Bela Tarr is a Hungarian filmmaker who has followed his own vision for over 30 years but the name is little known in the US outside of film circles. Fortunately, the Harvard Film Archive is here to correct that and brings us a collection of this remarkable director’s works, including his 7+ hour long “Satantango,” with their program “The Melancholy World of Bela Tarr,” running from March 9 through March 25 at the HFA.
One of Bela Tarr’s early films, “Prefab People (1982)” enters the lives of a Hungarian couple, she a constant nag and he a seemingly thoughtless lout. It sets the stage for Tarr’s future filmmaking style as he developed his penchant for long-running takes, some lasting 5, 10, even 15 minutes and beautiful shot composition. For instance, in one of his films (“Werckmeister Harmonies”) we watch two men as they walk, walk, walk away from the camera until they are just two tiny figures going their separate ways. It sounds boring but the artistic style and shot composition are mesmerizing. Tarr’s films are visual masterpieces and, surprisingly, never boring.
Having never seen this artist/director’s visually stunning works, we took the opportunity to watch four of Tarr’s films chronologically, from “Prefab People” to “Damnation (1988),” “Werckmeister Harmonies (2000)” and his latest film, “The Turin Horse,” over the span of a couple of days. This is a real treat for a film buff to see an artistically brilliant filmmaker evolve from his early days through to the present, “The Turin Horse,” a film that answers the question of what happened to the beaten horse Frederich Nietzsche tried to save. (Look it up.)
There are recurring themes, like the civil unrest first seen in “Damnation,” in Tarr’s films and, seeing them back to back, you also get to appreciate the economy of the man’s filmmaking, using Kodak black and white film stock years after most filmmakers forgot about the quality of that medium. Tarr hones, over the decades and from one film to the next, his acute sense of shot composition, camera movement, economy of dialogue and minimalist editing and we watched, in a short span of time, the evolution of a true artist of cinema.
“The Turin Horse,” at over two and a half hours long, contains all of the above elements of Tarr’s works and consists of just 30 separate shots. Consider that it is a turn-of-the-20th century film about an old farmer, Ohlsdorfer (Janos Derzsi), with a useless right arm, his stoic daughter (Erika Bok) and the titular dying horse. It takes place over the course of six days and is all about their day-in, day-out routine of their bleak, isolated life – only a handful of other characters make brief appearances during the laconic story. Here is the amazing thing: as I was watching, raptly, this slow tale, I checked how long it had been running, thinking it was just an hour in. To my surprise, 2+ hours of truly hypnotic filmmaking had transpired.
If you really think yourself a film (versus movie) lover, do yourself a favor and spend some time at the HFA (if you are in the Cambridge MA area) and take in the works of this genius filmmaker who has followed his own vision all his career. I, personally, am thrilled that I had the chance. Laura claims she is going in to see the 7+ hour “Satantango.” I’ll make her up a box lunch that day.
In his first work with writer friend László Krasznahorkai, the Béla Tarr most known to today's art house audiences emerges. Beginning with a long, slow tracking shot of a coal transport gondola being viewed by a man from his window, we immediately note a director in complete control. The scene is meticulously composed, the camera moving ever so slowly to reveal a point of view from behind its subject, the sound of the carts chinking over track links methodical and oppressive. Mihály Vig's mournful score will reverberate through future films.
The tale is a fairly straightforward love triangle under Communist rule that adds another layer of betrayal to the mix. Karrer (Miklós Székely B., "Hanussen") lusts after a singer (Vali Kerekes) at the Titanik bar who sings of loss. She's willing to be with him until her husband, Sebestyén (György Cserhalmi, "Mephisto," "Kontroll") returns from his latest smuggling job. Willarsky (Gyula Pauer), the bartender (he and his bar reappear in "Werckmeister Harmonies"), offers them a job transporting black market goods. Later he tells Karrer that his delivery was 'light,' accusing Sebestyén of sticky fingers. The Titanik's cloakroom attendant (Hédi Temessy, "Almanac of Fall") gives Karrer unheeded advice, later appearing in the rain to quote the Bible like some kind of lost Guardian from "Wings of Desire."
The precision of Tarr's direction is perhaps most evident in the famous tracking shot of a row of connected buildings (also present in "Werckmeister Harmonies"). The camera notes the changing texture of the wall which breaks three times to reveal a tableaux of human misery. A man tap dances in the rain. Krasznahorkai introduces his first animal motif as packs of stray dogs wander through the village streets.
At times, the film's portentousness almost becomes a parody of itself, but the film's climatic bark off between Karrer and a junkyard dog is not one of them. "Damnation" is a mesmerizingly bleak film.
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