Bela Tarr is back, with the same crew he’s been using since Damnation (plus DP Fred Kelemen, a relative newcomer). And he is BACK this time, with another wind-filled, nearly apocalyptic-feeling black-and-white masterpiece. It seems almost like a horror film, which seemed exciting until I remembered that Werckmeister Harmonies and Satantango could be just as bleak.
Everything in the movie seems concrete and real, pre-existing the film by decades. The characters are real too, even though I recognize the daughter. Once I realized the father has a bad arm that he never uses, I didn’t wonder why the actor or filmmakers decided to add that detail – I wondered what happened to the poor man’s arm. And yet, with its long takes and methodically roving camera, sometimes shoving the camera right in the face of a person or horse, I’m constantly thinking about the film’s structure and photography. Knowing Tarr’s love for artificial weather, at one point when the camera turned in an unexpected direction outdoors, I was actually surprised not to catch sight of a giant wind machine. I can’t figure out how Tarr manages to hold this atmosphere of complete reality with showy technique.
Having read no plot summaries, I was surprised that this turned out so similar to the second half of Melancholia, which I also watched this month. Both are about a small, isolated group who we gradually realize may be facing the end of the world. But Von Trier tells us about his apocalypse ahead of time. Tarr’s heroes don’t have access to google.
A cart driver (Janos Derzsi, a killer in The Man From London, Kraner in Satantango) lives with his daughter (Erike Bok, the lead couple’s daughter in Man From London, cat tormenter in Satantango) in a small house away from the main town. Besides a chatterbox neighbor who shows up one day to borrow some brandy and a band of gypsies who stop at the well for a few minutes, they are the only two people in the movie. After the prologue they barely leave the house, so we get to know their routines and mannerisms – but Tarr shoots repeated actions in a different way each time. For instance, at the first dinner scene it’s a tight shot on the father’s face as he peels and eats his potato in a great hurry while it’s still too hot. Next time we watch the daughter instead, from further away over her father’s arm. And the third time it’s a two-shot with the camera centered on the table.
Of course I counted shots. Might be off by one or two, but it’s definitely fewer than Werckmeister Harmonies, which was the same length. Five-minute average!
Prologue (1): After a black-screen voiceover tells us the title story, about Nietzche losing his mind after protecting a horse that was being brutally whipped. The man rides his cart home, the story in our minds as the camera watches his horse, which doesn’t seem to be suffering.
The First Day (4): The girl comes out and they put the cart and horse in the barn. She helps him change clothes. They each have a potato then go to bed, after taking turns staring out the window. “The woodworms: they’re not making any noise. I’ve heard them for 58 years, but I don’t hear them now.” A narrator unexpectedly bursts in, telling us the man’s name (Ohlsdorfer), that he’s the girl’s father (I assumed) and that it’s windy out (heh).
The Second Day (7): She gets water at the well, helps father dress. They gear up the horse, but it won’t move. After some attempts with the whip (nothing that would give Nietzche a breakdown), they give up, put the cart and horse back and give it fresh food. Dressing again. He splits wood one-handed while she does laundry. Potatoes. Then the neighbor wanting brandy. We’re not sure what to make of his rant (does it come from Nietzche?). “The wind’s blown [the town] away. It’s gone to ruin. Everything’s in ruins.” Then he gets more abstract, about how “they” have acquired and debased everything, that no god exists, nor does anything. “Extinguished and burnt out.” In five minutes he delivers more than half the dialogue in the entire 150-minute film.
The Third Day (5): Water at the well, father gets dressed, off to the barn. The horse hasn’t eaten, has no energy. They don’t even try to make it pull the cart, just retreat back indoors. A gypsy cart approaches and the man gets anxious. The daughter tries to shoo them away as they get water from the well – one grabs her, “Come with us to America!” The father chases them off with a hatchet. Back indoors, she reads the book a gypsy gave her, something about the violation of holy places, ending with the words “Morning will turn to night… night will end…” before she’s cut off by the narrator telling us more about the wind.
The Fourth Day (6): The well is dry. The horse won’t eat. He’s had enough, decides they need to move. They pack their possessions into the hand cart and head off, the horse walking behind. In a wide shot, they walk past a distant tree, over a hill beyond which the camera can’t see. In a minute they’re back on our side of the hill, returning home, wordlessly unpacking. The camera is outside in the wind as the girl stares out the window.
The Fifth Day (5): Wake up, have some brandy, give up on the horse. Dad barely eats, stares out the window. Then a blackout. No sun. They light the lamps, but a few minutes later those go out too, though they’re full of oil. “Tomorrow we’ll try again.”
The Sixth Day (1): Dim light (is it really there, or is the film cheating?). No water, no fire. He attempts to eat a raw potato while she stares into her empty dish.
Composer Mihaly Vig contributes an intermittent score, leaden with organ and abrasive violin, that alludes to folk music while also invoking the repetitions of minimalist composers such as Steve Reich. The omnipresent sound of a raging gale has a quasi-musical presence of its own.
R. Koehler in Cinema Scope:
The film’s text . . . can be pegged as a tale of an oncoming apocalypse with great implications for today’s viewers. Such a reading tends to ignore the story’s essential absurdist essence, the will to go on despite all dire signs to the contrary. The Turin Horse is as much tied to Samuel Beckett as it is to Friedrich Nietzsche.
Fred Kelemen reveals that the house was outfitted with around 30 lights on dimmers – the natural-looking light completely faked. And in addition to wind machines, they sometimes used a helicopter.
Kelemen on the moving camera: “It is like the movement of thoughts, your thoughts move and you reveal something. We move in the world and by moving we discover and understand. The human being is a moving being — physically and spiritually — not a stationary one. The moving image is thus a thinking image.”
In a separate article, Koehler says it’s wrong to call the film apocalyptic, but I don’t follow his reasoning. “Tarr’s cinematic design begins with elaborate camera dances, the pure celebration of cinematic movement through space, and ends with absolute stasis and darkness.”