In a society where technological distraction is readily accessible in ever decreasing sizes, we spend increasing amounts of our time looking at screens. They provide a quick escape, be it a Facebook notification or the latest app. Seldom now are times of waiting with nothing but thought and reflection. It is perhaps now then that the films of Bela Tarr have never been of more importance, The Turin Horse especially so having been declared as his last.
The film opens with a narrator telling us the story of Friedrich Nietzsche’s demise. In 1889 Nietzsche saw a cabdriver whipping a horse in vain, for it refused to move. Appalled Nietzsche threw his arms around the horse to shield it from the inhumanity, only to collapse and have a mental breakdown. “Of the horse we know nothing” concludes the narrator.
Tarr then follows the horse, the cabdriver and his daughter. We observe their daily struggle to live for the sake of survival as they carry out trivial tasks like gathering water or eating potatoes. Nietzsche believed the only solace from life was art. Art is absent from these characters lives. They rarely even speak. Their only pastime is looking through a window at a barren landscape, reminiscent of the dustbowls of the great depression.
Tarr is a true auteur known to stay unwaveringly faithful to his vision. Who else would dare make a seven and a half hour film? However compared to the epic proportions of Satantango, filmed in Tarr’s native Hungary in 2011 The Turin Horse stands at a mere 146 minutes. Stunningly, to no surprise to those familiar with Tarr’s distinctive style, it is comprised of only 30 excessively long shots.
The result is what can only be described as visual poetry. Using textured 35mm film and uncompromising black and white, Tarr follows Godard’s advice that a director should edit primarily with the camera: it gently zooms in and out and pans around slowly as if we are a ghost hovering over the characters’ shoulders. The lingering shots strip everything bare till we are forced to stare at the bleak reality of the human condition in its purest form. There is no distraction here, nowhere to look away.
Each frame is masterfully shot to an unsettling yet beautiful perfection, with a precision that creates a series of images which would not be out of place amidst a gallery. But the very distinction that makes Tarr’s film so captivating is also what makes it testing, much like a John Cage composition. The patience required may not be to everyone’s taste.
Equally striking as Tarr’s visuals is the soundtrack. The music is macabre and repetitive, the squelching of potatoes as they eat is spine chilling and the constant howling wind creates not only an ubiquitous external force of harshness upon the character’s lives that is beyond their control, but also powerfully enhances the stark landscape.
The philosophical rant of an unbidden visitor harrowingly speaks of the ruining of the world by mankind, till there is nothing. Indeed Tarr’s end provides little hope in this enthralling portrayal of humanity’s inevitable decline, a decline nevertheless framed within beauty.