I often wonder what occurs to an artist when their work is willfully misinterpreted by stolid critics, or anyone, for that matter? I write this being in a position to know the answer, at least for myself, because, aside from being a critic of art, film, literature, and other things, I am also an artist, writer, and poet. But, the stereotype that dogs most artists- that of the immature, self-centered , irrational, mentally ill (or nearly so) person does not apply in my case, and from everything I’ve ever read or seen of Hungarian filmmaker Bela Tarr, he likely does not fall into that trap either.
His latest film, 2011’s The Turin Horse (A Torinói Ló), co-directed by PÁgnes Hranitzky (Tarr’s wife), is yet another case of a film being misinterpeted by stolid critics, and almost always due to a) comments attributed to the filmmaker and b) critical cribbing by lesser critics from more well known critics. Part of this is that the film’s title refers to an old fable (likely apocryphal) about philosopher Friedrich Nietszche going mad, in 1889, after witnessing a cart owner (Janos Derzsi) beating his horse in Turin, and a voiceover introduction of this, by director Tarr, to begin the film. But, after this setup, the rest of this 153 minute (not 143 minutes, as claimed) black and white film has not much to do with Turin (as the characters do not speak Italian, and the landscape is clearly not near Turin), the philosopher, nor with that other avatar of critical misthought: Irish playwright Samuel Beckett. The only reason Beckett is invoked is because the two main characters in the film go through a prologue and a series of six days that are seemingly drudge-inducing repeats of each other, with minor variations. The difference between the plays of Beckett and this film, however, are immense. Beckett is almost pure satire and/or parody of dramatic conventions whereas Tarr’s film is utterly existential and almost void of humor, save for one scene wherein the horseman dismisses the rantings of an alcoholic Nietszchean stand-in (Mihaly Kormos), who visits merely to buy a bottle of home made brandy from them. Aside from that, the narrative has an incursion of Gypsies who try (and succeed) in stealing water from the well, the well going dry, the oil lamps failing, wind relentlessly blowing, the titular horse refusing to eat, and slowly dying, as the horseman, named Ohlsdorfer, and his nameless daughter (Erika Bok), struggle to eat a single boiled potato each of the six days of the film (why no critic has spotted the obvious influence of Vincent van Gogh’s The Potato Eaters on these scenes is beyond me). It takes over twenty minutes for the first words to be spoken in the film, and few are spoken throughout.
Each day sees a repetition of these themes, and, realistically, their order is of no real import, save for the last and sixth day, wherein father and daughter sit across from each other in darkness, as their world seemingly slowly snuffs out into oblivious darkness. The camera work is devastating, and the cinematography by Fred Kelemen is stark and beautiful. There is really only one musical theme that pervades the film, and it is a funereal dirge, yet it, again, is perfectly apt, and the soundtrack by Mihály Víg is memorable in ways that few such limited soundtracks are. Any other lighter strains would seem forced. Yet, despite the obvious fabulist leanings of the film, there is a real and hard grounding in realism in this film, due to a great screenplay by Tarr and Hungarian novelist László Krasznahorkai. When we watch the aches and groans of Ohlsdorfer- who, although claiming to be only 58 years old, looks two decades older, and only has one working arm (his left), as his daughter dresses and undresses him every day, as she fetches well water, as we watch them build and disassemble the horse cart, as we watch them clean up the horse manure, as we watch them vainly try to wring pleasure from their daily potato, the viewer has to think of his or her own daily routines: dealing with demeaning jobs, aggravations between neighbors, family members that don’t respect privacy nor boundaries. And the fact that each of the film’s reputed 30 shots lasts an average of five minutes adds to the realism of the film, which opens with a bravura shot of the Turin horse being driven on by the horseman in a gale. The shot lasts about six minutes, and one empathizes and sympathizes with the beast of burden, just as one does with the suffering donkey in Robert Bresson’s 1966 masterpiece Au Hasard Balthazar. Tarr also enlivens his character’s daily routines by shooting each repetition from a different position of angle of the hovel they live in. Then there is Tarr’s narrative voice, occasionally breaking in and attempting assuagements. The daughter reads a religious tract, slowly and deliberately, and one begins to wonder just what is real and what is fantasy, and while The Turin Horse is on a far greater plane of work and art than a film like Robot Monster, the classic schlock sci fi film from the 1950s, there is no doubting the structural and thematic similarities these two films share. Both depict what seems to be stranded post-Apocalyptic families battling forces that are beyond themselves but which, in the end, may be manifestations of themselves. The reason I bring this up is because, far too often, Tarr is labeled as anti-cinematic, yet, upon closer inspection, it becomes clear he is not anti-cinematic, but actually very steeped in it. He merely chooses to be extra-cinematic.
