The Turin Horse (2011, Béla Tarr)
Béla Tarr. The name stirs the passions of many a cinephile. He is an auteur, visual poet, a storyteller who embraces the real, the gritty as well as an element of the fantastical to fully bring his vision to the screen. His reputation precedes him and among his devoted fans, Tarr is of one the best filmmakers working today, especially outside the mainstream. His films can be powerful and beautifully realized despite the often harsh subject matter. Films the likes of Werckmeister Harmonies, one of this reviewer’s all time favourites, is as grim as they come, yet balances that out with some stunning positives qualities. After all this is the man who directed the 7 hour long Satantango. Yes, a 7 hour film about a dilapidated Hungarian village. His latest, The Turin Horse, thankfully nowhere near as long, played at the FNC last weekend.
Tarr’s latest exploration of humanity’s miserable lot in life begins with a strange story about renowned 19th century German philosopher Freidrich Nietzsche and a horse in Turin. The animal was seen being whipped mercilessly by its master, which caused such consternation on the part of the German that it is said that, in a fairytale kind of way, the scene caused his eventual mental breakdown. The viewer sees nothing of this, welcomed only by a black screen with the sad tale provided by an unknown narrator. The retelling ends by saying that the fate of horse went unknown. Finally images appear on the screen before our eyes. A middle aged man named Ohlsdorfer (Janos Derzsi) is sitting atop a worn down carriage, the transport module driven by a horse, presumably the infamous Turin Horse. The wind blows relentlessly, as if refusing to see the man, his horse and carriage advance any further. The elements, all of them, are apparently against him. Soon enough, thanks in part to the horse’s tireless efforts, the man reaches his home where his daughter (Erika Bok) helps cooks, feeds and clothes him. This is the story of the odd couple and the Turin Horse who henceforth refuses to do their bidding.
There is something about Béla Tarr’s style, from the visual, the audio and the storytelling standpoint, that comforts this movie admirer. His is a style that demands attention, and not merely for the more obvious reasons, such as attractive cinematography, but genuine attention. You should be paying attention otherwise one shall miss the real experience of watching the movie. This is perplexing given how the director has a propensity to linger on certain shots, as is very much the case here with The Turin Horse. Such a reality might make one believe that studious attention is not required, but for those with the attention spans that can handle a beast like this (and it is perfectly okay for one not to have such an attention span. After all, Tarr truly does take his time with scenes, which can seem like all the time in the world), the rewards are more than worth it. Granted, his subject matters are almost always harsh, grim, unpleasant, sober and ponderous, however if one is willing, please give it a try, you won’t regret it. The opening scene described above, which involves Ohlsdorfer riding his carriage against violent winds and dust, is such a thing of beauty. Director Tarr does not cut once during these four or five minutes, yet allows the camera to gently swing in different directions, sometimes capturing the entirety of the carriage, while at other moments resting right in front of the horse’s head, thus making it seem massive and fully showcasing its struggles against the harsh elements. As this transpires, a sad, perhaps melancholic musical piece fills the soundtrack. This same piece, the only piece of music used at all in the entire film, returns a few more times throughout, and coupled with the stark black and white cinematography, helps to fully realize this terrible Hungarian world the two central characters live in. Werckmeister Harmonies, the other Béla Tarr film I have seen, is characterized by quasi-identical elements. Maybe it was the familiarity with the director’s sensibilities that helped the movie wash over me, who can say. Regardless, the longer Tarr rested on a setting, or the longer he guided the picture frame from inside the house to the well or to the stable, relishing in all the little details, the greater the picture became.
Plot is not of the essence in The Turin Horse, even though there is one, sort of.
Among the wonderful details Tarr perfectly encapsulates on screen is the father-daughter relationship, as well as the deteriorating state of affairs in and around their home as the terrific wind outside refuses to subside. The chores and rituals are strictly followed, such as the dressing up of Ohlsdorfer in the morning and his undressing in the evening before bed, the cooking, the walk to the well for what precious water rests down there, the shot of hard liquor he drinks before his attempts to leave every day, the easting of their potato, etc. These are repeated again and again with each and every passing day, with Tarr always filming from a different angle. It makes for a strangely compelling experience, one that could have people think back to Chantal Akerman’s famous Jeanne Dielman, 23 Quai du Commerce, 1080 Bruxelles film, in which a single mother’s daily chores are filmed again and again until the day she ‘snaps’ and changes her habits. In this case, it is the furious elements as well as the slowly changing behaviour of the horse which causes the ire of the couple, forcing them to suddenly arrive at certain realizations, some rather harsh, such as the possibility that their lifestyle, however traditional, may no longer be effectively sustainable. There are even elements of bizarre comedy, perhaps unintentional, which make the briefest of cameos, such as Ohlsdorfer’s frustration at the horse indiscipline, which is demonstrated through angry snorts! The movie is literally filled with these moments which relate to the greater mood and setting in which the world exists.
If there is a single thing that does not work properly, it might be a scene which transpires about halfway through the film, when a neighbour (read: the closest person to them who still lives very far away) arrives at their house in need of some liquor. He and the protagonist sit down for a few moments, with the former explaining how he has come to the realization that the world around them is changing. It is a pseudo-spiritual and philosophical monologue which, unfortunately, hits the viewer over the head too strongly. The smooth yet disturbing transitions which Tarr decides to show the viewer as the days go by in the story are much more effective at creating a sense of unease and wonderment, not to mention developing the many underlying themes. The acting in the scene is stellar, but it feels like too great a rupture with everything else Tarr works so hard to accomplish and succeed gloriously at.
The Turin Horse should come as no surprise to those familiar with Béla Tarr. If you have seen his work before and disliked it, there is, in all probability, no reason why this film should win you over. On the other hand, if the director’s ‘slow burn’ type style and appreciation of dark, depressing subject matters are what tickles your fancy, then discover The Turin Horse at the earliest opportunity.