Cinema of Hungary


Podzemlje (1995) (Underground)
Emir Kusturica
Serbian/German/French/English/Russian

 

UndergroundEmir Kusturica’s Underground (1995) has been torn apart in certain sections as pro-Milosevic propaganda that brushes aside Serbia’s atrocities in the Balkan Wars. I think that’s not only being too harsh on a relatively benign satire but also that it ascribes way too much intention and focus to a film that’s riddled with ideological inconsistencies, like most films. True that it presents Yugoslavia under Tito as a Platonic cave whose residents mistake the shadows on the wall – sometimes literally, as when the inmates of an underground cell watch faked footage from WW2, which they think is still on – for truth and who are kept united under a phantom enemy while being blind to internal fault lines. But construing Kusturica’s generally sentimental lament about the breakup of a nation as brothers start killing brothers and friends turn on each other as a case for Serbia comes across as a pre-determined approach to the film which writes down the answers before the questions. What’s most inviting about Underground is how it keeps poking at the nexus between politics and cinema. Marko (Miki Manojlović), whose rise to power mirrors Tito’s, appears to us like a filmmaker figure, directing his historical actors in an underground set illuminated by high-key lighting and marked by a bizarre communal mise en scène. (And what of Tito himself, who could be the seen as the helmer of a chaotic crew made to act out a Communist metanarrative?) The deep hierarchy of performances that pervades the film aptly throws light on the loss of “reality” and the alienation from history that seems to have characterized Yugoslavia’s tumultuous half-century since the end of the Second World War.

It was the best of years, it was the worst of years. Best because a dizzying number of big and important projects surfaced this year and worst because I haven’t even been able to see even a fraction of that number, even though my film viewing hit an all-time high this December, That last bit was possible thanks to the city’s major international film festival, the first full-fledged fest that I’ve ever attended – a key event as far as my cinephilia is concerned. Although, I must admit, none of the new titles I saw at the fest blew me away, I was surprised by a handful of films that I think deserve wider exposure. (I’m thinking specifically of Jean-Jacques Jauffret’s debut film Heat Wave, a tragic, graceful hyperlionk movie in which piecing together the disorienting geography of Marseilles becomes as important as piecing together the four intersecting narratives.) Instead of continuing apologetically to emphasize my viewing gaps and to rationalize the countless number of entries on my to-see list, I present you another list, The Top 10 Films I Didn’t See This Year: (1) House of Tolerance (Bertrand Bonello, an indisputable masterpiece, probably) (2) Seeking the Monkey King (Ken Jacobs) (3) Margaret (Kenneth Lonergan) (4) This is Not a Film (Jafar Panahi/Mojtaba Mirtahmasb) (5) Century of Birthing (Lav Diaz) (6) Life Without Principle (Johnnie To) (7) The Loneliest Planet (Julia Loktev) (8) Hugo (Martin Scorsese) (9) Once Upon a Time in Anatolia (Nuri Bilge Ceylan) (10) La Havre (Aki Kaurismaki). Now that that’s out of my system, here are my favorites from the ones I did get to see.

1. The Turin Horse (Béla Tarr/Ágnes Hranitzky, Hungary)


The Turin HorseFor a number of films this year, the end of the world became some sort of a theme park ride taken with ease, but none of them ventured as far as Béla Tarr’s mesmerizing, awe-inspiring farewell to cinema. With The Turin Horse, Tarr’s filmmaking traverses the whole gamut, moving away from the wordy realist pictures of his early phase to this extreme abstraction suggesting, in Godard’s phrasing, a farewell to language itself. Centering on a man, his daughter and their horse as they eke out a skeletal existence in some damned plain somewhere in Europe, The Turin Horse is the last chapter of a testament never written, an anti-Genesis narrative that finds God forsaking the world and leaving it to beings on earth to sort it all out by themselves. Tarr’s film is a remarkable cinematic achievement, primal in its physicality and elemental in its force. Nothing this year was so laden with doom and so brimming with hope at once as the ultimate image of the film, where father and daughter – now awakened, perhaps – sit in the darkness with nothing to confront but each other.

2. A Separation (Asghar Farhadi, Iran)


A SeparationAsghar Farhadi’s super-modest yet supremely ambitious chronicle of class conflict in Tehran is a massive deconstruction project that strikes right at the heart of systems that define us. Accumulating detail upon detail and soaking the film in the ambiguity that characterizes the real world, A Separation reveals the utter failure of binary logic – which not only forms the foundation of institutions such as justice but also permeates and petrifies our imagination – in dealing with human dilemmas. Farhadi’s centrism is not a form of bourgeois neutrality that plagues many a war movies, it is a recognition that truth lies somewhere in the recesses between the contours of language, law and logic. Working with unquantifiable parameters such as irrationality and doubt, Farhadi’s film is something of an aporia in the discourses that surround cinema and reality and an urgent call for revaluation of approaches towards critical problems in general. Rigorously shot, edited and directed, A Separation is a genuinely empathetic yet highly intelligent slice of reality in all its messy complexity and breathtaking grace.

