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Listening to the World: A Conversation with Béla Tarr

By Matt Levine and Jeremy Meckler

The Turin Horse is something of a milestone for movie lovers. Not only is it the latest film from Béla Tarr, the Hungarian director of such celebrated, staggering provocations as Damnation, Sátántangó, and Werckmeister Harmonies (not to mention the subject of a 2007 Walker Regis dialogue and retrospective). It’s also the director’s last film, according to Tarr himself—and from the looks of things, this isn’t the kind of pseudo-retirement we see periodically from artists in the public spotlight.

The Walker recently spoke with Tarr in honor of the Twin Cities premiere of The Turin Horse (screening here March 22–25). Perhaps because of the challenging aesthetic and provocative subject matter of his films, Tarr has a reputation for terse gruffness, and some may conclude, misguidedly, that his films merely exhibit misanthropy and hopelessness. Yet what becomes apparent very quickly in speaking with the director is his humanism, his deep respect for individuals both in reality and as characters in his movies. This tough form of empathy extends to the natural world itself, which he effusively appreciates as he bemoans human beings’ penchant for destroying and exploiting the natural gifts we’ve been given. It seems, then, that despite the bleak labels—anti-humanism, nihilism—that some have attached to his work, his admittedly somber worldview arises from a deeply felt affinity with one’s fellow man and the world around us.

As the presumably final film in the director’s illustrious oeuvre, The Turin Horse seems fittingly intense, even apocalyptic. It’s based on an apocryphal story regarding Friedrich Nietzsche’s descent into madness: while vacationing in Turin in 1889, the philosopher witnessed a horse being mercilessly flogged by its owner. He ran across a public square and flung his arms around the animal, and spent the remaining decade of his life in silence and apparent mental anguish. In a recent interview with the Walker, Tarr described the origins of The Turin Horse: after a lecture on Nietzsche held in Budapest in 1985, he and his writing collaborator László Krasznahorkai (who has worked on all of Tarr’s screenplays since 1988’s Damnation, and whose novels provided the basis for both Sátántangó and Werckmeister Harmonies) wondered what happened to the horse that Nietzsche was so desperate to protect. “Since 1985, we were only thinking about what could happen with this horse. Now, after 30 years, we finally found that [The Turin Horse] is what we thought.”

With this thought-provoking subject matter—not to mention the elaborate, somberly beautiful aesthetic that Tarr has utilized since Damnation—it’s difficult not to pore through The Turin Horse with an analytical eye, trying to interpret the ambiguities that the film cryptically offers. The graceful long shots comprised of meticulous camera movements, awe-inspiring black-and-white cinematography, and complex, layered sound design that distinguish his filmmaking practically demand serious contemplation. Yet Tarr adamantly discourages broad, allegorical, philosophical interpretations of his movies. On the decision to make his final film about Nietzsche’s last moments of sanity, Tarr answered, “Of course there is some connection, because before, when I started this project, I knew it would be my last. But you have to know also that we really just wanted to do a very simple, very pure film. We’re just showing how [the world] will be over, the horse will be over, life will be over. It’s very simple. Please just trust your eyes. [Those philosophical interpretations are] too much—don’t be sophisticated, okay?!”

Point taken—yet it’s hard not to aim for sophistication, or at least some kind of insight, when faced with such a powerful, haunting work. Even Tarr admits that The Turin Horse operates on a slightly different wavelength than his earlier films: “All my movies—except this Turin Horse—all my movies are comedies.” Indeed, Sátántangó and Werckmeister Harmonies are subsumed at least as much with droll humor as with foreboding portents of existential anguish. All the same, Tarr is careful to stress that, despite its connection to Nietzsche, The Turin Horse is not a work of philosophy: “I think film and philosophy [are] two different languages.… With film, you are working with real situations, alive, with people. If you’re doing philosophy, you have words. Words, words, words. Each has a totally different material. Words, words, words!”

The Turin Horse is undoubtedly more concerned with the harsh lives of its characters than with philosophical pontification, and it is this distinction that Tarr believes sets cinema apart. “When you do a movie, you have to listen [to] the real people,” he says. “You have to listen in for the real emotions. You have to listen [to] what is happening between the people…. We never use any kind of background information. It’s a very simple work … because we are just listening to the way people work. If you don’t do this with your film, you can lose the meaning.”

Tarr says his job is to show us these characters and this world. After providing this, the interpretation of the film is no longer under his control. “That’s what critics are for,” he says. “The interpretation is not my job, okay? Understanding film, which is very, very important [is the critic’s job].”

The director does resignedly offer a few pointers to “reading” The Turin Horse, although even these place the ultimate interpretations in the viewers’ hands. “Yes, somehow this is an anti-Creation story. Somehow it’s attempting to show a very simple—‘okay, we are doing our daily life.’ The same routine, but every day is different, and every day just becomes bleaker, bleaker, and by the end is just suffocating. That’s all—in a very quiet and very silent way. No apocalypse… Nothing. Just the simple pain of living.”

Tarr’s Humanism

This may make The Turin Horse sound relentlessly bleak, but the film also conveys a vast, humanistic respect for individual people and even for the natural world that surrounds us. With its emphasis on the beleaguered horse and the animal’s increasing unwillingness to cooperate with its owners, The Turin Horse sustains the complex representation of animals that Tarr has previously suggested in Damnation (with the dogs that appear near the film’s climax), Sátántangó (with the cattle that open the film and the death of the cat), and Werckmeister Harmonies (with the immense corpse of a whale that seems to spread madness and uncertainty among the townspeople).

“We are together in this same world, on the same earth,” Tarr responds when asked about this animal symbolism. “The animals, vegetation, and the people, together. If they do not fit together, if we are forcing always our stupid hegemony and our stupid dominance, then we lose something which is a part of our dignity. To be with the animals, to know we have to share the world with them. Somehow, you know, when we show the animals, it’s very important because we have to involve nature. We have to involve our partners in life.”

Tarr’s interest in the day-to-day lives of real people extends, of course, to his fellow Hungarians. When asked if he considers himself a representative for Hungarian people or the country’s cinema, he disavows this notion. “I never think about this,” he says. “I am just Hungarian, you know? I love this country and I love these people and I know them, of course.” Yet he adds that sharing an affinity with one’s compatriots is more of a humanistic relationship than a nationalistic one: “When you are living in the United States, you feel you are American, [but] you never think about your homeland. You could think about your friends, you could think about your life, your love, your kids—this is your homeland. Your life, your personal life.”

Like all of his movies but two—the 1982 made-for-television Macbeth, and 1984’s Almanac of FallThe Turin Horse is shot in a grimly beautiful black-and-white palette. “I love black and white,” Tarr says. “When you see a black-and-white picture, you know immediately it is not a realistic picture. It is not reality ‘one to one,’ because something is somehow transformed. On the other hand, I can hide a lot of things in the blackness, and I can picture white light for something which is important. I can use the whole gray scale.”

Heeding the Call of Film

So why, when Tarr is arguably at the peak of his career and when his international acclaim makes him one of the most revered modern filmmakers, is he hanging up his camera? It may be tempting to believe that his retirement is the result of a changing cinematic climate that values box office receipts more than artistry. And occasionally, notes of resentment toward the modern film industry do sneak in to his responses.

Asked about the varying lengths of his films (from the 20-minute short Prologue to the seven-and-a-half-hour Sátántangó), Tarr answers with some frustration. “It’s such a stupid thing to say a movie is one and a half hours long or two hours long. I really do not understand the people, how or why they are thinking about these things. Maybe this is coming from the film market, not from the people, not from the artists. I don’t care. Sometimes I do a 20-minute long movie, sometimes a 10-hour long movie,” he says. “If I want to say a short sentence, I have to say a short sentence. If I want to say a long sentence, I have to say a long sentence. Who cares?” Actually, though, Tarr doesn’t believe that the filmmaking climate has changed all that much since the late 1970s, when Hungary was ruled by the socialist party and when he was making more grittily realistic social dramas (such as 1979’s Family Nest). “Back then, it was the censorship of the politics, and now we have the censorship of the market. What has changed? The climate is the same. If you are a filmmaker, it is always fucked up.”

It is partially due to the perpetually rigorous demands of filmmaking that the director is turning his attention to the film school he recently initiated in Croatia in order to inspire burgeoning artists to develop their own style and break into this incredibly difficult industry. Tarr has said that he doesn’t believe that the art of film can be taught, but his school’s mission seems broader.

“You know, the world keeps producing filmmakers. It keeps calling them,” he elaborates. As a filmmaker, “you are not alone. You don’t look left, you don’t look right—just go ahead. You have to be brave. You have to be looking at everything in your imagination. [Students] have to do it fresh [at my school]. To give them power, to tell them they can do anything that they want—this is my ambition for this film school. Otherwise, you’re just teaching how they can do movies.”

Béla Tarr, The Turin Horse, 2011

©Cinema Guild

Béla Tarr

Photo: Cameron Wittig, Walker Art Center

Béla Tarr, The Turin Horse, 2011

©Cinema Guild

Béla Tarr, The Turin Horse, 2011

©Cinema Guild