Editor’s Blog – notes from an English village

Bela Tarr in reflective mood

Bela Tarr in reflective mood

Bela Tarr – the ultimate director of European existential film-noir?

Are you a fan of long, slow European art movies with strong symbolic overtones, shot in black and white or at the very least shades of murky sepia, in which the main character walks down deserted white roads in the mountains at dusk, or through deserted city streets at night, where the occasional candle at an upstairs window seems to signify both their utter and final loneliness and the distant possibility of some kind of redemption mediated but not bounded by the outworn rituals of a discarded faith? If you can answer a resounding Yes! to all of this, you will probably have seen all of the movies of Tarkovsky several times. You will have watched Herzog’s Fitzcarraldo drag his ship of destiny over the mountain on many, many rainy Sunday afternoons. You’ve been there and done all that and life may seem a little empty now. Fear not! You can move onto the not quite so well known movies of the Hungarian director Bela Tarr. His films have existential mystery, and that grainy nihilism combined with hints of transcendence you loved in Tarkovsky, in spades. Even better most of them were shot in black and white, under very difficult conditions under the former communist regime – where, incidentally, he found it much easier to get funding for his (only obliquely political) movies after communism. Towards the end of his life Tarr said that the new regime was obstructing art and the free speech as much as the Soviet sponsored one…

Tarr’s camera work is legendary. His camera roams with life of its own, ambling, gliding, or soaring above the action in extremely long takes. Long circling peregrinations around the characters establish their relationships or reveal their lack of such. Often he moves from scene to scene within the same unedited take. In Sátántangó, the camera travels with a herd of cows around a village, and follows the nocturnal journey of an obese agoraphobic drunk. The critic Susan Sontag has suggested that Tarr is as one of the saviours of the modern cinema, saying she would gladly watch Sátántangó once a year. Werckmeister Harmonies, shot in black and white, consists of thirty-nine languidly roving, continuous shots. The film describes the existential aimlessness of a small town on the Hungarian plain that falls under the influence of a sinister travelling circus lugging the immense body of a whale in its tow. Social order breaks down and somehow the whale seems to be responsible for the descent into chaos. His final masterpiece The Turin Horse concerns the whipping of a horse in Turin, which is said to have precipitated the final irrevocable descent of Nietzsche into madness. Again in black and white the film has only 30 long takes. A sombre movie, much of it is taken up with stately domestic repetition: boiled potatoes are eaten with bare hands, the owner fetches water, chops wood and feeds his horse. It received the Jury Grand Prix at the Berlin International Film Festival in 2011.

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