3. The Tree Of Life (Terrence Malick, USA)


The Tree of LifeJuxtaposing the cosmic, the macroscopic and the infinite with the particular, the everyday and the finite, Terrence Malick’s fifth film The Tree of Life seeks to ask big questions. It is here that the director’s longstanding philosophical concerns find perfect articulation and efficacy in the specific form of the film. Seamlessly shifting between perspectives both all-knowing and limited, The Tree of Life posits the existence of a single shared consciousness across time and place, only a small part of which is each human being. It is also Malick’s most phenomenological film and mostly unfolds as a series of sensory impressions that both invites and resists interpretation. An awe-instilling tug-of-war between finitude and permanence, omniscience and ignorance, narrativization and immediate experience and rationalization and incomprehension, Malick’s unabashed celebration of the birth of consciousness – in general and in specific forms – locates the particular in the universal and vice versa. What lingers in the mind more than the grand ideas, though, are extremely minor details, which is pretty much what the medium must aspire to achieve.

4. The Story Of Film: An Odyssey (Mark Cousins, UK)


The Story of FilmA scandalous history, a disproportionate sense of importance and a frustrating accent. Critic-Filmmaker Mark Cousins’ project to present the story of cinema as a 15-part TV series appears doomed right from the conceptualization stage: can you even attempt to tell a story of film without omitting whole schools of filmmaking or national cinemas? Omit it certainly does, and unapologetically so, but when Cousins chronologically hops from one country to another, halting at particular films, scenes or even shots, providing commentary that is as insightful as they come and situating them in the larger scheme of things, you wouldn’t hesitate to lower your guard. Not only does Cousins’ 900-minute tribute to filmdom introduce us to names in world cinema rarely discussed about, but also presents newer approaches to canonical entries. Admirably inclusive (Matthew Barney and Baz Luhrmann find adjacent seats, so do Youssef Chahine and Steven Spielberg) and never condescending, The Story of Film exhibits towards the history of the form a sensitivity comparable to the finest of film criticism.

5. We Need To Talk About Kevin (Lynne Ramsay, UK)


We Need to Talk About KevinWhat is stressed in Lynne Ramsay’s rattling third feature We Need to Talk About Kevin is not only the continuity between mother and son, but also the essential discontinuity. Where does the mother end and where does the son begin? Every inch of space between actors resonates with this dreadful ambiguity. The film is as much about Eva’s birth from the stifling womb of motherhood as it is Kevin’s apparent inability to be severed from her umbilical cord. Every visual in Ramsay’s chronicle of blood and birth works on three levels – literal, symbolic and associative – the last of which links the images of the film in subtle, subconscious and thoroughly unsettling ways. For the outcast Eva, the past bleeds into the present and every object, sound and gesture becomes a living, breathing reminder of whatever has been put behind. Ramsay’s intuitive, sensual approach to colour, composition and sound locates her directly in the tradition of the Surrealists and deems this unnerving, shattering, personal genre work as one of the most exciting pieces of cinema this year.

6. Life In A Day (Various, Various)


Life in a DayAn heir to the ideas of Dziga Vertov and Aleksandr Medvedkin, Kevin Macdonald’s Life in a Day is a moving, bewildering, charming, frustrating and dizzying snapshot of Planet Earth in all its glory, stupidity and complexity on a single day in 2011. An endless interplay of presence and absence, familiar and exotic, lack and excess, similarity and difference, the homogenous and the un-normalizable and the empowered and the marginalized, Life in a Day is a virtually inexhaustible film that is a strong testament to how many of us lived together on this particular planet on this particular day of this particular year. (That it represents only a cross section of the world population is a complaint that is subsumed by the film’s observations.) Each shot, loaded with so much cultural content, acts as a synecdoche, suggesting a dense social, political and historical network underneath. Most importantly, it taps right into the dread of death that accompanies cinematography: the heightened awareness of the finitude of existence and experience and the direct confrontation with the passing of time.

7. Kill List (Ben Wheatley, UK)


Kill ListOn the surface, Ben Wheatley’s Kill List comes across like a sick B-movie with a mischievous sense of plotting, but on closer examination, it reveals itself as a serious work with clear-cut philosophical and political inclination. That its philosophy is inseparable from its mind-bending narrative structure makes it a very challenging beast. Kill List is the kind of kick in the gut that video games must strive to emulate if they aspire to become art. Indeed, Wheatley’s chameleon of a film borrows much from video games – from its division of a mission into stages announced by intertitles to the third-person-shooter aesthetic that it segues into – making us complicit with the protagonist and his moral attitude, later pulling the rug from our feet and leaving us afloat. Early in the film, Iraq war veteran and protagonist Jay mumbles that it was better if he was fighting the Nazis – at least, he would know who the enemy was. He learns the hard way that this ‘othering’ of the enemy into a mass of unidentifiable groups is a psychological strategy to protect and redeem himself, that it’s judgment that defeats us.

