Béla Tarr (b. 1955) is the ultimate auteurist’s auteur, an artist who ascended from a cult director little known outside of his native Hungary to one of the most revered figures in world cinema today, all the while stoking an enflamed cinephilia among his growing legion of passionate followers. His 1988 film Damnation offered the first full expression of the unique style defined by Tarr across the four extraordinary features he directed since then, all sharing brooding black and white cinematography, elaborately choreographed extended tracking shots, a hypnotic rhythm and enigmatic stories imbued with a sense of impending doom. In each film Tarr pushes these unmistakable qualities to a seemingly insurmountable extreme, giving way to the mesmerizing monumentality of his audacious seven-and-a-half-hour epic Sátántangó and the stark minimalism of his brilliant summary work The Turin Horse, Tarr’s latest and declared last film.
Tarr launched his career with a series of blistering and intense documentary-style films that quickly moved from the urgent engagement of contemporary social problems in Family Nest to the increasingly theatrical, abstract and claustrophobic study of avarice and depravation unfolded in Almanac of Fall – a film whose daring use of unconventional composition and unnatural dialogue points directly towards Tarr’s later work. The roots of Tarr’s cinema in the documentary leanings of the so-called Budapest School nevertheless remain legible in the richly mannered late work whose strange artifice and darkly fantastical (at times almost science-fiction) dimensions depend upon an exacting fidelity to space and time. In this way Tarr uses a remarkably mobile camera to exhaustively track the complete arc of actions, from the spinning drunkards in a dingy bar in Werkmeister Harmonies to the daily labor of the farmers in The Turin Horse. Like the great films of Tarkovsky and Ophuls, Tarr’s iconic work favors an assertively mobile camera that dynamically expands cinematic space and time while defining a foreboding yet graceful omnipotence, the roving camera seeming to embody the unknown forces that control the perpetually wintery and seemingly about to be extinguished worlds inhabited by Tarr’s films.
Despite their sense of dark menace, Tarr’s films are incomparably engaging and remarkably exhilarating to behold, their careful use of repetition seeming always about to crest and climax, creating a hypnotic suspension perfectly expressed in the serial soundtracks brilliantly designed by composer Mihály Vig. Fascinating for their ambiguity, Tarr’s films are legible as rich allegories for the collapse of Western civilization and the revenge of ravaged Nature. At the same time, the recurrent figures within them of men and women fighting with grim determination against an endless storm also offer poignant expressions of the paradoxical stubbornness, the strange insistence, of human desire and ambition.
The Harvard Film Archive is thrilled to offer this rare showcase of Béla Tarr’s feature films, including the area premiere of The Turin Horse. – Haden Guest
This program is presented with support from the Kokkalis Program on Southeastern and East-Central Europe, Harvard University. Special thanks: Scott Foundas, Isa Cucinotta, Film Society of Lincoln Center; Zsófia Bognár, Mokép-Pannónia; Katalin Vajda, Hungarian Filmunio; Ryan Krivoshey, Cinema Guild.
Film descriptions by Brittany Gravely and Haden Guest
Directed by Béla Tarr. With János Derzsi, Erika Bók, Mihály Kormos
Hungary/France/Germany/Switzerland/USA 2011, 35mm, b/w, 146 min. Hungarian with English subtitles
Boldly proclaimed by Tarr to be his last film, The Turin Horse offers a masterful and melancholy summary of his unique visionary cinema. Embracing an extraordinary minimalism of story, setting and cast, The Turin Horse is structured around one week in the back-breaking lives of an aging farmer and his daughter, alone on a barren, windswept farm with a recalcitrant horse that suddenly refuses to work. Tarr’s sweeping black and white cinematography takes on new poignancy in the twilight of the photochemical age, rendering the tired horse a weary and obsolete ancestor of the Muybridgean stallion who inspired the cinema itself. A remarkably hypnotic and immersive film, The Turin Horse pushes Tarr’s interest in texture, sound and motion to an expressive extreme, giving way to a sensorial richness rare in cinema today.
Directed by Béla Tarr. With Gábor Balogh, János Balogh, Péter Breznyik
Hungary 1988, 35mm, b/w, 116 min. Hungarian with English subtitles
Tarr made a dramatic stylistic and critical breakthrough with this brooding and visually striking study of desolation and betrayal set in small town Hungary and tracing the cruel love triangle that emerges between a taciturn loner, a nightclub singer and her smuggler husband. The first of five films to date written with novelist László Krasznahorkai and structured around the haunting minimalist music of Mihály Vig, Damnation – with its decaying factories, dingy bars and bleak, expressionistic landscapes – introduced the dark, rainy and irretrievably melancholy realm that is arguably Tarr’s greatest creation.
Directed by Béla Tarr. With András Szabó, Jolan Fodor, Imre Donko
Hungary 1979, digital video, color, 122 min. Hungarian with English subtitles
Assuming the freeform structure of naturalistic, independent American cinema of the same period, The Outsider imparts a mutual theme: the hard barter of individual – usually male – freedom for a “normal” life of work and family. Played by a musician of the same name, easy-going András Szabó drifts along an aimless path – performing and drinking his central pleasures. Work, marriage and fatherhood only blur the edges of his desultory descent through the landscape of modern Budapest’s bohemian fringe. He joins the listless drug addicts, alcoholic philosophers and lost artists who seek the life of Beethoven or Haydn without the work ethic, the ambition or any support. In his second feature, Tarr continues his unpretentious reflections on the symbiotic, inarticulate relationships between personal dysfunction and social malady.
