and continuous camera-movement, we can say he wanted to depict a cyclical process returning to itself while having to create the illusion of moving forward. This is what the choreography of the camera-movement had to express. In order to create this effect, he needed a cinematographer who was supposed to be capable of making this style his own. Instead of an experienced cinematographer, he chose a young man, Gábor Medvigy, for whom this became a first film. Their collaboration can be described as a creative struggle, but the results speak for themselves in Damnation as well as in their next film, Sátántango(1994) .

To help create the dichotomy of continuous forward movement and an eternal return, one more element was used in Damnation: continuous rain. Before Tarr, only Tarkovskii had used the rain motif with such consistency, but with an entirely different meaning. Rain for Tarkovskii was absolutely positive, while for Tarr it is absolutely negative. From the first possible connotations of the rain, Tarr selected monotony and slow, unnoticeable, but unstoppable destruction and decomposition.

Damnation drew the attention of a wider international art film audience to Tarr, primarily in Germany, Holland, and the United States. The film was featured at several festivals and was nominated for the Felix Award; Tarr was invited to lecture at the Berlin Film Academy and was delegated to the European Film Academy. In the meantime, the system in Hungary changed: the film profession almost collapsed financially and filmmaking decreased significantly (though not as drastically as in the Czech Republic), while many new faces appeared in film production, for whom Damnation meant the overture of a new era. This was the first black-and-white film shot in Hungary in a long time, following which, however, black-and-white suddenly became very fashionable in Hungary. In a short time a whole group of first-time filmmakers started a career in black-and-white: Ildikó Enyedi's My 20th Century (Az Én XX. Századom, 1988), Árpád Sopsits' Shooting Gallery (Céllövölde, 1990), György Fehér's Twilight (Szürkület, 1991), Attila Janisch's Shadow on the Snow (Árnyék a havon, 1992), Ildikó Szabó's Child Murders (Gyerekgyilkosságok, 1993), János Szász's Woyzeck (1994). It was as if Tarr had torn down a dam and showed them how to swim against the current.

International fame made it possible for Tarr to start working on his original plan to film Satantango. This film could only be made in co-production, for according to the original idea it was really five films. The extraordinary length of the film was no self-contained game, only a consistent carrying-out of the formal principles laid down in Damnation and a consistent adaptation of the novel's main compositional principle. The undertaking was grand, perhaps the greatest gamble in film history. Tarr wanted to make a film that was practically unsuitable for distribution, for the film does not consist of parts that one can see days or weeks apart, like Fassbinder's Berlin, Alexanderplatz (1980) for example, but a single huge composition that one has to see in a single sitting. One has to sit in the cinema for more than eight hours (with intervals). What is more, this length is not justified by a long or complicated story; the events in the film are not more than what could be told in ninety minutes. So the fact that Tarr found a producer testifies to the latter's real bravery.

There was something in this plan, though, that was more than a unique expression of bravado in form. This film was meant to be a provocation and challenge for the entire contemporary film culture. By this time the hegemony of American films in Europe had become overwhelming. Not only because of their number, but also because a certain Americanization had appeared in European film: readily comprehensible, emotional stories; impetuous narration; colorful and grand imagery; fast rhythm. It seemed reason enough for concern that the kind of filmmaking once characteristic of the new waves and of modern film art was completely isolated by the 1990s. Another response to the same phenomenon was the manifesto of the Dogma-group and the series of films that followed. They also wanted to return to personal expression, to deny the conventions of portrayal dictated by commercial profit, and to use a film language that sought new roads.

At the beginning of the 1990s it was imminent that European filmmakers would forget all about their past and merely try to survive in the battle with Hollywood by becoming Hollywood-like themselves. Tarr's gesture, however, was the most radical challenge for cinema-goers in favor of European culture. It was as if—through shock-therapy—he was trying to lead them back to the recognition of what real film art was about. Black-and-white was the answer to the over -colored mayhem of today's visual culture. The style of long takes and no cuts was a response to the raging pace filtering from commercials and video-clips. Seven-and-a-half hours were a response to today's film style of superficial, quick reactions and subliminal effects. The story of little plot was a response to action-packed, aggressive plot-structures. Satantango in all its elements was an extreme counterpoint to the development started in the film culture of the 1990s and prevalent today.