8. Sleeping Beauty (Julia Leigh, Australia)


Sleeping BeautyYour vagina will be a temple” one elderly procurer assures Lucy, a twenty something university student who takes up odd jobs to pay her fees. Not only is the vagina a temple in Julia Leigh’s markedly assured debut feature, but the human body itself is a space that is to be furnished, maintained and rented out for public use. Leigh’s vehemently anti-realist examination of continuous privatization of the public and publicization of the private works against any kind of psychological or sociological realism, instead unfolding as an academic study of the human body as a site of control. Setting up a dialectic between pristine, clinical public spaces and messy, emotional private ones, Sleeping Beauty attempts to explore not our relationship to the spaces that we inhabit, but also to the space that we ourselves are. Consistently baffling and irreducible, Leigh’s film displays an eccentric yet surefooted approach to design, composition and framing, revealing the presence of a personality beneath. Sleeping Beauty is, for me, the most impressive debut film of the year.

9. The Kid With A Bike (Jean-Pierre Dardenne/Luc Dardenne, Belgium/France)


The Kid with a BikeThe Dardenne brothers have turned out to be the preeminent documentarians of our world and their latest wonder The Kid with a Bike sits alongside their best works as an unadorned, incisive portrait of our time. Admittedly inspired by fairly tales, Dardennes’ film might appear like an archetypal illustration of innocence lured by the devil, but its parameters are all drawn from here and now. Structured as a series of transactions – persons, objects, moral grounds – where human interaction is inextricably bound to the movement of physical objects, the film presents our world as one defined by exchanges of all kind, but never reduces this observation to some cynical reading of life as a business. Also characteristic of Dardennes’ universe is the intense physicality that pervades each shot. Be it the boy scurrying about on foot or on bike or the countless number of doors that are opened and closed, the Dardennes, once more, show us that cinema must concern itself with superficies and it is on the surface of things that one can find depth.

10. The Monk (Dominik Moll, France/Spain)


The MonkDominik Moll’s adaptation of Matthew Lewis’ eponymous novel concerning a self-righteous priest tempted by the devil could be described as an intervention of late nineteenth century tools – psychoanalysis and cinema – into a late eighteenth century text. Located on this side of the birth of psychoanalysis, Moll’s film comes across as essentially Freudian in the way it portrays the titular monk as a human being flawed by design and the church, society and family as institutions responsible for suppressing those basic impulses. Incest, rape and murder abound as hell breaks loose, but the film’s sympathy is clearly with the devil. The Monk uses an array of early silent cinema techniques including a schema that combines an impressionistic illustration of the protagonist’s sensory experience and expressionistic mise en scène to signal his irreversible descent into decadence. Alternating between metallic blues of the night and sun bathed brown, Moll’s film teeters on the obscure boundary between Good and Evil. Exquisitely composed and expertly realized, The Monk supplies that irresistible dose of classicism missing in the other films on this list.

The Turin Horse

The Turin Horse 
(Image Courtesy: MottoMagazinBlog)

There are 30 shots in all in Hungarian couple Béla Tarr’s and Ágnes Hranitzky’s The Turin Horse (2011), 29 of which involve a moving camera and most of which are elaborately choreographed amalgam of camera movements. The first and possibly the most exhilarating shot of the film is a compounded crane and tracking shot in which we are presented with a horse cart and its driver. The dolly tracks at the pace of the cart and its craning arm films the cart primarily from two directions perpendicular to each other: a view lateral to the line of action and a view of the horse head-on and up close. (This combination of lateral and head-on angles of the camera will form a major visual motif in the film.) We see the horse pushing hard against the gale, with its mane fluttering backward. We see the man, equally haggard, with his hair swept back by the wind like the mane. We also note that, by himself, the man is static while the horse is the one moving forward and taking him along – a minor detail but also an illustration of the film’s chief theme. The equivalence between the horse and its driver becomes even more pointed as the film cuts to the second shot, where we see the man – now on foot – pulling the horse into the stable (also reiterated in shot no.22 where the man’s daughter does the pulling). After the second shot, the film shifts indoors, where the major part of the film unfolds.

Inside, we follow the man, Ohlsdorfer (Janos Derzsi), and his daughter (Erika Bok, who plays a counterpoint of sorts to the character she played 17 years ago in Satantango (1994)) as they go about doing their daily work for 6 consecutive days: she gets up first, wears the countless number of clothes hanging on the wall, adds firewood to the hearth, fetches water from the well, dresses up the man, who has a paralyzed right hand, and boils the potatoes so that they can have lunch. Much of the action involves, as does the latest Dardennes feature, closing and opening of doors, necessitated by the beastly windstorm that plagues the outdoors. Their house is sparse and functionally furnished. Not only are the walls entirely unadorned, but the coating is coming off. The man seems to be a cobbler and he, possibly, sells the belts he makes in the town. The family does not seem to particularly religious. It does not have appear to any neighbours or visitors, save for the man (Mihály Kormos) who comes to their house to get his keg of country liquor filled, and the band of gypsies which arrives at their well for water, only to be shooed off by the old man.

