THE TURIN HORSE
Chinese 6, 11/7/2011, 12:30 PM
Chinese 6, 11/9/2011, 1:00 PM
By Bernardo Rondeau
Few directors could conclude their oeuvre with a film about the end of the world and get away with it. The exception is Andrei Tarkovsky, whose grave and contemplative epics set the pace, if not quite the tone, for Béla Tarr and varied other “slow” filmmakers. Tarkovsky transitioned from damp, weathered Soviet mysticism to crisp, Baltic fatalism in THE SACRIFICE. Dying of cancer, exiled and working under the benefaction of Ingmar Bergman (while also employing Sven Nykvist, the brooding Swede’s cinematographer, and Erland Josephson, his leading man) Tarkovsky is certainly cut some slack for this often leaden epic of psychological and global catastrophe. Then there is Tarr.
The director appears to be in fine health, works in his home country and has a loyal stable of collaborators (composer Mihaly Vig, co-screenwriter László Krasznahorkai and all around co-conspirator Agnes Hranitzky). Perhaps that explains the lack of any distinct cause—THE SACRIFICE’s atom bomb—for the spellbinding immersions in miasmic effect that is THE TURIN HORSE. Regardless, if the filmmaker’s pledge to retire from filmmaking is to be trusted, the film brings to a triumphantly humble close an inimitable body of work that stretches over three decades.
Not quite a declarative full-stop, THE TURIN HORSE is an astoundingly lucid and assured crystallization of Tarr’s themes, tropes and climates. Purportedly about the creature who, suffering under the whip of its master, was embraced by Friedrich Nietzsche on the streets of Turin in the winter of 1889, THE TURIN HORSE is hardly the kind of “untold” or “secret life” story this kind of set-up would suggest. Is the film even about the Turin horse? Or is it about a horse whose suffering and decline, like that of his donkey cine-cousin Balthazar, stands in for a greater spiritual ache. Is it the proverbial Turin Horse? Does the film’s title designate a type rather than an individual? (Likewise, Nietzsche’s gesture has long been read by historians as the signal call of the philosopher’s descent into madness, though some particulars on this fateful encounter remain subject to speculation.)
Tarr locates the film in a landscape far removed from the sumptuous, Alpine splendor which Nietzsche adored. The film is almost entirely set in the single-room farmhouse shared by rangy Ohlsdorfer and his stern-faced daughter—proprietors of the film’s titular equine—the adjoining barn and, for exterior, the weathered stretch of land that encircles it, with rolling hills out of Anthony Mann by way of THE SEVENTH SEAL. The sole landmark is a well whose depths take on cosmic proportions at one of the film’s few turning points.
After a baritone voiceover, a rare piece of narration for Tarr, places the film in the context of the Nietzsche incident, the eponymous beast lunges through the black-and-white frame, hulking forward, whipped by bitter winds, dead leaves and the seasick drone of Vig’s strings. The father, driving the horse from his mount on the lorry, is a grizzled scrawl compared to the black mass of brawn and hair before him. This first shot is a trademark Tarr distillation: over one traveling take, a world is formed, peopled and set in motion. From this moment, Tarr sets a brief calendar: five days in five chapters. Father and daughter go about their grueling routines as small disruptions—the horse protests, a visitor in search of brandy spews an End Times dirge, gypsies descend and leave behind a troubling book—slowly give way to cataclysm as something wicked their way comes.
Though unlike Tarr’s prior single-set feature, 1985’s AUTUMN ALMANAC, the new film is entirely devoid of inter-relational conflicts, chamber intrigues or even much dialogue. This winter almanac, taking place across five days, has allegorical heft somewhere between Old Testament and Old World fable. The father is one-eyed and with a lame arm, scraggly and scrawny, and is often seen laying on his hard cot through Quattrocento perspective. The daughter, largely mute and tireless, labors inside the house. This Jeanne Dielman of the steppes is resolved to repetition: boiling potatoes, collecting water from the well, and dressing dad in a convolution of layers.
The film firmly inhabits the same forlorn, grey-skied, grimly-inhospitable hinterland of SATANTANGO, Tarr’s 1994 seven-and-a-half hour opus, which lies on the fringes of the dead-end villages of 1988’s DAMNATION and 2000’s WERCKMEISTER HARMONIES. All of these three prior films in some way envision a greater, communal space—a village, a bar, a police station. THE TURIN HORSE stays put in near total isolation. Outside, an agrarian dystopia. No crops, everything ashen and worn.
Tarr is a poet of the inclement and the film has a storm of mythic resolve. Whipping by day, howling at night, it is the film’s great special effect, second only to Tarr’s roaming camera which makes labyrinths of the Ohlsdorfer home’s open-plan. The world of THE TURIN HORSE is falling into ruin. (Perhaps this is the apocalypse’s next stop after devastating the vacated township of SATANTAGO.)
All the while the horse is quietly and devastatingly erased. Perhaps instead of Bresson’s burro, this film’s animal avatar is more similar to the the talisman-like whale carcass of WERCKMEISTER HARMONIES. Its commanding scale, disarming vulnerability, and incriminating silence making it a portentous emissary from the sublime.
Perhaps the film’s greatest revelation, amid the splendor of its coal-faced chiaroscuro and its bravura tracks, is the presence of a narrator, an omniscience. Does it bring a new understanding to Tarr’s prior films and help to lend an agency to this lingering, weightless camera which sees through floors (AUTUMN ALMANAC) and witnesses disparate events simultaneously (SATANTANGO)? If Tarr’s characters are always doomed to Sisyphean cycles, toiling in circles, being prey to charlatans, and trying to find exits from their diminished lives through despairing acts of petty criminality, what roles does this omniscience play?
SATANTANGO is Tarr’s most epic orchestration of his themes of rural alienation, foolhardy resolve and mud-splattered drudgery, and WERCKMEISTER HARMONIES its more elaborately-plotted, condensed variation. THE TURIN HORSE addresses these same themes with the clarity and concision of an elegy. Come armageddon, come.
Bernardo Rondeau is Coordinator of Film Programs at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art. He programmed the first-ever Béla Tarr retrospective in Los Angeles.