This film was a piece of great art, represented in the 1990s by only a few filmmakers—Abbas Kiarostami and perhaps a few films by Takeshi Kitano. Great films at one time were more numerous, but today films trying to cover the world in its entirety are very rare, if not already extinct. It is not the task of this text to find the reasons behind this phenomenon, but it must be said that since roughly the beginning of the 1970s it has not been simply the battle of commercial and artistic films that we are facing. In the 1950s and 1960s, another film industry was born in Europe alongside the commercial film industry—what we call the art film industry. A reaction to the emergence of this new industry were the so-called avant-garde or elitist art films (called “auteur films” in the US and “art et essai ” in France), represented by Godard against Truffaut, by Jancsó against Szabó, by Tarkovskii against Mikhalkov, by Straub and Huillet against Wenders. The difference between them is not primarily aesthetic; it stands rather in the approach to new form and conformism. With Satantango Béla Tarr voted for the group and kind of art film to which he wanted to belong: he chose the more marginal, more elitist, less conformist kind, devoted ultimately to the personal; the kind that sees its main task in finding new ways. Tarr was not the only filmmaker in Hungary who took this approach. Much earlier, in the mid-1970s, his older colleagues who had started their careers at the same time—Gábor Bódy and András Jeles—had followed this lead. And such artists keep turning up in contemporary Hungarian cinema as well. But Tarr was the first filmmaker since Jancsó who managed to raise Hungarian film to the top level of the international “avant-garde.” The great question of today's filmmaking is whether or not this branch of art films, which go against all mainstream trends, can survive in the world.

All of this, though, is only background. Satantango is not only a gesture. In Satantango, Tarr used the principles founded and elaborated in Damnation in a much easier and more chiselled manner. The basic set-elements remained the same, only the small-town scene changed into a perfectly indefinable, village-like settlement, which was referred to as the “block” in the film. The driving force of the story here was the same as in most Tarr films: faith, appearance, and cheating. In the portrayal of this world, however, there was no stylization at all. Tarr needed the set to allude to the background of the story as directly as in Damnation. But this world, by contrast, did not promise anything good; it just kept the people living in it captive, while they desperately tried to get out.

The story is much more straightforward and direct than any of the earlier ones. It is essentially a criminal story about the tricks of two con-men, embezzlers and an informant, who cheat the inhabitants of a village out of their last, hard-earned, meagre savings in the vilest possible way, making them believe that they will help them to a better life. The villagers see the Messiah in the two crooks; they follow them blindly and even lose their homes. While the story is perfectly fictional and structured step by step, the characters are incredibly fine and authentic. Tarr used all the life experience he had from his period of direct filming. He created such an elaborate scale of misery that it can be a model of the whole of society. All intellectual and spiritual types are to be found in this micro-environment, all variations of human and existential ruin. The doctor, the policeman, the cleaning-woman, the pensioner, the worker, the inn-keeper, the whore, the poet, and the philosopher create an entire world; they draw the whole scale of human relationships, emotions, desires, and beliefs, while converging monotonously to the same place.

Tarr created a dichotomy of the real and the unreal—for the first time—not through different motifs (set, dialogue), but in the same milieu, that of the characters. Therefore, he did not need an over-stylized set or over-poetic dialogue. Where the latter still appeared, it was strictly functional. Irimias, the con-man, is successful with those living in perfect uncertainty because his angelic face, his earnestness, and his prophetic speeches find the last remnants of faith and trust in them. Irimias is a real false prophet. He sucks the blood of the most desperate, most defenseless people, who still have something to lose, who still have dreams, and who, therefore, are happy to grab any chance that promises a better life. This character is diabolical and all of his appeal is due to his own suggestive power. He does not try to convince people, but—with his appearance, his secretiveness, his abstract, philosophical and poetic speeches—makes them believe that he is from another world. People trust him because they believe him to be the messenger of another world. His secret is the same as that of many real and false prophets: the other world. And an evil irony of fate is that in a way they are right to believe in him. Irimias is a petty criminal and police informant on parole. He really has been sent from “up above”—from the police. However, he is surreal and that is why he can play his part so well. People's approach to him is also unrealistic—and this unreality is the most important statement of the film. Mankind, even in its utter vulnerability, can always find something above its head that seems bigger and in which it can believe. That is how its vulnerability becomes absolutely hopeless. The more unrealistic something seems, the more realistic the danger that empty appearances can govern defenseless people of faith. The dichotomy of semblance and reality comes from one single character, Irimias. He represents the superior world as the great con. One scene in the film symbolizes this clearly: the bells that the characters hear tolling are not in the church, but only from a cheap belfry, on the rope of which a half-wit has started pulling.

