The movies of Béla Tarr

This life goes on in a place like many others. It is chilly and it rains all the time, and dogs roam the streets. The few inhabitants drive their old cars on the asphalt which glistens in the rain. They meet at the “Titanic bár”, the joint with a neatly plastered façade with one shuttered window, a glimmering neon sign bringing it out of the darkness. A scene out of Hopper’s paintings. But inside, it is different: a patterned wallpaper, a counter with mounting glasses and several bottles of palinka, a muddy black-and white chequered floor. Singing there in the evenings is a woman wrapped in a black raincoat. She is singing a sad song like Marlena Dietrich, only in Hungarian. This is the landscape of the Damnation (Kárhozat, 1988) by Béla Tarr.


Underlying the Hungarian melancholia is the lowland topography, but also the conviction of the otherness, springing from the geo-political location, the belief in one’s own uniqueness, and the fear lest it should be washed away by the surrounding Slavic sea. In the 9th and 10th centuries Hungarian nomadic tribes raided the lowlands of the Carpathian Basin, and thenceforth they set out on further conquests. The Barbarian Hungarians were Asians, blood and bone. With time they settled and became domesticated. In 19th-century drawings they are depicted as short, slanted-eyed riders on little horses. Hungarians, now domesticated in the Central Europe, cultivate the memory of their early origins, along with the conviction that they are still visitors, the strangers. Here the topos of a stronghold under siege creates the aura of an ever-present danger, as well as a martyrdom of a kind, a failure and crumbling to pieces, rooted in the time when the great kingdom of Saint Stephen lost a better part of its territory. The failure and the loss became part and parcel of the mythology. Melancholia, produced by the sentiment of uniqueness, but also by feeling misunderstood, weighs upon the Hungarians so much that despite their very mobile roots, they became one of the least mobile nations in Europe. An impossibility of leaving, of an escape, and also of a mental dissociation from the lowland home country is another stigma in the state of being Hungarian. The key to Hungarian melancholia seems to be both in the lack of great water at the horizon, and the lack of movement.

Béla Tarr’s hometown is Pécs, which Krzysztof Varga in his Turul Goulash [Gulasz z turula] likens to the reviving Mediterranean breeze in the stale, lowland air; the least depressing Hungarian town, perhaps the least Hungarian one. Meanwhile Tarr’s world is nearer the East Hungary – behind river Tisza, and the more real for it. Varga calls the films by the Hungarian director “[…] an enema of the concentrated stock of Hungarian nature. The Hungarian nature which vegetates far from Budapest fashions, from goulash soup in a tourist csárdá, from exuberant celebrations of national holidays. […] they are showing the world of the 1980s, the world before the EU grants, and supermarket specials. This is a planet of mud and despair, not the colourful Europe of the ads. But that world still exists underneath, like black numbers hidden beneath the colourful scratch coupon” (Krzysztof Varga, Gulasz z turula, Wołowiec 2008, p. 69). Varga is writing about the mood of Tarr’s movies, starting the chapter from the question about Hungarian depression (Pörkölt from Bulasc and Lehel), which does not end in tears – as proposed by Cioran, who is quoted by the author – but in a prolonged despair, which sooner or later will lead to suicide.


Bèla Tarr does not look the part of the avant-garde artist he is generally thought to be. Simply dressed in shades of grey, his hair, which is turning white, is caught in a small pony-tail at the back of his head. During meetings with his audience, and when interviewed – he is a man of few words. He often says: “I do not understand,” “I’m trying to understand.”  He leads discussions with his long-time friend, writer and author of film scripts László Krasznahorkai, on the subject of not art, but life. He pays no heed to metaphysics, which is present in critical analyses of his work. He made his first movie at the age of 16, then he got involved with an independent film studio of Bèla Balász; at that time he wanted to change the world by kicking the door open in a harsh, documentary style. While they are still telling the same story, his movies today tell it just a little differently each time. Each and every time we are prompted to decide whether we care about a “story”, or whether we think that cinema should construct a certain perceptible world instead. And after all, cinema is composed not of a story, but of place, time, the rhythm of existence, people’s gazes.  And when an old man looks into the eyes of the whale in the final scene of Werkmeister’s Harmonies (Werckmeister harmóniák, 2000), only the cinema can show what he feels – argues the director – because it is not something you can tell in words. If you ask him about his unique experiment of the seven-hour-plus movie titled Satan’s Tango (Sátántangó, 1994), which questions sense of time of any sort, he will answer: and what does in mean, a long, or a short take?  Do not ask about length. You should ask, whether it is proper, whether it matches whatever it is that you want to tell through it.

