Those who have been with me over the years know how much I admire the work of Béla Tarr. It is not only the films that have impressed me, one after the other, allowing me to learn more and more about Slow Cinema, cinematic time and, also, myself. Tarr’s films have always touched me in a particular way, indescribable, even today, more than ten years after the first Tarr film on my radar (The Man from London). It is telling that Tarr remains, to me, the most striking, the most thought-provoking filmmaker I have come across while, at the same time, he remains the least written about director in my own work, including this blog. I have always wanted to write about Tarr, but I cannot put what his work means to me into words. Maybe one day…
“landscapes have as much character and meaning as a human face.”Béla Tarr
Tarr began his film career proper in 1977 with his film Family Nest, followed by two more films – The Outsider (1981) and The Prefab People (1982) – in a social-realist style, with obvious excursions into experiments with long duration. With his later films, Tarr created a filmography that is like a photo album of desolate landscapes, of houses in ruins, of heavy rain submerging streets. Each square of Tarr’s landscapes tells a multitude of stories about those live there, those who struggle, who cheat or are cheated on, those who have lost all hope. Tarr’s photo albums of desolate landscapes have always also been photo albums of the people they don’t necessarily show, but those they suggest.
Quite a lot has been written about Tarr and his way of working. It is, I believe, well known that he spends a very long time searching for the right place, a place that could echo the mood and the atmosphere, which he wants to transmit in his film. In Jean-Marc Lamoure’s documentary Tarr Béla, I used to be a filmmaker (2013) we see the length to which he is willing to go in order to create something that feels just right for him. At the time of filming, it was clear to everyone on set that The Turin Horse would be Tarr’s last film. It was a get-together of the Tarr family, if you wish, one last project to work together on.
There is Agnès, Tarr’s long-time companion, editor and co-director. There is Mihaly, the man behind the films’ pinching, bruising, painful music, which keeps one reeling, with or without images (I listen to Old right now). There is Fred, whose camerawork adds so much to the mood, not only of the film but also of the viewer. I haven’t come across a more effective and affective group in film than those three, adding László, of course, and Béla himself. Those five, this well-established group has achieved something (for me) that no one else out there has. And if I used their first names only in this paragraph, it is because I know that they are long-time friends. There is an intimacy between them that comes through in Lamoure’s film, which infuses the dynamics that are so powerful on screen.
I will, perhaps, never forget Lamoure’s interview with Mihaly in his social-housing flat, rundown buildings, leftovers from the communist era but which never received even so much as paint on the façade. I know this way of life. Growing up in post-communist East Germany, I can remember how our block of flats looked like. Like the one Mihaly lives in today. It is there that he composed almost all of the films’ soundtracks. It is there that he tried to find the necessary silence in this noisy environment, which transpires through the windows and the walls, a silence which he then looked for inside himself, the silence of creativity, mood and atmosphere.
On set, his music is played via a CD and a simple sound system. It’s rudimentary, perhaps. But what I saw in Lamoure’s behind-the-scene documentary cannot be more human. I believe that the collaboration is this human because the filming itself is rudimentary. I don’t want to say that rudimentary means “bad”. Far from it. What I mean is that there is not a lot of highly sophisticated technical stuff that stands between the collaborators. That said, it is simply impressive how The Turin Horse was made, how it looks like in Lamoure’s documentary and how it looks on a large cinema screen. It is like two different worlds, almost two different films even.
”There is no democracy in art, no more than in life.”Béla Tarr
The house, where most of the film is set, where the man and his daughter live, eat their potatoes (with a pinch of salt), where they sit behind the window watching the apocalyptic world outside – this house was built from scratch, built in the middle of nowhere, in the plain with the window looking out towards a hill and a naked, dying tree. The house built for the film becomes the house for the Tarr family during the shoot. It would be difficult not to see it like this after Lamoure’s film. It becomes more than just a set piece. For some reason, it made me think of Gaston Bachelard’s The Poetics of Space.
“For our house is our corner of the world.”Gaston Bachelard – The Poetics of Space
There can be no doubt about Bachelard’s thought after having seen Tarr Béla. The house is the corner – I would maybe prefer the term anchor – of the world out there, of the film itself, and of the shooting process. All three levels are intertwined and, I believe, this is what you can feel when you see The Turin Horse. There is a power that emanates from this house, lost in the nowhere, weathering the storm, the onslaught of the (possible) apocalypse. But all the same, it means safety for everyone who seeks refuge.
There is no real interview with Tarr in the film. There is no explanation as to why he quits filmmaking. None of that gets screen time, because what matters most, right there and then, is making this film. I remember having seen Tarr in Edinburgh for the premiere of the film. He told the audience that he had said everything there was to say, he didn’t want to become one of those directors who would go on repeating themselves. Letting Tarr focus on the filmmaking process, then, Lamoure speaks to those on the side. Mihaly, I already mentioned. He also spoke to Erika Bók, who was still a little girl when she played in Satantango (1994) (the cat!!). In her interview, in particular, you can feel this family bond between everyone. At no point in Lamoure’s documentary do you get the feeling that this is about the film(s), but about the people who make them.
If the house is our corner of the world, so is our family. It does not have to be our biological family. It is the family you yourself build, a family of friends, collaborators, soulmates. Tarr has always combined the two (the house and the family) and has, in doing so, created alternating power plays on screen. I believe that his films are this strong and this thought-provoking precisely because they are built around those two anchors on and off screen.
And those anchors never age. Just like Tarr’s films.