That is why it is a mistake to use the concept of metaphysics in connection with Tarr's films, though his portrayal, which resembles that of Tarkovskii on the surface, lures us to this explanation. But Tarr's statement is most clear in Satantango—his film about the other world, about the domain beyond the senses. This domain, this metaphysical territory is for Tarr none other than the shelter from utter human despair, and belief in it is the final proof of human vulnerability. It is only good for people to hide their own misery from themselves. Tarr's and Krasznahorkai's way of thinking is mostly inspired by Nietzsche. Their closed, circular time-concept is also proof of that.

All analyses of Satantango have to account for why seven-and-a half-hours were needed to tell this story and what—beyond the challenge already cited—is the reason for this improbable, slow pace, and how indeed the film can still be enjoyed. In the framework of this essay it is only possible to hint at the reasons. First of all, the slow monotony and circulation of time is a central topic in Krasznahorkai's novel. Tarr and Krasznahorkai meant to express the inevitability of fulfilling fate with this slow monotony. This was no arbitrary choice on their part. We can portray the inevitability of fate in many ways, depending on what we think fate owes its power to. A sentimental melodrama, a tense tragedy, a fast-paced action movie can all become means for such a portrayal. Tarr does not find fate dramatic. According to Tarr and Krasznahorkai, fate is not the result of fatal or contrived events; it is not inevitable because something happened whose consequences are unavoidable. Fate—in their view—is the unchanging, the eternal return. There is no crime needed for it; there is no blow of fate. It applies to everyone, regardless of where we are in the hierarchy. Tarr's heroes may be wealthy and powerful, but in his world they would receive no quarter in any case. He chooses run-down heroes because their vulnerability is redoubled.

At the end of the 1950s, Antonioni placed his heroes in an upper-middle-class milieu so that no one would mistakenly think that estrangement can be avoided if financial demands are met. Tarr places his characters so low to show that there are no depths of misery to which one could not sink even lower, for depravity is primarily not a financial question. Tarr's world is as hopeless as Antonioni's, only he embraces the whole world from underneath and not from above. No one could claim that Antonioni's problems are those of the rich, and no one can claim that Tarr's films represent only the misery of the poor. In Tarr's world, deconstruction is slow but unstoppable and finds its way everywhere. The question, therefore, is not how to stop or avoid this process, but what we do in the meantime? Tarr asks this question of the audience, but if the audience wants to understand the question, it first has to understand the fatality of time. And in order to grasp that, it has to understand that there is no excuse in surviving the present moment: time is empty—an infinite and undivided dimension, in which everything repeats itself the same way.

The other and most important motivation for Satantango being so slow and filling such an extraordinary amount of time is the emptying of time-experience. Quite contrary to Tarkovskii, who uses slowness to build a transcendent experience, Tarr uses the same technique to rid us of the illusion of transcendent experience. A little frivolously, we could say that, knowing the reflexes of audiences accustomed to art films' search for the transcendent, Tarr needs a little more time and an even slower pace to reach his goal than Tarkovskii. Tarr empties time by creating the constant illusion that what is happening moves the plot forward. The great bravado of the film is that it manages to keep up the feeling of suspense for seven-and-a-half hours. This could not be achieved through the plot alone. It is necessary that every object, landscape, and figure creates such a colorful diversity that in itself awakens curiosity. One tool for achieving this impact is that most characters are played not by professional actors, but by artists with very marked faces: film directors, cinematographers, composers, set-designers, writers, painters. Most of Tarr's characters create the tension necessary for the audience's interest with their faces, voices, and movements. One cannot know who they are; all figures are a secret. They all look unbelievably miserable in a miserable environment, still they show some fineness, some sign of intellect. They are not descendants of this world; they just got here somehow and now cannot escape. They are wretched people with a serene countenance, of whom we still believe that they might have dreams. In Damnation, the past was carried by the outer and inner surfaces of buildings; here history is condensed in human faces.

Satantango is Tarr's modernist masterpiece. With a brave gesture, it not only continues, but also radicalizes the stream of modern films—the world-forming contemplation and meditation from Yasujiro Ozu, Antonioni, Tarkovskii, and Jim Jarmusch—which has been greatly overshadowed in contemporary film culture. In their own ways and in their own cultural contexts, these filmmakers created something radical; but from a formal viewpoint it is Tarr who went the furthest and who got to an unsurpassable end. This in itself is no value judgement, but it has to be said. One cannot go further on this road, which, however, does not mean that it is a dead end. The extraordinary length and slowness was a means to tell a certain story and not an end in itself.