What are Bèla Tarr’s movies like? They are black and white, due to his affinity with the shades of grey and the disgust which the Kodak colours produce in him. They are rainy and muddy, stuck in the shadows, sparse, and yet filled with a multitude of objects, which might fall apart at a slightest touch. Timeless, or rather – independent of time. They are movies filled with surly humour, focused on the protagonists of the drama, who, in their human ugliness, ridiculousness, and weakness, seem beautiful after all, each in his or her own way. Disturbing, tedious, challenging in reception, but also moving and magnetic…


And so the movie is always black and while, the camera contemplating, the frame planned to the minutest detail. The film scenery usually consists of different, deliberately selected places, which are actually located far apart. For a long time, the camera is looking at whatever is in the given frame. Then with a gentle, slow, smooth movement, in one single take, it shifts to the side, towards another view. It stops. It lingers there for a long while, allowing for exact penetration of another image, for grasping all the details, and again it returns, just as slow, to the original spot. This is the consistent strategy upon which Tarr constructed his Damnation, and which he afterwards perfected in the subsequent parts of the triptych: The Satan’s Tango and Werkmeister’s Harmonies. This is the key to Tarr’s work, to his Hungarian melancholy of the centre point: monotony and eternal return. His major preoccupation is the manner of handling time: and that is precisely what rules the camera work, the editing, the scenery, and the manner of presenting human faces. Imprisoned in one single place, Tarr’s protagonists are put to a test, and they find themselves in a trap from which – illusion of a development notwithstanding – there is no way out. Because sooner or later, everything slides slowly around the wheel of time and eventually returns to its original spot.

In his essay accompanying the Béla Tarr retrospective during the 4th Era New Horizons Film Festival in Cieszyn (2004), Balint Andras Kovacs justly pointed out: “The question therefore is not: how to stop that process, but: what are we going to do in all this time. Tarr addresses this question to his viewer, but in order to understand the question, the viewer first must understand the curse of time. First he needs to comprehend that living the next moment has no justification – as time is empty. It is an eternal, indivisible dimension, in which everything repeats in an unalterable way. (Balint Andras Kovacs, Świat według Tarra [The World According to Tarr], the festival catalogue, p. 240). Perhaps the only way out of this cul-de-sac of the eternal return would be suicide, so close to Hungarian character and Hungarian tendency to reflect upon ephemerality and death. Yet nothing changes.

The latest movie by Tarr, The Man from London (A Londoni férfi, 2007), based on a story by George Simenon, is another tale of unchangeability. Even though it features a seaside town. The distant, grey-ridden horizon does not exhibit any marks of movement, the water of the bay is flat and dormant. It is a tale about a warden, who guards the port quay at night. He witnesses a tussle between two men. From the height of his glass booth he sees how one of them, clutching a briefcase in his hand, falls into the water and drowns, while the other walks away empty handed. The warden fishes out the briefcase, leaving the dead body in the water. The briefcase if filled with money. The mystery of a crime will not evolve and reveal itself slowly to us, it will not lure us with questions such as: what’s next, who was the killer, who will be punished, what did actually happen and why. A simple explanation will be provided by an old police inspector, who will say that the money had been stolen from an owner of a cinema, who was just about to finalise its sale, and it was stolen by one of his partners, the one who struggled with him at the quay. But this is not about the mystery.

The warden is only human, he is neither particularly bad, nor particularly good. When he gets caught up in this story of greed, he is afraid. Paralysed by fear, he will stylishly try to turn around the lives of his loved ones, to break away from the routine and the tedium of everyday. He will no longer let his daughter work in the shop where she had been treated badly, he will buy her a fox-fur collar. It is all for nothing, as the fate which had been fixed in one position for years like a bronze-cast statue will not be easily changed, not even by means of a briefcase filled with money. The briefcase is but a catalyst of new thoughts and feelings, which appear in the warden’s head, it is but a shadow of hope for a change. In the portside bar people continue drinking vodka, playing chess, strumming the accordion, same as usual. Long-standing patrons will perform for us their dance with a billiard ball and a chair, reminiscent of satanic parades we know from previous movies. Astonishing human figures. The city will crumble, caught in a fine net of pipes. Illuminated with an expressionist light at night, during the day it sits under the ever-overcast sky. Narrow streets, houses with plasters falling off, emptiness of pieces cut out of the world and glued back together by the film director. This drama of disappointment is almost lacking any words, the tragedy we can read in the eyes of the protagonists only will complete its full circle so that life can return to its predestined track. Death during lifetime? A dream of death? This – it seems – is death Hungarian style.

The Hungarian suicide – whether this is due to raging genes or the cultural affirmation of death – becomes a hero and a model in Hungary. He is covered with a nimbus of poetry, and the memory of him lasts, just like the memory of old failures, preserved with the same zeal as the memory of victories. Therefore suicide is not a sign of cowardice, but an act of courage, it is not an escape from the life submerged in melancholy, but the most noble way of breaking through the impasse. Béla Tarr, who reveals to us the lives of his protagonists, the lives which seem always to hesitate at the threshold of a catastrophe, the moment just before the final destruction, but also before a decisive choice – on the verge, denies them that right. He refuses them the noble option. Seduced, cheated, wasted, they will last in the ghoulish, atavistic dance, devoid now of any hope. They will return to the bar, as always they will eye each other with distrust and hatred, their dance macabre will become a symbol of their situation, and they will so continue dancing, intertwined in Tarr’s favourite time warp, wedged between the Hungarian affirmation of death, and cowardice, mediocrity, helplessness – the characteristics which condemn them to the torture of immortality.

Translated from Polish by Dorota Wąsik