The day-to-day events repeat over and over, of course, but Tarr (Please rest assured that I’m not forgetting the contribution of Hranitzky here and elsewhere) and regular DoP Fred Keleman photograph them from different setups each day, trying out various possible configurations and presentations and as if illustrating the Nietzsche’s concept of Eternal Recurrence that informs the structuring of the film. The effect of ritualization and repetition of everyday events with religiosity is bolstered by Mihaly Vig’s characteristically organ-laden cyclical soundtrack (reminiscent of the thematically apt Que Sera Sera of Almanac of Fall (1985)) that meets its counterpoint only in the boisterousness of the winds that sweep the plain. Keleman and Tarr light and shoot the interior of the house so painstakingly and evocatively, that even commonplace objects achieve a throbbing vitality of their own. They often light overhead, as they regularly do, imparting a luminous visual profile to the characters, who now seem like spectres haunting this dilapidated house. Unusually, there are also few instances of a voice over, which is new for Tarr, which acts as like the voice of an anti-God looking over the man and his daughter during the course of the film and their eventual fall.

It soon appears as though the horse (Risci) is neither at the centre of the film’s lean narrative nor at the focus of its apparent ideas. Indeed, it simply looms in the background like an unwelcome guest or an illness that is preventing the old man from riding into town to do business. However, actually, the animal not only provides a stark thematic contrast to the human characters of the film, it is at the very foundation of its metaphysics. The film opens with a hearsay anecdote about Friedrich Nietzsche. Apparently, in January 1889, when the philosopher was in Turin, he witnessed a cart driver flogging his recalcitrant horse. Nietzsche is said to have stopped him in haste and leapt on to the cart, embraced the horse and cried profusely. It is also said that this was the day after which he started losing control of his mental faculties. Of course, at the outset, what Nietzsche felt was simple empathy for a tormented creature, like any kind person would have. But because the person we are talking about is Nietzsche, the event holds a very special implication. What he was going through was also a sudden experience of intersubjectivity and, as importantly, the awareness of its existence.

A small detour to Dostoyevsky, a writer Nietzsche deeply admired, would be instructive here. In Crime and Punishment (1865), protagonist Rodion Raskolnikov, a bona-fide Nietzschean character, is haunted by dreams of a horse being cudgeled to death for the entertainment of those around it. It is, in addition, an expression of the owner’s power over and possession of it. Rodion, who believes that certain superior individuals have the right to disregard law and conventional morality if they feel that they are doing so for a greater good, discovers here the fallacy of his worldview. Like Nietzsche, he proposes a philosophy of guilt predicated on the effect of a “crime” on the conscience of the actor and not on the acted upon. But what this idea assumes is that moral consciousness of a person is a given, fully-formed whole, independent of other consciousnesses. Rodion realizes, in this nightmare, the toxicity of appointing oneself a superordinate being, especially when the relationship is that of master and slave, owner and owned. Nietzsche, in a classic case of life is imitating art, faces the same situation at Turin. His tears are an acknowledgement of the interconnectedness of all consciousnesses, an equivalence of each one of them.

The opening text of The Turin Horse tells us that we know what happened to Nietzsche after the incident but not the horse. The film’s recognition of the horse as a being as important as Nietzsche begins right there. The first image we see is that of a mare trotting against heavy wind, very close to the screen, dominating the frame – as if the camera is embracing it – suggesting its centrality to the film’s ideas. (Actually, we are never told that this animal is the same as the one Nietzsche wept for. The cut from the anecdote to the horse prompts us to assume that. This is only the first instance of lack of specificity that pervades the film.) The Turin Horse treats the horse as a fully-formed consciousness in itself – as vital as, if not more, its human counterparts – capable of understanding the world and, more crucially, reacting to it. The two human characters at the centre of the film do recognize the doom that surrounds them, but do not seem to do anything to change or respond to it. On the other hand, it is their horse that protests the cruelty of its master and offers resistance to the decay all around by refusing to eat or work. In other words, the mare seems to possess a higher degree of self-awareness than its human owners.  In one shot, the camera lingers on the horse long after the humans have left the scene, with the same solemnity that it displayed towards the people in the film. It is not some overblown anthropomorphism that we are dealing with here. It is a radical decentering of humanity as the locus of consciousness.