Tarr did not have to give up the essence of his style in order to return to a more traditional and downright classical form in his next film. We notice that the more normal length of Werckmeister Harmonies (Werckmeister harmóniák, 2000) is combined with a greatly reduced narration when compared to Satantango . It is based on one single, further simplified excerpt of another Krasznahorkai novel, The Melancholy of Resistance . In this way Tarr kept all the stylistic features of time, meditation, monotony, slowness, and movement, which made Satantango into a seven-and-half-hour long film, only here using two-and-a-half hours of narration.

A significantly different film from the two previous ones was born in the same style. If we put the three films next to each other, we see an interesting line of development. As much as Damnation was in the mannerist form of Tarr's style, Satantango was in the classicist, and Werckmeister is in the romantic form. We see the world through the eyes of one chosen character—and only from his viewpoint do we see the events. In a similar way, The Outsider followed only one character, but in that case the direct film style did not allow the kind of emotional identification that prevails here. For the first time, Tarr portrays a figure from inside and with compassion; for the first time that he portrays the relations of this character to the world through emotional states, anxiety and fear, that then lead him to insanity. Slow meditation here is not a form of sensing an outside landscape; it is not the means of emptying time, but the milieu of a person's relation to the world. He portrays the process of the gathering of motifs that finally drive Valushka crazy. Valushka is Tarr's first hero who is in no way depraved and who does not even do as much of a bad deed as Estike in Satantango. Valushka cannot escape from being ruined either, but this is no moral crash; rather it is a crash of nerves, which is a significant difference if we remember that the main feature of Tarr's every figure so far had been moral weakness or spiritual pettiness. This is what Werckmeister primarily owes its romantic and melodramatic character.

The story is naturally based on the basic elements already known from earlier films: intrigue, cheating, the final crash, and the closing of the circle. But here, for the first time, financial crash is much less significant. The heroes of the story live poorly in a small, threadbare urban environment, but they are not miserable and their motivations are never financial. Tarr, again for the first time, depicts the crowd assembling on the square not with the social empathy characteristic of him, but as a terrifying, murderous mob. And what is most important, hopelessness and the feeling of “no way out” is related to a subjective feeling more than in any other film. Therefore, here it is the most choking. Human destruction is not the result of the concrete meanness of specific people or a situation of confinement as in his earlier films. This process of destruction becomes aggressive and conscious in Werckmeister. More than that, it is also linked directly to the illusion of a superior spirit. It is not the result of empty metaphysical faith, rather of its political program. This is the program of Mr. Eszter and the mob incensed by the Duke. A distorted parody of the spiritual avant-garde, spiritual and political revolution is what they are; in the name of naturalness and instinct they defy the so-called unnatural culture and civilisation. They are looking for individual ways to happiness; everyone wants to save the whole world. But redemption here equals complete destruction. It is the corrupt and alcoholic authority figures who save the town from the raging destruction. They restore order, and Valushka, the postman, who took care of everyone, is forced to flee. If order is where Valushka has no place and what makes Mr. Eszter retune his piano and give up his study of the natural tonal system, then it is just as unbearable as the physical destruction from which the town has escaped. The circle is closed: there is no way to change the order built on intrigue and vile individual interests, for the only counterpoint is destruction. This is what drives Valushka crazy.

The significance of Béla Tarr's films in the 1990s—beyond their stylistic and aesthetic values—is that they offer the most powerful and complex vision of the historical situation in the Eastern European region over the last decade. His films reach but few viewers; still, it would be hard to deny that he speaks for hundreds of millions of ordinary European people in his universal and ruthless language, people who feel cheated and disappointed for wasting all the values of their previous lives in a matter of seconds, who fall prey to petty intrigues, who are led by petty, mean promise-mongers that talk of high ideals but follow their selfish power and financial interests. This feeling is born not only from the past, but also from the present experience; although the setting and certain characters may have changed, the same petty fights and intrigue still rule our lives; other ideologies are quoted, while the misery remains or even deteriorates in the former Soviet Union, Romania, or Yugoslavia. We cannot trust anyone; we cannot believe in anything, for all high ideals are but tools to abuse the helpless. We, Eastern-Europeans, are the tenants of the blocks of flats in Satantango and we desperately cling to all the promises of the promise-mongers who only take our money. We are the hopeless drunkards; our leaders are the alcoholic policeman, the clever smuggler, and the mafia-man inn-keeper. And we are Valushka, as well, who serves all above him with endless humility and looks the whale in the eye with terror, hoping for Mother Nature's help. And we are the mob, too. In our helplessness we would like to break the windows of all luxury shops where they sell articles, of which we can only dream, and we would like to turn our anger against those who are even weaker and more helpless. All of this, of course, is an exaggeration—the exaggeration of great art.

