Notes on Béla Tarr and László Krasznahorkai

Born in 1955, the Hungarian director Béla Tarr’s first works, Family Nest (1977), The Outsider (1981), The Prefab People (1982), which is widely considered his earliest success, and Almanac of Fall (1985) are late-Soviet realisms, dripping with anger for the failed promises of the USSR. Sergei Eisenstein’s montage and other techniques of early social realist cinema are abandoned along with the world Eisenstein sought to idealize. In The Prefab People, quick cuts are done away with in favor of a slow unfolding set to the whir of the recording camera.

In the mid 1980’s, Béla Tarr met a man with whom he would become best known for their collaborations, the writer deemed by Susan Sontag the “master of the apocalypse,” novelist László Krasznahorkai. Krasznahorkai’s own first work was the Booker Prize-winning novel, Sátántangó. Much like Tarr’s The Prefab People, Sátántangó is set in a decaying Hungarian village, when a man named Irimias, who might be a prophet or might be the devil, returns to rescue his comrades from their rainy gloom. In 1994, the duo adapted it into a seven-hour film. However, it was six years earlier, in 1988, that Tarr and Krasznahorkai made their first collaboration, Damnation, which opens with a shot that was to become one of Tarr’s hallmarks.

The long shots of Béla Tarr are an irritating itch for the movie-going audience conditioned to hundreds of cuts in film rarely over two hours long. While the writer’s prose builds upon itself in complex knots, often spanning several pages between periods, Tarr opts for a less mental trick. A single scene might run for longer than a more typical film. Tarr rarely looks away. His sequences contain none of the slight-of-hand trickery of Hitchcock (Rope, 1948) or Iñárritu (Birdman, 2014); when he does cut, you know it, feel it, because you’ve been released from something. The paranoia brought on by reading Sátántangó is a product of the manic instability of the writing, which reflects the characters’ scuttling about their godless world; on screen, Tarr’s adaptation tenses like tightening skin.

“Tarr’s steady reveal of our hero’s backside allows us to occupy several spaces at once: we look at him, we look through him, we look at him looking.”

The slow zoom is a favorite move for Tarr, beginning usually—as in the opening shot of Damnation—with a view from the window. The crawl backward reveals over the course of minutes, finally, the window frame itself. The establishing shot is therefore reversed: from the beginning we find ourselves looking out, rather than in. After several more deliberate seconds, the silhouette of the protagonist appears, his back to the camera. Krasznahorkai, who wrote the script for each of Tarr’s films from Damnation on, takes the concept of the unreliable narrator to the extreme. His narrations actively attack the traditional foundations of narrative itself, such as calculated tensing and point-of-view. Tales might leap from character to character mid-sentence, often to an omniscient voice who quotes “the words of others” in expository prose such that “the very stability of the story” as a tale being told crumbles. Likewise, Tarr’s steady reveal of our hero’s backside allows us to occupy several spaces at once: we look at him, we look through him, we look at him looking.

Where Krasznahorkai described his fictions as “reality examined to the point of madness,” Tarr’s specific brand of realism is one in which what is most real is time and our sensation of it. As with Eisenstein, in many of Tarr’s films, parts are played by non-actors, or even citizens of the town in which Tarr is filming, who are watched steadily as time unfolds around them. When János Valuska comes to town in Werckmeister Harmonies (2000), the bar he stages his play in is filled with actual locals. As Valuska dances around them, placing them here and there, reciting his poem, their every unpracticed action is recorded. 

The opening scene of Werckmeister Harmonies (2000)

“The sun doesn’t move,” Valuska tells his actor, who flexes his fingers as imaginary rays.

“Here we only experience general motion,” he says. “And at first we don’t notice the events we are witnessing.” 

Valuska could be talking about one of Tarr’s lengthy shots. 

The Man From London (2007) continues Tarr’s study of the breakdown of social order. In Béla Tarr’s final film, The Turin Horse (2011), the repetitive, meaningless motions of the characters are compared to the stereotypies of the Italian horse who famously cracked Nietzsche’s last nut. Where the film-going public, which increasingly includes all of us, has been conditioned to consider every discrete motion made in front of a camera to be of some narrative importance, with Tarr, the fingers that wiggle at time’s unfolding, the shuffling feet, sniffling noses, the shifting of weight across buttocks as a goulash-filled actor withholds a flatulent interruption—these animalistic gestures that overtake us all are captured by the camera’s same glorifying gaze that has many times looked upon Caesar’s last breath.