This tendency to displace humans as the centre of the universe also furthers Tarr’s and frequent collaborator László Krasznahorkai’s long-standing anti-Biblical programme. If, with the ending of Satantango and the upshot of the Nietzschean Werckmeister Harmonies (2000), the writer-director pair tried to overturn the Scripture, here they take on the Creation narrative itself. Divided into six days, which no doubt serve to echo the six days of the creation of earth, The Turin Horse chronicles in detail the progressive disintegration of the world back to nothingness before time. In this anti-Genesis-narrative, neither is man created in the image of God (one that’s not dead, that is), nor are beasts inferior beings to be tamed and controlled by man. (“Let us make man in our image, after our likeness. And let them have dominion over the fish of the sea and over the birds of the heavens and over the livestock and over all the earth and over every creeping thing that creeps on the earth.) In Tarr’s and Krasznahorkai’s Scripture, it becomes increasingly difficult to separate night from day, the seasons from each other. (There are only two seasons in the film’s world – windy and otherwise). Beings, instead of being fruitful and multiplying, become scarcer and scarcer. Earth returns to the formless void – the void that we witness in the evocative last shot – that it was at the Beginning. One imagines that the film would agree with Genesis on the seventh day: “Thus the heavens and the earth were finished, and all the host of them”.

[The Turin Horse (2011) Trailer]

Commentators have noted the striking silent film-like appearance of The Turin Horse. Indeed, Tarr, who has never been as metafilmic, parallels the anti-Creation narrative with a similar trajectory on the cinematic plane. A number of sub-shots are presented with the set and character in full view, arranged against a flat background and shot head-on with the décor in parallel to the image plane, just like a silent movie. Many of the shots are parenthesized by vertical or horizontal bars of film grain that wipe across the screen. Father and daughter, themselves, resemble the monstrously mismatched prospectors of The Gold Rush (1925), eating a non-meal every day and the smaller one always drawing the shorter straw. This is compounded by the fact that the film is set in 1889, just about the time cinema came into being. Moreover, the two interruptions that disturb the routine of the silent family are marked by excessive talk and cacophony. The film begins with pure movement of cinema and ends in absolute stasis of photography. (It is telling, in this respect, that the only completely still shot of the film is the last one.) It is as though cinema, like the film’s world, has regressed into non-existence, from broad daylight to total darkness.

Judge him, but this affinity for depicting disintegration to rubble has permeated Béla Tarr’s filmography. In a way, each of his film is a document of structural destruction: of urban spaces (Family Nest, 1979), of the modern family (Prefab People, 1982), of society (Almanac of Fall, 1985), of political machinery (Satantango, 1994), of civility (Damnation, 1988) and of civilization (Prologue, 2004). The Turin Horse takes the logic further and locates itself at the probable end of humanity itself. If Tarr’s latest work appears to lack the analytical rigour or satirical edge of his previous films, it is because it distills key ideas of these earlier films into a highly abstract conceptual examination devoid of urgency and pointedness. Looking at the director’s oeuvre, one can see this coming. Tarr started with very topical, socially critical films made in vérité aesthetic. Realizing that surface realism could only get him this far, he took a stylistic as well as epistemological break with Almanac of Fall, after which, instead of recording reality as it appears, he dealt with increasingly abstracted forms removed from everyday experience and a philosophy that replaced materialism with metaphysics.

Such departicularization is the modus operandi of The Turin Horse. The film systematically removes any trace of specificity from within it and builds an extremely generic framework that one can liken to the confident broad strokes of a paintbrush. Such sucking away of particulars would have been fatal in a film with concrete political ambition. But The Turin Horse, in contrast, works in a philosophical and cinematic realm so rarified that such distillation seems tailor made for it. Beyond the very specific opening story (Who: Friedrich Nietzsche; Where: Door No. 6, Via Carlo Alberto, Turin; When: January 3rd, 1889), we are not sure about any narrative detail. The place could be Turin, or not. The year could be 1889, or not. It could be autumn, or not. The long monologue that the first visitor delivers is what Pauline Kael would call a Christmas tree speech: you can hang all your allegories on it. What is the threat he is talking about? Why is the town ruined? Who are “they”? We don’t get any answer. If, at all, Tarr makes another film and intends to take the idea further, he’s, in all possibility, going to find himself in the realm of pure avant-garde, with nothing concrete to hold on to except the truth of photography.

