With films characterized as remarkable, mesmerizing, and devastating–not to mention, in the case of Satantango, a bona-fide masterpiece–Béla Tarr’s upcoming Regis Dialogue and Retrospective (September 14–October 21) is sure to be an extraordinary experience. For a sneak peek into the mind of the master, here is film critic Howard Feinstein’s Regis essay on Béla Tarr. Feinstein will be interviewing Tarr on-stage at the Walker Cinema on September 14.
Critics have generally divided the famously uncompromising Hungarian director Béla Tarr’s films into two distinct stylistic periods, with a truncated TV version of Macbeth (1982) marking a transitional point. Under the influence of the “ documentary fiction” movement led by Istvan Darday (a politicized socialist realism), under whom he had been an assistant director, as well as John Cassavetes, cinema vérité, and possibly even the British “ kitchen sink” school, he shot his first three features, known as the “ proletarian trilogy:” Family Nest (1979), The Outsider (1981), and The Prefab People (1982). Here we have in urban settings handheld camera, nonprofessional actors, some improvised dialogue, multiple closeups, and conventional editing rhythms as Tarr explores the social and economic conditions– especially a major housing shortage–that play havoc with the personal lives of his perpetually frustrated characters. (The seeds of his obsession with cinematic time can be seen, for example, in the meaningful ellipses.) In these claustrophobic environments, people become aggressive and communication is impossible. Men are mostly irresponsible and either actively or passively oppressive toward women, who may be victims but are decent and sensitive to one another’s plights.
Besides a concern with working-class people and the social circumstances of their private lives, these early low-budget features have other elements in common with the better known works of the later Tarr: whether unconscious or not, the striking compositions of his mise-en-scène, not to mention powerful ambient sound, reveal an aesthete’s eye and ear. He has always been acutely aware of the process of seeing, which he will later take to a degree that undermines the conventions of cinema as we know it. A tiger doesn’t change its stripes.
In the one-hour Macbeth, which has the feel of live television, gritty realism has been replaced by a spare stylization. He doesn’t edit so much as follow his actors up and down, left and right, in real time. It comprises only two takes, but the second is 55 minutes long. Tarr is developing a logic of film time that is based on the action (or non-action) of his characters and the landscape in which they function–even if here it is within the confines of a theatrical proscenium. (The 1984 Almanac of Fall, shot almost entirely in interiors in which he uses architecture and objects to block his more bourgeois characters and comment on their nasty behavior, can also be thought of as a transitional work.)
In most of the films of Tarr’s so-called second period, characters (and viewers) stare out of windows for prolonged periods–just as his camera, no longer handheld and frequently panning ever so slowly, surveys the minutiae of their lives and the (generally rural) landscapes that they inhabit with a bare minimum of cuts, and with a remarkably sharp depth of field. (He has frequently referred to location as a character in his work, and he and longtime partner, editor, and sometime coscreenwriter gnes Hranitzky spend a great deal of time finding the perfect locales in which to shoot.) Damnation (1988), Satantango (1994), and Werckmeister Harmonies (2000) were all done in collaboration with novelist Lszl Krasznahorkai, Hranitzky, cinematographer Gbor Medvigy, and composer Mihly Vg. (There is never any doubt as to who is boss.) On one level, the extremely long takes are a visual correlative to Krasznahorkai’s famously long sentences. Someone, or a group, may walk for 10 minutes or longer, but the camera travels with them. Even if a section is, as in his seven-and-one-half hour magnum opus Satantango, an observation of the ordinary activity of an inebriated doctor in his home, Tarr has come as close as any filmmaker to finding a parallel to a gifted writer’s detailed descriptions of life’s banalities. What is truly astounding, especially in Satantango, is that long sequences are not necessarily successive but concurrent–“ meanwhile, back at the ranch,” without the crosscutting that D. W. Griffith made into convention. Redundancy is a recurring trope. No wonder Susan Sontag referred to Tarr among those directors whose films are “ heroic violations of the norms.”
In these last three films, Tarr has elaborated upon the fog machine that graced the Macbeth stage for texture and commentary. We still find fog, but also endless rain, mud, pigs, the peeling paint of rundown buildings, and large empty spaces. Through simple, generally unsympathetic characters, mostly peasants, he builds a visual and aural world–natural sounds have never sounded so dramatic–in which people are nasty, often drunk, criminal, and either susceptible to authoritarian leadership or authoritarians themselves. Incredibly quiet sequences alternate with boisterous pub scenes. The films are in black and white, but in a wide variety of subtle, calculated shades–including the variations on gray praised by Lotte Eisner when she described the German Expressionists of the silent era–to fit the situation at hand. (Tarr has said he despises the falseness of Kodak color stock.)
Some call these movies bleak, but I think of them as lying somewhere between anthropology and allegory. This is the landscape of a country beaten down by Communism, by false hopes, by the elements themselves. Tarr claims that these works are not at all political, although he acknowledges that he hopes they reveal a “ social sensibility.” Many critics call them metaphysical, cosmic, cousins to Tarkovsky (whom Tarr finds “ soft”). Tarr will have none of that: for him, they are concrete and one should not think too much about such lofty things. (It’s ironic that he originally studied philosophy.) No matter: these latter films ooze from their groundedness a strong sense of spirituality.
What is rarely mentioned is the humor of the films and the director himself, whose attitude toward life does not appear otherworldly. When asked recently whether things were improving in his homeland, the 51-year-old Tarr told Time Out New York, “ We Hungarians were always too lazy–too lazy for Fascism, too lazy for Communism. We are eating too much, drinking too much, making love too much.”
His most recent film is The Man From London, which premiered in competition at this year’s Cannes Film Festival. It was adapted by Krasznahorkai from a Georges Simenon novel. Shot in Sardinia with an international cast, it is set in a small seaside town. The film is a perfect marriage of Tarr’s aesthetic sensibility and the policier. Complementing the trench coats and bright bulbs that suit the genre are the dark blackand- white stock (Fred Kelemen’s cinematography is mesmerizing) and the director’s propensity for shadows, fog, unbelievably slow pans and tracking shots, and somber, held accordion chords. Tarr nevertheless adds some signature touches from outside the genre, like the sequence of drunken eccentrics in a hotel bar. The basic plotline: Maloin (Czech actor Miroslav Krobot) is a signalman at a dockside railway who witnesses a robbery and murder, then steals the loot. Stalked by the man he has burned, he wrestles with his conscience about how to keep the money.
We are far from the plains of landlocked Hungary.
–Howard Feinstein, adapted from his essay in the 2006 Sarajevo Film Festival catalogue. New York–based Howard Feinstein has written on film for such publications as the Guardian, Vanity Fair, Time Out, the Times of London, Sight & Sound, Filmmaker, Premiere, Indiewire, and Out. He has curated exhibitions on ethnic conflict in ex-Yugoslavia and since 1999 has been a selector for the Sarajevo Film Festival, where he also programs Panorama (fiction), Panorama Documentaries, and Tribute to, the annual directors’ retrospectives (Béla Tarr received a tribute in 2006).