Directed by Béla Tarr. With Róbert Koltai, Judit Pógany, Gábor Koltai
Hungary 1982, 35mm, b/w, 82 min. Hungarian with English subtitles
In his first film using professional actors, Tarr perfects his documentary-style social dramas in this study of a marriage in permanent decomposition. A middle-class couple’s daily clashes range from the uncomfortable comedy of their ninth anniversary celebration – with his gifts of hairspray, a mug and a bottle of liquor – to an exquisitely restrained scene in a night club where an unspoken procession of emotions details the stubbornly-maintained chasm between them. Further realized in cleverly ambiguous editing, their vicious cycle continues indefinitely through an ending – recalling that of The Graduate – which suggests the mass production of the modern, damaged family unit.
Directed by Béla Tarr. With László Horvath, Lászlóné Horvath, Gábor Kun
Hungary 1977, 35mm, b/w, 100 min. Hungarian with English subtitles
“We can understand; we can’t help,” the social services employee intones to a desperate mother in an unnervingly realistic episode that encapsulates the cycle of grief and torment experienced by those trapped in Hungary’s housing shortage of the 1970s. Made when he was only 22, Béla Tarr’s first feature recalls both Frederick Wiseman and John Cassavetes in its mix of raw, up-close cinema verité style and imperceptible use of non-professional actors. Irén and her husband ache to escape the chaotic confines of a tiny flat where nine people live under the reign of an abrasive, abusive patriarch. Rife with all the ills of a demoralized society, the claustrophobic clamor of this “nest” stuns with its penetrating immediacy, occasionally interrupted by incongruous pop music interludes that only lengthen the distance between desire and reality.
Directed by Béla Tarr. With Mihály Vig, Putyi Horváth, László Lugossy
Hungary/Germany/Switzerland 1994, 35mm, b/w, 435 min. Hungarian with English subtitles
The apocalyptic impulse of Tarr’s late films finds its fullest expression in his celebrated epic ambiguously structured around the collapse of a remote collective farm and the arrival of a strange messiah figure determined to either save or sacrifice the community to an unknown cause. The bravura tracking shot which opens Sátántangó following a dramatic tide of cattle pouring out across a ramshackle hamlet, introduces nature and the animal kingdom as main protagonists and mysterious voices of the dark animism explored throughout the film’s fascinating seven and a half hours. Describing a peasant land seemingly trapped out of time, Sátántangó is a grand expression of the post-industrial primitivism at the heart of Tarr and Krasznahorkai’s vision, a dizzying neo-Brueghelism.
Please note: screening includes a 15-minute intermission and 1-hour dinner break.
Directed by Béla Tarr. With Hédi Temessy, Erika Bodnár, Miklós B. Székely
Hungary 1983, 35mm, color, 120 min. Hungarian with English subtitles
Considered a turning point from Tarr’s early social realism to his later precisely formal work, Almanac of Fall elliptically discloses the shifting relationships between five inhabitants of a house through a chain of theatrical tête-à-têtes. Their philosophical quandaries and deferred dreams coil into bitter circles of duplicitous manipulations that fuel eruptions of violence and underhanded exit strategies. Lit by expressionistic, lurid colors and followed by the mysterious gaze of a meandering, equally conspiratorial camera, the cursed spirits seem destined to reenact their base desires and vengeful patterns in a disorienting purgatory of opulent decay.
Directed by Béla Tarr. With Miroslav Krobot, Tilda Swinton, Ági Szirtes
France/Germany/Hungary 2007, 35mm, b/w, 139 min. Hungarian with English subtitles
Woefully misunderstood and obscured in the storm cloud of controversy that surrounded its difficult production, Tarr and Krasznahorkai’s George Simenon adaptation nevertheless occupies a central piece in his complex oeuvre. Tarr’s heightened attention to surface, textures and the organic details of environment take on new, almost metaphysical, dimensions in the context of the policier in which all places become potential crime scenes, all objects tinged with the aura of evidence. In its brilliantly choreographed and breathtaking extended opening shot, Tarr immediately challenges the viewer to become a detective observing an obscure crime that unfolds in a dockyard at night, under the watchful eye of a mysterious and potently cinematic lighthouse.
Sunday March 25 at 7pm
Directed by Béla Tarr. With Lars Rudolph, Peter Fitz, Hanna Schygulla
Hungary/Italy/Germany/France 2000, 35mm, b/w, 145 min. Hungarian with English subtitles
János Valuska could be the director of the film or the director of the universe as he arranges the drunkards of the town in the formation of the solar system to explain the oncoming eclipse. “All I ask is that you step with me into the boundlessness where constancy, quietude and peace, infinite emptiness reign,” he – and apparently Béla Tarr – request. Vast, overpowering shots are strung together by a liquid, impassive camera observing the stark, isolated town in Tarr’s cosmic fairy tale. The recent arrival of a circus containing the remains of a giant whale and the unseen presence of a potentially powerful prince unnerves all except for János. The lone optimist, he is easily eclipsed by the residents’ rampant fear, paranoia and ominous prophecies. Exploited by dark political forces attempting to impose absolute order upon imperfect humanity, the troubled town summons an astonishing, metaphysical finale to Tarr’s transcendent vision.