Undoubtedly, Tarr is as cynical as filmmakers can get. His cynicism, like Kubrick’s, is the cynicism of great art, to borrow a sentence from Rivette.  But with The Turin Horse, Tarr seems to have punched through to the zone beyond. We have, here, entered the realm of the absurd, where cynicism itself is rendered impotent. In this film, doom is a given, inevitable. Instead of charting people’s downward spiral into the abyss as in the previous films, Tarr and team observe with resignation the insularity of people from their situation. Foreboding gives way to fatalism, cynicism to amusement. Robert Koehler correctly compares the film to the works of Samuel Beckett and The Turin Horse is a veritable adaptation of Waiting for Godot (1953). Right from the lone tree on hill top, through the dilemmas of vegetable eating, the sudden logorrhea of a stranger, the perpetually cyclical nature of events, to the ritualization of actions, especially the changing of apparels, Tarr’s incomplete tragicomedy in 30 shots echoes Beckett’s incomplete tragicomedy in two acts. Like Beckett’s bickering pair, or Buñuel’s angels, father and daughter find themselves unable to leave the house for some reason. And like Vladmir and Estragon, or Pinky and Brain (“Tomorrow we’ll try again”), the two– stuck in their house for eternity with only each other to stand witness for their existence – sit by the window everyday gazing at, or waiting for, a Godot that could be anything ranging from revolution to death.

But there are two key cinematic predecessors to The Turin Horse as well. The first of them, Chantal Akerman’s Jeanne Dielman (1976), lends Tarr’s film its finely spiral structure, in which a continuous process of disintegration is made palpable by minute changes in what appear to be unchangeable routines. Like in Jeanne Dielman, another film with an inclination for culinary detailing, the aquarium-like world of the characters is pierced by changes in the outside world, leading to their downfall. Then there is Sohrab Shahid Saless’ Still Life (1974) with which The Turin Horse not only shares its strong comic undercurrent, but also the idea of rendering chronology and the passing of time irrelevant by making it go in loops; the eternal return if you will. But, unlike the makers of these two films, Tarr filters his film from any direct comment on contemporary social organization. (Akerman and Saless, on the other hand, are keenly focused on the issue of urban and rural alienation). But what these films, most critically, share is an acute eye for everyday details, for minor behavioral and physical variations and an unshakeable faith on inescapable specificity of the photographic image.

 

Rating: 

Essential Killing (2010)
Jerzy Skolimowski
English/Polish/Arabic

 

Essential KillingJerzy Skolimowski’s Essential Killing (2010) opens with helicopter shots of a nearly otherworldly desert with dizzyingly abstract contours – more of a psychoscape than a landscape – through which Taliban (?) soldier and protagonist Mohammed (Vincent Gallo) maneuvers unsuccessfully. Maneuvering is what Mohammed does throughout the film, as he sneaks out of an American (?) facility and traverses the frozen geography of what seems like Russia (?), while his memories, fantasies, visions and reality coalesce to form an amorphous psychic force that drives him. (For a film that’s so keen on ‘observing without judgment, this sort of alternate psychoanalysis is threatening if not fatal). The irony here is that Mohammed, supposedly a brainwashed killing machine for whom death translates to martyrdom, is exhibiting the highest forms of survival instinct. And an assortment of this kind of contradictions – behaviour as a negation of ideology – is what Essential Killing aims for. While his ‘mission’ might propel unwaveringly him towards death, Mohammed – now that his imminent death is not entirely of his making as he might have liked it to be – is continuously moving towards a rebirth of sorts, as is suggested by behavioral details such as his inability to speak, walk properly and, well, his drinking of milk from a woman’s breast. While his mission dictates that America is his enemy, he tries virtually to make it his home, blending in with his landscape (as he did in his country in the opening segment), apparently moving ever close to a promised land. Skolimowski might have wanted to counterpoint the dominant image of the Taliban terrorist – like Laura Poitras – with a sober opposite which portrays him as a weakling clinging on to life, but his interminable bout of decontexualization, coupled with his tendency to reduce cinema to a denotative art form, removes any sting from his political stance.

Werckmeister Harmóniák (2000) (aka Werckmeister Harmonies)
Béla Tarr
Hungarian

“And now, we’ll have an explanation that simple folks like us can also understand, about immortality. All I ask is that you step with me into the boundlessness, where constancy, quietude and peace, infinite emptiness reign. “

 

Werckmeister HarmoniesPick up the ordinary film that chronicles the rise of fascism prior to the second world war and you know what to expect – a nation penalized for the first war, a corporal in resentment, his becoming a key figure, formation of ideology, those mesmerizing speeches, rise to power and finally, the ruthless extermination of humans. Well, you know the routine. Rare is the case that such a film is historically inaccurate or morally flawed, but what is troubling is that a single person is made the focal point of such monumental passages of history – as if satisfying our need for a villain as we do for a hero. Not that I am in defense of any such individual, but how on earth can a single person independently cause the galvanization of a whole nation? However convincing his words and however significant his moves are, it is finally the mass and the intentions that run through it that make it possible. From what can be seen as an adversarial position, Béla Tarr’s Werckmeister Harmonies (2000) chillingly exposes the other side of the loudspeaker – a film that is to the ordinary documentary what Goodfellas (1990) is to The Godfather (1972).

