NOTE: A film like this warrants discussion beyond a typical review. While some relevant plot details are discussed they are not what I’d deem spoilers.
Béla Tarr. Perhaps one of the most daunting things to contend with when writing about him or his films is trying to encapsulate him and/or his work for the uninitiated. For to write this review solely as the fan and devotee that I am would not do for all who may come across this article. The read of the film that rang true to me became apparent very quickly. However, the prior question nagged me. So how do I go about it? Carefully and with explication but not what I’d classify as a spoiler. Recently, upon viewing Fata Morgana I tweeted that I was glad it wasn’t my introduction to Herzog and that it likely should’ve been the last film of his I saw. With Tarr there really only is baptism by fire I feel and I’ll attempt, aside from reacting, to give a bit of a primer for his work. My baptism by fire occurred by acquiring and watching his seven-hour epic Satantango while in college and I’ve been hooked ever since.
This is as good a place as any to discuss the pace and a few other trademarks of Tarr’s work. Tarr has shot only black and white for the past 30 years. He moves the camera beautifully and intricately at times while using very long takes. I counted shots in this film and came up with a similar number to reports I read: 30. The running time is approximately 146 minutes meaning the average length of a take of about five minutes when Hollywood has us conditioned to expect cuts every five seconds, depending on genre. All the cuts are good, some are wonderful and the pace works for the tale but is worth noting for those who are unfamiliar with his work. Gird your attention span!
With regards to this film, as I started to watch it what struck me is that it seemed like his own version of Jeanne Dielman. This allusion to Chantal Akerman is not completely my own Scott Foundas in a Facets symposium on Tarr made the comparison that made me want to see Jeanne Dielman in the first place. However, while he’s talking stylistically in terms of camera movement, mise-en-scene and blocking; here the narrative in many ways resembles in that in Jeanne Dielman in as much as the film most reveals its characters and their story in the slow but steady deterioration of daily routines.
The setup is fascinating in two ways: First, the name of the film refers to the incident wherein Nietzsche supposedly lost his mind, he so felt for a horse being beaten by his owner that he broke down in tears, intervened and embraced the horse and was never the same. The story then is really about the owner of said horse and his daughter, however, I’d caution you not to forget about the horse and the title and watch him and his arc and the relationship the family has with him. Second, in a structural consideration the inciting incident occurs in a voice over wherein a detached, unidentified narrator tells us what happened and that propelled an unseen Nietzsche into madness and affected the horse and the family in the long run.
The film is above all indirect, even when seemingly being direct, which is part of its brilliance. The film is about the inevitability of death but it’s not spoken about in certain terms. The bare minimum these people need to do to survive starts to deteriorate as does their ability and willingness to live, mostly due to said uncommented upon inevitability.
Perhaps what works best is that it really creeps up on you. These routines play out repeatedly, shot and cut a little differently each time such that the slight changes at the start might not be picked up but then you start to see them.
With regards to moments that are direct there are a few ways to interpret them. Perhaps the pivotal scene where there can be some debate is one wherein their neighbor comes over because he’s run out of Palinka (Hungarian fruit brandy). It’s human nature to want to hang your hat on something when watching a story that’s not traditional, therefore when watching a father and daughter just doing what they do in a desolate countryside in the middle of an unnatural windstorm you listen to the neighbor’s wild theory. Ohlsdorfer, the father, dismisses it as bull and some reviews as a red herring, I feel the truth lies somewhere in the middle.
You don’t have to know Tarr’s cinema to start to sense that there’s a metaphysical nature being applied to a mundane setting, a sort of allegory free of dogmatic restraints. The neighbor’s theory on what’s wrong with the world and life in general may be only his mad formulation but his view, like anyone else, is all he has and everyone’s seeking an answer, we may change it, we may not have one but anyone’s guess is as valid as the next to questions like “What’s the point of all this? What’s going on? Why am I here?” The neighbor’s theory may be vague and labyrinthine but part of what tips it towards truth for me is that he made it a specific revelation to each individual and not an externalized event. I know I’ve have been aloof in the theory’s description because I think it’s open to individual interpretation. My inference that it’s closer to fact or fiction falls in line with my final interpretation, which deals directly with how the film ends, which I will not reveal.
Similarly oblique is the passage read from a book left as a gift by a band of Gypsies passing through for some water. However, in that it speaks of defiling of the Holy Land and damnation, in short inevitability, so it works. It connects to a theme rather than offering and epiphany, yet I did have one. Only as I was just walking out of the theatre after the very short closing credits did I realize the last domino that needed to fall for me and it did and it made the whole thing that much more amazing.
The film keeps its cast of characters small and the location virtually unchanging. It’s probably too claustrophobic to be called a chamber drama. That sense heightened by the sound editing and mixing which plays the persistent sound of the wind at just the right level to unnerve you and will then drop entirely to bring in Mihály Vig’s dichotomic score, half-mellifluous and half-discordant.
Another thing that bears mentioning that there’s next to no dialogue. Yes, there is the neighbor’s extended monologue which gets a few replies, curses thrown at the gypsies and occasional exchanges between father and daughter but no scene I would call a conversation scene and it’s all the better for it. The lack of the spoken word invites you to participate in the film more freely, draw your own conclusions.
The actors János Derzsi, Erika Bók and Mihály Kormos are all brilliant. The main tandem do so much physically and with their eyes they scarcely need dialogue to convey their emotions and turmoil.
The only other plot point that really bears any discussion is the attempt the Father and Daughter make to leave their house. You are not told or shown why they don’t make it to some safer locale. You are left to speculate on it. I drew my own conclusion, you may draw a different one. It’s just one of the other great touches this film has. Again it’s something that fits in my reading for the story, in a film about the inevitability of death what escape can there be, really?
It’s a bit sad to have to say that not all directors are what you can call visionaries but Tarr is definitely one. What you see on display in The Turin Horse is the mark of an artist. There is a style and language all his own, which he has cultivated through the years. I love Hungarian cinema from what I’ve been able to see but at the start of his career you wouldn’t know just by watching one of Tarr’s films it was his, now his style is unmistakable and inimitable, unique in all the world. If this is truly to be his last feature what a glorious way to go.
The Turin Horse is a flat-out masterpiece. That’s not a word I use lightly. There are films I consider masterpieces but I did not proclaim them as such upon first seeing them. However, when trying to encapsulate my reaction that’s the first word that came to mind. It truly is, it’s sheer brilliance and believe me when I say that my stating several facts in the course of this piece does not detract from the experience of the film, it’s just a guide. Watching and immersing yourself in it is a lot more valuable and harder to describe than a few instances in the story. If you have decided this is the kind of film you’d like to see (it’s certainly not for everyone) it’s worth seeking out on the big screen.