Film Reviews

The Turin Horse Béla Tarr

Rating - 7/10

If The Turin Horse [A torinói ] is Béla Tarr’s last film, it is a heavy, laborious, repetitious valediction that draws closer and closer to death with each passing minute, perhaps as an apt self-commentary to a cinematic career’s swan song.  The genesis for the production seems somewhat threadbare and mystical, historically referencing philosopher-nihilist Frederich Nietzsche’s witnessing of a man whipping a horse that instigated his descent into madness.  Tarr (and co-director Ágnes Hranitzky) preface the film with a black screen and a couple minutes of narration of this incident as a tonal foundation for the subsequent tale of that bearded, partially debilitated man Ohlsdorfer (János Derzsi), his emaciated, equally disgruntled daughter (Erika Bók), and stubborn horse Ricsi.  They live meagerly in a rural shack on a hillside, presumably in Turin, Italy, where the incessant howling of wind cuts into their mental condition evoked through tedious tasks just to eke out another day of existence.  Nietzsche’s supposed breakdown is visually simulated in heavy grays of black-and-white cinematography and incredibly lengthy takes (in fact there are only thirty in the 146-minute film), which promote the exact examination of daily decay; each of the six days within the film is a real-time degeneration inching toward complete ruination.  The frequently static camera also allows the director to provide deceptions of finality, as over-stimulated modern movie audiences anticipate conclusive shots that eventually give way to further broken language and movement.  In fact, László Krasznahorkai’s screenplay has such little dialogue that each word assumes a stark cliffhanging nature (as if each one may be the last uttered), breaking the whipping winds consuming the soundtrack.  In the film’s most conversational, unconventional moment during the second day, a man trudges into their shack to request a bottle of palinka.  Suddenly, he initiates a long diatribe, an omen about debasement and the pillaging of the world.  In Tarr’s description, the man’s words are of “Nietzschean shadow.”  Ohlsdorfer remarks that the visitor’s forewarning is “rubbish,” and the man stumbles away.  While the scene documents a jarring tonal shift, it serves multiple purposes: abrupt contrast, ambiguity, alarm, uncertainty, and punishment.  As this mysterious man’s discussion of violence breaks the purely visual tension, it offers a somewhat literal foreshadowing; as a wandering rove of gypsies attempts to steal their well water supply the following day, the two are then plagued by a sudden unassailable darkness.

Composer Mihály Vig’s recurring theme for the film layers brooding string instrumentation over a swirling, menacing barrel organ drone that encloses the father and daughter in certain doom.  In a revealing Cineuropa interview, Tarr speaks directly to the dread that informs his camera techniques and emphasis.  “The Turin Horse is about the heaviness of human existence. How it’s difficult to live your daily life... The daily repetition of the same routine makes it possible to show that something is wrong with their world. It’s very simple and pure.”  One must wonder whether or not he wishes to extend “their world” to “our world” or “the natural world.”  The didactic act of filmmaking is often glamorized as illuminating or joyous, yet The Turin Horse seems like an antithesis to that common perception.  It is devoid of joy and replaces sympathy with distant mechanization.  To view this film is to peer directly into Tarr’s inner self; it reveals a tremendous dissatisfaction and scorn for the impatience fostered by life itself that may only be relieved by death.   Jeff Reichert’s thorough Reverse Shot review analyzes many scenes with a sense for gravity.  At one point he writes of the father and daughter’s ritualistic eating habits.  “Two steaming hot potatoes are served and without waiting for them to cool, the pair begins pulling at the burning peels…” Reichert does not acknowledge it, but the father, in particular, exemplifies the impatience toward the simplest activity.  Burning his hands and mouth, he exerts a misplaced resistance toward impending doom, failing even to wait for his food to cool before consuming it.  As the preface suggests, the father’s repeated whipping of the horse has resulted in its refusal to obey human command.  When saddled and lashed by the father on the second day, Ricsi remains immobile; from the fourth day onward, the daughter’s offer of nourishment is ignored, and the horse slowly withers away in a parallel act of obstinacy.

Eventually, after the gypsy raid that was abstractly foretold, resources drain, and the couple is forced to vacate.  They set out with a handcart and horse in tow, and they ascend a hillside in a longshot and trudge over the horizon.  This scene has a peculiar visual link to the concluding “danse macabre” (“dance of death”) finale of Bergman’s The Seventh Seal (1957).  By comparison, The Turin Horse scene is rather like the inevitable crawl of death, as the shot remains stationary for an estimated four or five minutes.  Suddenly, without a shift in camera movement, the two return over the hill without a word or explanation and unload their cart, perhaps bearing witness a horrific scene – a corpse, a band of gypsies, an impassible cliff – or succumbing to impatience or sheer hopelessness of the journey.  What follows is a cut to the most literally haunting image of the daughter’s hanging head in the shack’s window.  The camera continues to zoom in closer to her ghostly, superimposed-like portrait, staring blankly with restrained terror.  The shot and is so stark and disturbingly still that it halts the entire film in a preemptive conclusion.  Forthcoming visual depictions and narration fail to appropriately complement this scene.  Narration, in fact, taken as a whole, remains inessential to the film with emphasis on repetitive, routine motion and a near-absence of narrative.  While it may be seen to possess a two-pronged effect by “vividly” enhancing the bleakness of existence, it simultaneously rails against its own lumbering visual intensity.  One of Tarr’s spiritual predecessors, Andrei Tarkovsky, has written on the emergence of cinema as art in his autobiography Sculpting in Time.  While Tarkovsky would enforce Tarr’s use of time (“Cinema came into being as a means of recording the movement of reality,” 94), he would have been adverse to overt borrowing of painterly and literary elements, because they translate awkwardly to the cinema and force regressive comparison.  The concluding narration of the third and fifth days serves little purpose other than to reinforce the preexisting filmic, visual forms.  Since it does not reprise the introductory Nietzschean tale, it is merely an adjoined text between the supposed reality and the fictional re-presentation.  Ultimately, paired with its sheer weight and length, impression of The Turin Horse remains mixed as an impenetrably unique and meditative exercise that can seem to devolve into ambiguous, joyless dearth.  Unto death.