Like most films by Tarr and similar directors, Werckmeister Harmonies does not rely heavily on its plot. Based on a book, The Melancholy of Resistance by László Krasznahorkai, Werckmeister Harmonies plays out in an unnamed town in an unnamed country in an unspecified year (though images indicate a year in the eighties). The whole town seems to be in a state of total fear and insecurity after the arrival of a certain circus whose performers include a dead white whale and a man called The Prince. Unrest ensues as the town mailman János Valuska (Lars Rudolph) witnesses the place fall apart, unable to do anything about it. János is the epitome of curiosity and learning about nature and creation for him seems to bring abundant joy. He often attends to György Eszter (Peter Fitz), a music theorist whose interest lies in exposing mistakes of the past. At this terrible time, Tünde Eszter (Hanna Schygulla) – the Satan figure of the story – tells Valuska that she would restore “order and cleanliness” within the town if only he gets her ex-husband, the theorist, to gather a few important signatures. But “order” too, seems to be a subjective term.

Werckmeister Harmonies does form an interesting companion to Tarr’s magnum opus Sátántangó (1994) in some ways. While Sátántangó is about the disintegration of a collective will due to fear, passivity and plain ignorance, Werckmeister Harmonies is about the formation of one because of the same factors. The characters, too, seem to repeat themselves across the films. The working class in Werckmeister Harmonies (the foreign workers) succumbs supposedly to the speeches of The Prince owing to their ignorance and social condition whereas in Sátántangó, the same group (farmers) buckles under the conflict between personal and collective will and, simply, the inability to adhere to an objective. The inebriate doctor – the only sign of intelligence in Sátántangó – is not much different from the music theorist here. Tarr teases us with questions about the role of intellectuals in revolution in both films. Both the doctor and the music theorist, perhaps disillusioned by the state of the affairs, force themselves to become apolitical and into a personal shell out of which they come out only in order to maintain it so (The doctor leaves the house to get his quota of booze whereas the theorist, to avoid the return of his wife to his house). And the only “sane” person – Futaki in Sátántangó and János here- who sees the misfortune coming is completely helpless and battered about by the mindless workers and the spineless intelligentsia.

The element that seems to be a new addition in Werckmeister harmonies is the tangible presence of a middle class. Leftist filmmakers have maintained that the prime reason for the rise of fascism is the complacent nature of the bourgeoisie and the political and social passivity that it seems glad to wallow in. Here too, the bourgeois seems unwilling to give up that position. They are never seen outdoors in the film, they are contented with having sex and delivering monologues about the state of the world. Neither are they desperate and active enough to be The Prince’s followers nor do they seem capable of pursuing higher interests. The doctor notes about the farmers in Sátántangó: “They haven’t a clue that it is this idle passivity that leaves them at the mercy of what they fear most”. But here, it seems like it is the middle class that is too short-sighted to see the doom heading towards them and hence too happy maintain status quo.

Werckmeister HarmoniesIn the film, The Prince apparently quotes that people who are afraid do not understand. Tarr too seems to be concerned with the notion of fear, ignorance and violence being stimulants of fascism and presents them as the three sides of a triangle with each one perpetuating the others. Being the Wong Kar Wai of monochrome, Tarr employs black and white colours extensively and in an expressionistic fashion to juggle with the ideas of ignorance and knowledge, fear and courage and war and peace. János’ shuttling between his desire to learn and the inertia imposed upon him by the townsfolk culminates in his witnessing of the inevitable streak of violence. In what may be one of the most effective and chilling depiction of violence in cinema, we see the rabid folks enter a hospital and put down its inhabitants. There is complete detachment by the camera which continues to track away as ever to leave a lump in your throat. It’s a sequence that is so stunningly choreographed that it almost deserves to be called beautiful despite its nature.

In his superb article on the ontological entities of the filmic medium, Mani Kaul reflects upon the Deleuzian theory of time and movement in cinema. Watching Tarr’s later films, now, seems like a practical demonstration of the theory. It is a unanimous opinion that it is Tarr’s shot composition – seemingly endless, rich in detail and “atmospheric” – that captures the attention of the viewer first. Where other films subordinate time to the action and space under consideration, Tarr’s sequences have time as the primary axis on which movements are choreographed. Instead of questions like ‘What will he do next?’, we are forced to ask questions like ‘When will this motion end?’. What this does in essence is to make each second of the sequence precious and the audience conscious of the same. And why this seems to work exceedingly well in films like Werckmeister Harmonies is because it provides that sense of impending doom – of the inevitability of a massacre – throughout the film.

