The daughter going to the well.

Director: Béla Tarr. Screenplay: László Krasznahorkai, Béla Tarr. Cinematography: Fred Kelemen. Music: Mihály Vig. Black and white, with English subtitles, approximately 150 minutes.

Screened at Leeds International Film Festival.

Béla Tarr has achieved a high reputation among European art film directors in recent years: though I could not find a profile of him in any of my biographical and encyclopaedic books.

His preoccupations are fairly distinctive, but at the same time there are strong parallels with the films of other Hungarian directors, especially Miklós Jancsó. The characters are almost symbolic, the narratives clearly allegorical, whilst the black and white cinematography is luminous and full of striking sequence shots. This is in contrast to the story world, which is grim and fatalistic. The Turin Horse fits the pattern, though (sadly) it is also likely to be the last of these features.

The title and the film’s opening present a narrative voice recounting an episode from the life of the philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche against a black screen. Nietzsche sees a cabman flogging an exhausted horse in a Turin street. The philosopher flings his arms around the horse and then passes out. So begins his final days of mental breakdown. Finally the voice asks “what happened to the horse?”.

The rest of the film presents a tale involving a farmer and his horse. Not, I think, the same ones as in the Turin episode, minor details don’t fit and the setting is the countryside familiar from Tarr’s other films set in Hungary. It does seem, though, that it is set in 1899. The farmer, who has an incapacitated hand, lives with his daughter in a rude and fairly primitive farmhouse. It is set in a desolate and windy vale. There is a well and a stables where the old, worn out horse is kept. The film covers six days and nights, during which time a very strong gale blows but finally subsides. In the course of the film the horse becomes ill, a neighbour visits to buy a bottle of Pálinka {a locally brewed hooch): a band of gypsies stop at the well for water: and the well suddenly dries up. And the narrative voice returns several times to comment on events, at one point picking up a reading from a religious book by the daughter. The final comment from the voice occurs at the film’s end, as darkness increases, and offers the audience little but ambiguity.

What the farmer actually grows or produces is not clear: the basic diet of father and daughter is potatoes. I noted that they do not eat the skins, whereas, given their limited diet, this would have seemed to be a good idea. The daughter has to dress and undress the father due to his disabled hand: though this is resolutely non-sexual. As noted at one point she reads from a book, given to her by the passing gypsies. I was a little surprised that she was not illiterate, though her reading is halting and laboured. Much of the time is taken up with routine tasks or activities.

Tarr has offered a partial explanation of the film:

The Turin Horse is about the heaviness of human existence. How it’s difficult to live your daily life, and the monotony of life. We didn’t want to talk about mortality or any such general thing. We just wanted to see how difficult and terrible it is when every day you go to the well and bring the water, in summer, in winter …All the time. The daily repetition of the same routine make it possible to show that something is wrong with their world. It’s very simple and pure.” (Bela Tarr)

This is certainly one aspect of the film. But I think audiences will actually consider such general things as mortality during or after the film. There is a narrative development on the screen, and it is a relentless closing in: a sense of a fate that encloses the character as the darkness of night encloses us all at one time or another.

Co-incidentally I listened to a recording of a programme chaired by Melvyn Bragg this week on The Frankfurt School. One contributor suggested that Theodore Arno (in particular) held to the view that ‘happy, conformist’ mass culture blinded ordinary people to the reality of life. He believed that progressive art should actually expose them to the reality of the miserable oppression that is the actual world. I would think that these philosophers would find Tarr’s films exemplary in this respect. The problem aspect with both thinkers and filmmakers is that there is the risk that this doomed existence seems inescapable.

But if Tarr’s films seem to lack a way out of hell, they are impressive in their depiction of such situations. The black and white images at time offer an evocation of an action or setting, as in the superb opening tracking shot, which follows the farmer, horse, and cart as they ascend, with difficulty, a hilly path. It would seem that Tarr and Kelemen used a Steadicam for most of these impressive sequence shots. At other points in the film a long take provides a simple shot that contemplates a character, in particular a beautiful framing of the daughter as she gazes out of the window in the farmhouse. The sound is partly naturalistic, with the incessant wind preying on both characters and audience. But there is also a recurring musical sequence, ominous but repetitious. And the performers (including the horse) are at one with the landscape and the elements. This is a film which is a pleasure to watch, and which is immensely stimulating. Despite its running time of two and half-hours it did not seem long, nor did it become monotonous.

Artificial Eye will be releasing the film in the UK.