The film is shown in a 1.66:1 aspect ratio, and its subtitles are white on black for the German and Hungarian languages spoken. As for the DVD features, they are solid. The first is a brief 12 minute short film Tarr made in 1978, called Hotel Magnezit which depicts an aging alcoholic who is persecuted by unknown others for alleged wrongdoings. It is not in good shape, visually, and the acting is very poor, to say the least. It’s at best, a misfire. Then there is a near 50 minute long press conference at the Berlinale Film Festival, wherein Tarr, his three main actors, and his technical collaborators, answer questions from an international group of reporters. While there are a few moments of insight, the stark contrast between the depths of the film and the insipidities of the assorted reporters makes for many awkward moments, where the viewer feels sorry for the questioner and senses the artists’ frustrations. There is also the theatrical trailer, and a small booklet with a very poorly written and teeth-gnashingly trite essay, called Brute Existence: The Turin Horse, on the film by American film critic J. Hoberman. Finally there is an audio commentary by another notoriously bad American film critic, Jonathan Rosenbaum, that is one of the worst that you will ever encounter. It truly does seem that the Golden Age of DVD commentaries is at an end. Aside from the fact that the commentary has silent gaps, it also only runs less than half the length of the film because, as Rosenbaum says early on, he thinks the film needs no commentary. So, then why agree to do the damned thing? Let someone with more enthusiasm take over. As for the actual commentary? It’s rather pathetic, for Rosenbaum adds almost nothing original, instead mostly reading others’ critical opinions on the film, and then even relying on biographical and career information on Tarr from, of all places, the always unreliable Wikipedia. It’s truly an astonishing train wreck of a commentary- one which Rosenbaum calls his first solo commentary, and hopefully, for the cineastes out there, what will be his last commentary. Aside from the absolute lack of anything meaningful to say on the film, Rosenbaum’s nasal, screechy voice is a turn-off, but even more so is his constant pimping of his own career, and the fact that he is going to be teaching, in 2013 at a new film school Tarr is opening in Croatia. About the only positives that one can say of Rosenbaum’s nearly 70 minutes of speaking is that he makes two salient points that few other critics have noticed: 1) that despite being labeled anti-Hollywood, Tarr’s films are often shot on sets, and Rosenbaum claims this film was also shot on a soundstage. 2) He acknowledges that Tarr’s camera is always doing something interesting to offset the seeming repetition of the activities the characters engage in, and this counterpoint between action and depiction helps craft a grand narrative from what seems to be little material. Other than these two points, Rosenbaum’s relentless need to posit himself as an insider into indy film circles, and his utter lack of insight into the film at hand, make listening to the commentary a chore.
While the film was much honored at a number of the international film festivals it was shown at, it did not make the list for best Foreign Picture Oscars in America (surprise, surprise). Yet, despite this snub, The Turin Horse is yet another great film in Tarr’s canon, at least equal to Damnation and Satantango, clearly superior to The Man From London, even if it likely falls a bit shy of Tarr’s greatest film, Werckmeister Harmonies. It is a brutally great work of realism in an oddly closed universe consisting of one windy plain (see the scene where the pair try to leave their home, only to wind up right back in it). Near the end of the film, the unnamed daughter asks of her father, or perhaps rhetorically (it does not matter), What is all this darkness?