Bela Tarr On 'The Turin Horse': The Hungarian Director Discusses His Last Film
For director Bela Tarr, it's the end. Not just the end of his life as a filmmaker -- but The End of Everything. His latest, and last, film, "The Turin Horse," is a bleak, unrelenting examination of the repetitive lives of two peasants -- and an appropriately apocalyptic cap to his career.
Tarr's movies have never been what you would call easy watching. His most famous film, the seven-hour long "Satantango," portrays the dissolution of a collective farm in Hungary during the fall of Communism. His methods -- famously long takes, stark black and white cinematography, the absence of a real shooting script, the use of non-professional actors -- all serve to create the blistering realism that Tarr has made his hallmark since he began working in 1977. And while Tarr has never made a Hollywood blockbuster, his work has been elevated by intellectuals and critics like Susan Sontag, who once said she would be happy to see "Satantango" every year for the rest of her life.
Though he's frequently compared to the Russian auteur Andrei Tarkovsky, unlike Tarkovsky, Tarr's films deal with the absence of God in an imperfectly made, human-run world rather than the Christian framework that Tarkovsky turned to.
Unsurprisingly, in the vacuum of religion, Tarr's mythology often echoes that of the German philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche, who famously declared, "God is dead." In "The Turin Horse," Nietzsche's presence is felt not only in the film's message (which, succinctly, might be, "Life is hard and only gets harder until people lose the will to live") but explicitly, as the film's key vehicle.
The film opens with a voiceover telling the apocryphal story of Nietzsche's last days before his ultimate descent into irrecoverable insanity:
In Turin on 3rd January, 1889, Friedrich Nietzsche steps out of the doorway of number six, Via Carlo Albert. Not far from him, the driver of a hansom cab is having trouble with a stubborn horse. Despite all his urging, the horse refuses to move, whereupon the driver loses his patience and takes his whip to it. Nietzsche comes up to the throng and puts an end to the brutal scene, throwing his arms around the horse's neck, sobbing. His landlord takes him home, he lies motionless and silent for two days on a divan until he mutters the obligatory last words, and lives for another ten years, silent and demented, cared for by his mother and sisters. We do not know what happened to the horse.
"The Turin Horse" is the story of what happened to the horse, and further, to the people who own the horse -- peasant farmer Ohlsdorfer, and his daughter, whose name we never learn. The rest of the film follows these two characters in their day-to-day existence on the tiny farm where they live. Each day, the same actions are repeated: The laborious act of pulling on the layers and layers of clothing necessary to brave the viciously windy landscape, trudging to the well to draw water, mucking out the horse's stable, boiling potatoes and eating them, and climbing back into bed to begin anew.
Few words are spoken, and only two visitors -- a drunk, misanthropic neighbor and a wild band of destructive gypsies -- appear over the course of the 146-minute long film, scored by Tarr's frequent collaborator, Mihaly Vig. The horse itself refuses to eat, or drink, or work, at all. Despite the lack of traditional cinematic action, the 30 takes that comprise the film showcase not only Tarr's assured choreography with the camera, but the slowly accruing, ultimately inevitable, burden of even the simplest human life.
Tarr has said that he will not make any more movies, but instead will focus on starting his film school in Croatia, and on producing Hungarian films under his production company, T. T. Filmmuhely. We spoke with the director about "The Turin Horse," his philosophy of filmmaking, and his dark outlook on life.
What appealed to you about the Nietzsche anecdote?
I remember it was 1985 [when I first heard it] and by the end it was calling me, this story, about Nietzsche and the horse. But we added this question -- what has happened with the horse, what would happen with the horse. We know what has happened with Friedrich Nietzsche but we don't know what happened with the horse, but the horse was very important for me.
Why the focus on this horse? How did you pick this horse?
Because this is the real issue -- the horse is one of the main characters. Without this horse, what we are doing?
Why do you choose to use long takes?
When you do long takes, you are doing everything in the camera, you are editing in the camera. You just do not cut, because the tension of the time, and the tension of the movement, and the tension of the situation between the actors and between the actors and the camera and the whole stuff together, you can have it, and everyone has to be in the situation -- they cannot escape. If you do short takes, it takes 15 or 20 seconds then cut. Then the poor actor has no chance to be in the situation and what we like, and what I like very much.
What do you mean when you say real?
You have to listen for the situation, you have to listen what is really happening with the people, what is happening under the table, what everyone is hiding, and by the end, you know, somehow, we have to understand, they are very slowly disintegrating.
Your movies are very concerned with showing real life -- How do you draw the line between what is real and artificial for the viewers?
I know I am crossing always borders. I'm crossing the demarcation line. If you have a concept it is somehow artificial -- every concept is artificial. When you do it [the film] it is a confrontation. Your concept, [if] it's reality, you can get something.
What is it about repetition you found important for the telling of this story?
We are doing very little things, but every day we are doing the same things -- you are getting weaker and weaker, you have less and less energy and you are getting older. You cannot live with anything in your life, you can do the same thing but in a different way and unfortunately, you are going down, and I am going down, and everything is going down.
Why do you use non-professional actors?
I am doing the casting, and I am always listening for the personalities of the characters, the real personality of the actors, how they are. I'm just listening for the people. And I don't care if someone is professional or not professional, I don't care about these things, I'm just listening for their presence.
How did you determine what the landscape of the film would be?
The landscape has a face. The landscape is also one of the main characters. It has the same importance as the face of the actors or the music -- which is also very important, also one of the main characters.
What is the role of God in this film?
The god created this fucking shit, what we have. We just wanted to show you how we disappear and I don't know who is the god. But if you remember, Nietzsche stated, God is dead.
It seems that things start to go wrong, for unexplainable reasons, until finally, even the lamp won't light and the embers go out -- what's happening here?
It's the same in life. Somehow everything is getting ruined and dead. Just some things, small things, but they are getting lower. Don't you see, I think, I think the world is like this.
You said in an interview that, "All my movies are comedies! Except 'The Turin Horse.'" -- Why is that?
You can laugh less in than the others.
Why is this your last film?
Because during 34 years I have done everything I want, what I want to show you, it's done.
Watch the trailer for "The Turin Horse" below: