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”

Satantango

Since 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.

It seems like the fall of the Communist regime in the unnamed country. With their leader missing for a couple of years, a group of workers in a community farm decide to call it quits and plan to split up with the remaining money. With their supposedly great plan on the way, they spend their time carousing and sleeping around. Just when they think that their lives are going to change for the good, Irimias, their leader turns up exactly at a time when a girl at the farm does the unthinkable. The wizard of speech, Irimias, leverages the situation towards his favour and coaxes the workers into his big plan. Slowly (I mean slowly) the characters of everybody take shape and their weaknesses get exposed.

Just as funny as it sounds, this 7 hour long film never once feels long. There are many 10 minute shots that feel like any other. Typically in these shots, you see a very ordinary picture, say of barroom dance or a group of cows grazing. As the length of the shot increases you’ll feel a bit edgy, waiting for a cut. When the shot further prolongs to unimagined lengths, you’ll start noticing finer details in the images that you failed to pay heed to in the previous minutes. You’ll gather a lot from the still life of the shot and from objects and events that appeared to be banal till now. And as you slowly get enthralled by these tableau like images, Tarr cuts to the next, leaving you craving for a longer shot! In a way, each cut seems like a turning point in the seemingly simple plot.

Sátántangó is the sort of film that you live in, instead of staying separated by the fourth wall. Each sound is so carefully documented that you’ll feel wet every time a character walks in the rain and pull up a blanket every time you get those cold nasty winds on screen. The ambience of the film is so properly somber that you sense some ill omen gaining momentum, even in the most ordinary of frames. And the monochrome world is so enchantingly dull that you feel like one of the servile characters whiling away time in fruitless activities.

Though there is a political subtext to the film, Sátántangó serves more as a tale about domination and voluntary subordination. Literally, it depicts how an idle mind is a devil’s workshop and how man proposes and the devil disposes. Using various points of views of a single event, that would become popular in later films like Amores Perros (2000), Sátántangó meditatively moves towards an all apocalyptic ending that haunts you long after the credits roll out.

The 420+ minute runtime may be daunting for many viewers, without doubt. But, believe me, take your time and watch the film, preferably in three sittings. You’ll feel more than contended at the end of the film. This is one film that will easily change the way you look at cinema.

Mirror

Though Andrei Tarkovsky’s canon consisted of only seven features, three student films, one documentary and a couple of stage plays and there were more unrealized projects than filmed ones, each of the ideas that were completed were gems and remain unparalleled to date. Looking back, each one seems hand picked and “sculpted” second by second and without doubt, the experience just improves with multiple viewings. Of course, Tarkovsky means different things to different people and the section just attempts to give a universal outline of the projects.

Andrei Tarkovsky and his classmates Alexander Gordon and Marika Beiku, on the suggestion of the former, decided to collaborate and adapt the Ernest Hemingway short story. The Killers (1956) is Tarkovsky’s first documented work and is, for most of the runtime, un-Tarkovskian. The quarter hour long thriller consists of three scenes with the first and the last scenes directed by Tarkovsky. The film has a pretty conventional execution and carries a film noir feel with it. Its open ended nature and stress on off-screen events would ring a bell for one who has watched Ivan’s Childhood before. Apparently, the film was praised by Tarkovsky’s professor at VGIK.

Tarkovsky’s next collaboration with Alexander Gordon at the VGIK, There Will Be No Leave Today (1958), is larger in scope and vision than its short predecessor. Written on the lines of the Clouzot classic The Wages of Fear (1953), the film revolves around a group of soldiers who try to transport a very sensitive bunch of weapons to an explosion area. The thrill never wanes even for a minute and screenplay is kept as taut as possible. This was possibly an influence of the very many thrillers from France and the USA at that time and Tarkovsky’s style was yet to be revealed to the world.

The Steamroller and the Violin (1959) would be Tarkovsky’s first independent venture and was presented as his graduation film at the VGIK. The Steamroller and the Violin does show some characteristics of a Tarkovsky film, especially the emphasis on the seclusion of the artist from the society and the subsequent bonding of the Artist and the Worker.  The film’s use of music, however, seems to be inspired by the Russian directors (Kalatazov et al.) of that time with tones of opera standing out. Also, the restriction on the colour palette, which would become stricter with subsequent films, is let loose and the film poses a childlike vivacity, much like the protagonist himself. The film won the best film at the New York Student’s film festival in 1961.

Tarkovsky’s first commercial feature, Ivan’s Childhood (1962), would be the starting of depiction of major autobiographical elements. Tarkovsky himself had spent a large part of childhood at the country side due to the war and he felt that many children who had such wonderful childhood were forced to witness the cruelty of the war. Pregnant with typically Tarkovskian imagery, the film remains one of the best anti-war films till date. The elements of nature depicted on monochrome are just perfect for the somber atmosphere it builds. Rather than showing the direct impact of violence on their minds, Ivan’s Childhood consists of the titular character’s life in between missions interspersed with dreams of the past. Ivan’s Childhood won the Golden Lion at the Venice film festival and would be his last film to win an award without any haggle.

1966 would witness Tarkovsky’s magnum opus, Andrei Rublev. Ingmar Bergman called it the best film he had seen till then and the world hailed it unanimously as a masterpiece of epic proportions. Indeed, Andrei Rublev is massive in its vision and execution and one does not hesitate to place it in the same league as Ran (1985), Spartacus (1960) and the like. Though set in the medieval era of Russia, Andrei Rublev is very much a contemporary film and serves as a commentary on art, the artist, his duty and his obstacles. Co-scripted by director Andrei Konchalovsky, the film shows that a true artist should not merely practice his art, but he should find faith in his work, connect with the natural and the supernatural and hence bridge them both with compassion. Tarkovsky favorite, Anatoly Solonitsyn plays the title character with perfection. Clearly, the film alludes to Tarkovsky’s own struggles in the Soviet that would exacerbate in the following years.

Dubbed as the Soviet reply to Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968), Tarkovsky’s Solaris (1972) is much more human and much less of a science fiction than the former. Tarkovsky’s spat with co-writers continued for a third time, this time the reason being his departure from hardcore sci-fi of the book to the version he completed. Tarkovsky distorts time, space and reality like never before and disorients the viewer form any trace of rational explanation, perhaps mirroring the very nature of human memory. He shows how our own memories, past and experiences are inescapable and become an integral part of our own personality. True to its theory, Tarkovsky’s trauma of a fractured personal life directly shows in the relation between Kelvin and Hari. Tarkovsky describes how human love is still a complex phenomenon and even in this advanced age of science. The film also argues that knowledge should be based on morality and the fragility of both inner and outer nature must be respected.

Tarkovsky’s next feature Mirror (1974) is by far his most personal work and the most enigmatic too. Most of the events, locations and characters in the film are autobiographical and Tarkovsky makes a very personal mark on screen with them.  His pining for lost beauty and innocence of childhood is evident. Repeatedly, Alexei tries to enter his dream as if to revive the past. He also sees the image of his mother and the absence of his father. This is contrasted with Alexei’s constrained relationship with his wife, who incidentally resembles his mother and his negligence towards his son. The most striking aspect of mirror is its use of past and historical events in the form of newsreels, perhaps suggesting that history, like the past, is ineluctable and forms a part of us. Through undifferentiated images of the past and the present, Tarkovsky blurs the line between dreams and reality and yet provides a stark contrast between the two. This poem of a film is hailed by many as his best work.

Stalker (1979) is arguably Tarkovsky’s most accessible work as far as its themes are concerned. The film takes us into the journey of a writer, a professor and a stalker into the Zone where one can realize one’s innermost wishes. The journey is that of discovery of faith with the professor representing the rational brain, the writer representing the intuitive heart and the stalker himself representing the doubting soul. The Zone, much like the Ocean of Solaris, is a reason-defying place that acts as the human mind and “changes by the minute”. The film’s amazing production design captures the spiritual decay in modern world effectively with its narrow colour range. Stalker, in more than one way, marks Tarkovsky’s transition from his earlier works to his trademark style that would be visible in the subsequent years. First off, Tarkovsky’s use of extremely long shots shows its roots here. Also, the quest for faith in a rotting post-modern world, that was also Tarkovsky’s own, would go on to become the primary theme in his next films.

During his journey to Italy in the early eighties, Tarkovsky shot his only documentary, Voyage in Time (1980), in collaboration with writer Tonino Guerra. Though not deliberately filmed for that purpose, Voyage in Time serves well as a companion piece to Tarkovsky’s next film Nostalgia. Not only does one get a partial insight into the mind of one of the most mysterious directors, but also gets to know how life and film was not much different for the director, the advice that he gives in the film for budding filmmakers The measured style of Tarkovsky is retained and one can see how Tarkovsky uses his experience and memories to reconstruct, almost exactly, the required situations and locations into his films. Voyage in Time lets us know the directors that Tarkovsky considered great, with the film never once feeling like a plain interview.

If one were to pick one film from Tarkovsky’s filmography that embodies all of his styles, ideologies and trademarks, it would most definitely be Nostalgia (1983). A deeply multi-layered film that conveys much more upon contemplation. The film follows, ironically, a translator Gorchakov who is unable to relate to his new country and yearns for return to past. He fails his Italian assistant who craves for his attention and eventually splits. Once again, Tarkovsky places his protagonist between inner and external conflicts. Gorchakov struggles to abolish internal and external boundaries in order to come to peace with himself. He finds faith with the help of Domenico, an outcast who asks the former to carry a candle across the pool in order to save the world. Nostalgia mirrors the director’s own struggles to believe and come to terms with his exile to Italy. The 9 minute shot of Gorchakov carrying the candle across is not just a revelation for the character but the viewer himself.

In 1986, Tarkovsky went on to make what would become a befitting end to a majestic career. The Sacrifice is out and away the most verbose of Tarkovsky’s films. Perhaps Tarkovsky, a person who had been consistently accused of being inarticulate and self-indulgent, foresaw what was to come and tried to express what he wanted to as clearly as possible. Taking off from Gorchakov’s act of faith in Nostalgia, The Sacrifice demands Alexander to make a large sacrifice in exchange for restoration of peace within himself and outside. Shot beautifully by Bergman favorite Sven Nykvist (both of whom passed away recently), Sacrifice takes Tarkovsky’s theory of “time-sculpting” to new heights with the film comprising of just 115 shots. The film is dedicated to Tarkovsky’s son, who wasn’t allowed to return to his father in exile, and like Bergman’s The Silence (1963), The Sacrifice hopes that sanity and belief will be restored by the new generation.

Tarkovsky died in the December of 1986 months after the premiere of The Sacrifice. In retrospection, it looks as if he had known his end (a psychic once told him that he would make no more than 7 films) and had it transformed on screen. With his demise, a whole new chapter in the history of Soviet cinema came to an end. His legacy was passed on to budding directors like Alexander Sokurov, who has carved a niche for himself in world cinema. Through films of directors like Kiarostami and Sokurov, one is time and again reminded how massive Tarkovsky’s contribution to cinema was and how, in his own words, “There’s no death, there is immortality. Time is one and undivided.”

TarkovskyMy discovery of Tarkovsky’s first film was like a miracle. Suddenly, I found myself standing at the door of a room the keys of which had, until then, never been given to me. It was a room I had always wanted to enter and where he was moving freely and fully at ease. I felt encouraged and stimulated: someone was expressing what I had always wanted to say without knowing how. Tarkovsky is for me the greatest, the one who invented a new language, true to the nature of film, as it captures life as a reflection, life as a dream.”

Ingmar Bergman (1918 – 2007)

Such words coming from a person who has been unanimously hailed as the greatest intellectual of our times is a phenomenon by itself. Andrei Tarkovsky’s whole new percept of cinema helped discovering newer boundaries to the medium and aided the formation of some of the greatest directors of the future. Undoubtedly, Tarkovsky is one the immovable pillars in the palace of the seventh art.

Tarkovsky’s features are often condemned to be inaccessible and too cerebral. In fact, it is Tarkovsky’s films that expect the users to eschew interpretation and “live the film”. These are films that require viewing with the heart and not the mind. Tarkovsky was of the opinion that the audience must be shown as little as possible with the viewers filling in the gaps with their own memories and past experiences. Hence, his films become more of an experiential journey than intellectual. As a result, viewers get a unique feeling of the films depending on their own past, present and emotional functions, differing even on subsequent viewings. This, in fact, is the key to all of his works. And it is for this radically different perception of the medium that the director is celebrated worldwide, in spite of his extremely small oeuvre.

Followers of Bergman and other European masters try to decipher the films and assign a meaning to every gesture in them. It should be noted that interpreting Tarkovsky is like translating Dostoyevsky. One false move can take you nowhere. Tarkovsky believed that images were superior to symbols in cinema. By construing a meaning to a symbol, the viewer no longer associates to the object. Images, on the other hand, arouse a visceral relation and hence are ingrained in the viewer’s subconsciousness. Though his films still carry multiple meanings with these images, there are no metaphors for metaphor’s sake. As a result, the images still linger the spectator’s minds and one does not tend to look at them differently.

Right from The Steamroller and the Violin, down to his final film The Sacrifice, all of his major works have autobiographical elements in them. This perhaps is a direct consequence of his opinion of cinema. In his advice to young film makers in Voyage in Time, Tarkovsky urges the latter not to view life and work differently. He asks them to bridge the gap between both and therefore justify their positions as artists. Thus, knowledge about Tarkovsky’s own life helps when watching his films. Though not as troubled as Parajanov or Kieslowski, Tarkovsky’s ventures were consistently thwarted by the Soviet government and recognitions were duly averted by officials even as senior as director Sergei Bondarchuk. This, visibly, impacted Tarkovsky deeply and led to his exile to the west. This, along with his lovely childhood at the countryside, manifests itself in various forms throughout his canon of work.

The protagonists in his films are caught between two contradicting and conflicting worlds – both inner and outer – and straddle them in search of consolation. Yearning for the past and a fear of the future, Rationality based on science and search for faith, bucolic pleasantness of the countryside and defunct lifestyle of the post-modern world, joy and innocence of childhood and distress and banality of adulthood, geographical distance between motherland and present location, disparity between art and life, dreams and reality & mind and heart in general form the basis of the struggles. Needless to say, these were the exact issues in the life of the director himself who was prompted to put them on screen.

If one has watched even one or two of Tarkovsky’s features, he/she would not fail to observe Tarkovsky’s incessant thriving on still objects for imagery. It feels as if he was of the opinion that these immobile objects carried more life than the animate ones. Apples, water jugs and furniture often form a vital part of his mise en scène. Also images animals, especially horses and dogs, are recurrent in his works and dogs, many times, act as links between the two worlds of the protagonists. But most importantly, Tarkovsky’s canvas is fraught with nature and its elements. Rain and still water bring up a sense of ablution and cleansing of the soul, without being symbolic. Fire, in the form of bonfires and candles, also stirs up feelings of purification and restoration of faith.

Being a very religious man himself, Tarkovsky made his films, almost all of them, populated with religious figures and elements. As Tarkovsky seemingly became aware of his cancer, he used elements of the Apocalypse consistently. Starting from Stalker, all his films delineated the central character to be immersed in fear of faithlessness and end of the world because of the same. These characters also seem to believe that an intense personal sacrifice, triggered by a petty ritual, would be required to save the whole society. Regularly, these characters would be holy fools who have been outcast and even condemned insane. Like Karin of Through a Glass Darkly (1961), Tarkovsky seems to suggest that these so called “mad people” are closer to the truth and have a less flawed vision of Him.

Sergei Eisenstein had revolutionized the medium by his montage theory and almost all of the Russian directors were quick to lap up the idea. It seemed that editing was the life of film making until Tarkovsky had changed the perception completely. He completely disregarded montage and took to extremely long shots, some even around 10 minutes. Opposed to his American equivalent Stanley Kubrick who felt that editing was the only entity that separated it from other arts, Tarkovsky employed the long shot to effectively capture the essence of the world that the audience is going to live in and succeeded in capturing “truth” (to borrow Godard) like no other director.

Finally, Tarkovsky’s reverence for artists and their significance is unparalleled. He believed that artists were essential for the society to realize faith and move closer to God. For him, an artist was a connecting link between the divine and the pedestrian. The artist is but a medium of contact between the two. Artists also appear within his films in the form of writers, painters and actors. Artists, for him, capture the essence of the era and facilitate in progressing forward, much like himself.

These are but some of the spectacular facets of Tarkovsky’s cinema. Pages could be filled about his employment of music and silence and his love for distorting time, space and reality and his ability of entrancing the audience in his unique world and giving them a feel (not an idea) of the enigma that was Andrei Tarkovsky.