The Turin Horse
A Film By Béla Tarr
When the “plebeians” below us think about art cinema, they may imagine long tracking shots where nothing happens, filmed in black and white without dialogue, on subjects that seem moronic and too mundane to ever demand the attention of cameras. Of course, those men and women are certainly entitled to their opinion (as well as their Transformers), but they may be missing out on something that even most filmmakers would refuse to do: stare into the abyss of life with much disdain and fear as it stares back into us.
And thus comes the final film from Béla Tarr, The Turin Horse, a two and a half hour masterpiece that is brutal truth at 24 frames per second. This deeply disturbing work borderlines on parody of art cinema, mainly because Mr. Tarr is a relentless filmmaker who never compromises in his portraiture of a life void of hope and the impossibility to fight against the idea of a progressive world. I had somehow missed Mr. Tarr’s previous features—most notably the 450 minute Sátántangó—but knew to be prepared. A mutual friend of mine and Mr. Tarr’s suggested to let the film “wash over me.” And bathe in despair I did.
The titular horse of the film comes from the parable about Friedrich Nietzsche, who saw a horse being brutally beaten and broke down in tears, throwing his arms around the horse, and then refusing to speak for the last ten years of his life. A deadpan voiceover tells us that this film is about what happened to the horse. Really though, it’s about the man (János Derzsi) who whipped the horse, and his subservient daughter (Erika Bók). The two live in a home in a place more resembling hell than Hungary. A brutal wind never stops howling as it attempts to crush the world around them, and the sky shines a constant white that blinds anything past the first hill (the film’s black and white cinematography is gorgeously despairing, thanks to director of photography Fred Kelemen). For all they know, they own the last patch of dirt in the universe.
Mr. Tarr thus uses his camera to capture the slow days in the life as man and daughter live their lives in this hellish land. But this being a work of Eastern European art cinema, Mr. Tarr is only a collaborator in our own investigation to these lives and what meaning, if any, could be found here. This is the type of film where the characters are defined by the way they eat boiled potatoes, after all. But jokes aside, the potato eating ritual is one of the crucial articulations of gender in Mr. Tarr’s world, between man, who smashes his potato and shoves it into his mouth with force, and woman, who gently eats potato, carefully savoring what little flavor can be found in each bite. And then there’s horse, a Bartelby-like figure who refuses to work, or even eat or drink.
Why has the horse given up? Why is the man so stern about change? Why does the woman accept all that comes her way? Mr. Tarr’s film becomes an endlessly fascinating work that paints a psychological portrait of life unfulfilled, as the world becomes more punishing. This wouldn’t be as effective if Mr. Tarr’s camerawork lacked its austere and masterful approach to long take. Despite running almost two and a half hours, The Turin Horse features only 27 shots, which Mr. Tarr flows throughout scenes, often creating haunting compositions that reflect the character’s emotional realities as they struggle with a daily, purely meaningless life. These shots not only play out in real time, helping us enter the sense of endlessness and despair that seems to enrapture the world around the home, but bring us into an intimacy with the characters as they struggle to simply live. If the home seems to be the last refuge on Earth before the end of the world, Mr. Tarr’s camera flows vividly through what’s left of this world with all the wit of a Scorsese dolly shot and without a sense of any limitation.
About halfway through The Turin Horse, a passerby visits the man and his daughter, delivering what seems like the only important dialogue of the film (there are moments here and there, but they seem almost inconsequential). He rants on and on about how change will never come to the world, and his nihilistic monologue seems to capture everything Mr. Tarr believes about life. The man, in what feels like a self-aware joke, simply responds, “That’s rubbish.” But is it? The Turin Horse is probably the most difficult film any person might sit through this year (at least those avoiding anything particularly avant-garde), and with its cinematic minimalism, as well as a its dreary and repetitive score, could cause many to flee their seats. But sit carefully and give up on life, and submit to the power that is Mr. Tarr’s world. Nietzche couldn’t stand the pain of seeing an innocent creature submitted to the worst of violence, but Mr. Tarr finds this all but ordinary. Life is struggle, and can only end in despair and darkness. Live what you can.