Tarr presents us an utterly bleak world where death seems to be the only destination for all its inhabitants. He creates a colourless land that is flat, barren and infinite – an isolated world where almost no two social classes are seen in the same frame, except János himself who seems to percolate everywhere. In my favorite of the 39 shots in the film, János and the theorist walk without speaking a single word for a long time. Tarr, unusually, frames them both, in profile, in the same frame such that they seem stationery with the world moving behind them – choking them into the frame and sealing the fate of their journey. The world in Werckmeister Harmonies is devoid of any notions of Faith and Karma. It’s a Godless universe like Tarr’s own (as the director has claimed in interviews). But perhaps there is God here, but not one that goes by the conventions. Towards the end, when János tries to flee the town, an enigmatic black helicopter – a possible nod, along with the army tank in the town, to the Spider God of Through a Glass Darkly (1961) and Silence (1963) respectively – forces him to return back. It’s worse than God’s indifference, it is Satan’s Tango. It is in this instability where people like The Prince – a distorted version of the circus director, whose troupe is the whole town – take advantage, create a symphony of destruction and well, play God.

But that is the exact kind of narrative that seems to suit our “ordinary documentary”. The Prince can easily be called the root cause of the entire disturbance, but that would only be too easy. We actually never know if The Prince (or the whale) is responsible for it at all. The whale is dead and hence a mute observer and The Prince, who speaks in a foreign language and whose words we obtain only secondhand, isn’t even seen in the film. In what may be a “whale” of a Macguffin, Tarr tempts us to pin the blame on the two foreign entities. But it eventually becomes evident that it is the people themselves – the workers and Tünde Eszter – who are the fascists, taking the mute and the invisible “guests” as pretext for violence. Violence that exterminates the apathetic bourgeois, persuades the hermetic clerisy out of its shell and makes the working class the pawns of a power game. One may remember Tarr’s sarcastic take on “Let there be Light” in Sátántangó, where the doctor seals off every possible entry of light into his hut (and where this film seems to take off from, in a way). At the end of Werckmeister Harmonies, the only survivor in this war, Tünde Eszter, who is the most patient and diabolically thoughtful of all the characters in the film, goes on to rule. I can see Mr. Tarr chuckling as he quotes “Blessed are the meek for they shall inherit the earth”!

Panelkapcsolat (1982) (aka The Prefab People)
Béla Tarr
Hungarian

“What about those who are away for years? They never see their kids. The kids grow up with no dad. They grow up and the dad gets them ready-made “

 

The Prefab PeopleAfter watching films like Scenes from a Marriage (1973) and Hyderabad Blues 2 (1998), I had come to a kind of conclusion that films about marital life are and even have to be necessarily lengthy in order to depict relationships falling apart bolt by bolt. But Béla Tarr’s masterful venture The Prefab People brutally shatters that perception. The film is so masterfully crafted that I was afraid that Tarr would have to have a pathetic showdown in order to wrap up the film within 80 minutes. But gladly, one couldn’t have asked more after watching what Tarr delivers. He lets the film gradually evolve instead of providing it narrative momentum (but never without a direction). Watching The Prefab People, one can see why Mendes’ Revolutionary Road doesn’t exactly succeed.

The Prefab People is Tarr’s fourth feature and one can clearly see Tarr maturing as a filmmaker. He intelligently avoids all the mistakes of his previous outings (which were pretty good themselves) and makes it seem like a grand culmination of a chain of dress rehearsals. He substitutes the extreme verbosity of Family Nest (1979) with self-sufficient images. He sheds the self-indulgent meditation of The Outsider (1981) and makes a film that is universal in its appeal and as personal in its content. He avoids the complex mise-en-scene he employed in his mediocre single-shot adaptation of Macbeth (1982) and in exchange develops a keen sense of shot composition and cutting. One can virtually see where Sátántangó (1994) gets its pitch-perfect atmosphere from. But in spite of the trademark style of the director, The Prefab People is very much a cinema vérité film. It wouldn’t be a coincidence if one was continuously reminded of Cassavetes while watching this one. The resemblance is most glaring in the scene at the party, which has to be experienced to be believed.

These are beautiful characters and so are the actors. To use a worn out cliché, Tarr does not take sides. Both the husband and the wife have their own visions of what happiness is. Just that one is evidently naïve and the other is actually romanticized. But the masterstroke of the film is the Kubrickian theme of man and machine that Tarr blends in this outwardly boring suburban life. And just like the American genius’ style, Tarr controls his décor, landscapes and film equipment to provide a literature-free rendering of one of cinema’s most favorite themes.

Sátántangó (1994) (aka Satan’s Tango)
Béla Tarr
Hungarian

“They haven’t a clue that it is this idle passivity that leaves them at the mercy of what they fear most”

 

SatantangoSince the death of Andrei Tarkovsky, the search has been on for the heir to the throne he left behind. Many believed that his fellow countryman Alexander Sokurov would be the chosen one. Indeed, his films like Mother and Son (1997) and Russian Ark (2002), that disregarded montage in the same way as the Russian master, strike an immediate chord with viewers familiar with Tarkovsky’s works. But in a country a bit west to Russia, a Hungarian visionary called Béla Tarr had showed the world he had arrived, big time. In 1994, came out his long-cherished project – an epic by all measures – Sátántangó.

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