After the international success of Satantango and Werckmeister, Tarr had to carry the burden of high expectations. He had become a sort of cult figure of European high art cinema, known for his taste for extreme long-takes, slow narrative pace, and his nearly apocalyptic vision of Eastern Europe. This image of him was only reinforced by his short film Prologue (2004) in the omnibus film Visions of Europe. His five-minute-long piece consists of only one single tracking shot that goes along a long line of ragged homeless people queuing for free soup. This is one of Tarr's favorite shots; very similar tracking shots can be found in Damnation and in Satantango, and even in Werckmeister when the camera goes among the mob. Apparently Tarr has selected the shot that for him represents most concisely his relationship to the people he films: his deep emotional identification with the deprived. That is surely a most powerful vision of Europe; not of the Europe of the rich, but the Europe of the poor.

His next and so far last film, The Man from London brings a certain change in Tarr's career. The change is similar to what had occurred with Almanac of Fall twenty two years earlier although not as radical. The concreteness of the environment has disappeared; the story does not take place in a recognizably East European environment; the characters do not represent typical social groups; and the emphasis is entirely on their relations and inner worlds. But, whereas Almanac of Fall was a rather dramatic piece in its theatricality and the prominence of the dialogues, The Man from London is less theatrical and, as a matter of fact, it is Tarr's most taciturn film. While Tarr's earlier films were full of dialogues and long monologues, the main characters in this film almost never speak, and what they say is far from the poetic mannerism of Damnation or Satantango. The environment has lost much of the importance it had in earlier Tarr films: the little town in which the film takes place functions rather as a neutral, almost artificial background than as a space socially characterizing the figures. The complicated plot that was so typical of almost all of Tarr's films is also missing here. It is replaced by a very simple plot. Maloin, the protagonist, is an unnoticed witness of a crime: two men start a fight over a suitcase full of money and one of them pushes the other into the sea, but the suitcase falls into the water, too. While the murderer leaves to find some tool to recover the suitcase, Maloin fishes it out of the sea and hides it in his tower, from where he watches over the train station at the seaport. On the one hand, he in a way “finds” the money rather than steals it, but, on the other, he knows where to find it and also knows that the money is of criminal origin. Maloin commits his “half crime” for the money of course, but his purpose is highly particular: the first thing he does is to order his daughter to leave the place where she works; the second is to buy her an expensive, luxurious fur. He does not explain his reasons even to his wife when she starts an angry fight with him as she does not understand how he could spend all of their money on such a superfluous thing, and how could he take their daughter out of work. Maloin does not reveal anything to anyone and the viewer can only speculate about the high tension he carries in himself and about the reasons for this. Nor do we know much about any other character's motivations. The only thing Tarr focuses on is to show us, or rather make us feel, the desperate situation of all of the characters without ever explaining the reasons for it. We look at Maloin, his wife, and daughter, and we see their situation. We look at the man from London who killed his partner, desperately trying to get back the suitcase, and we pity him. And above all, we see the eyes of his wife arriving from London. She says nothing except one sentence in the film, but her face becomes the protagonist of the last part of the film as she is the only really innocent victim of a story that took place behind her back and ruined her entire life.

With this film Tarr seems to leave behind the last inspirational remnants of his documentary style. The concreteness of all social reality is missing entirely. Also missing is all contingency from the actors' performance as they are nearly all professionals and have very few dialogues. What has remained is the extremely suggestive long-take style, this time not connecting the characters to their environment, but rather forcefully inciting the viewer to try to feel the unspoken inner struggle of the characters. The atmosphere is darker and more serious here than anywhere else in the previous films. And what represents continuity above all is Tarr's steadfast and immovable empathy for the suffering of the innocent, the poor, and the sinful.


Works Cited

Kovács, András Bálint. “ Monológok a Kárhozatról.” Filmvilág 2 (1988): 18.

Tarr, Béla. Unpublished personal communication.

All stills courtesy of Béla Tarr's production company, T&T Filmmuhely

© András Bálint Kovács, 2008

Updated: 26 Jan 08