The following article was published in N-SPHERE February 2012 issue.


Béla Tarr and the investigation of a storyteller above suspicion

Stories. Many feel connected to them and we tend to form an image of the people around us, those we know. According to their stories, to their »experience«, we often tend to say the following when someone does something that is considered unpleasant or simply uncomfortable: »life changed him« or »no wonder he did that, after all he has been through…« Amusingly enough, this seems to make sense, but only at a primary level: the one regarding the common consensus of what is perceived. Eventually, at best, those experiences surface what we did not know about ourselves or what we were afraid to admit and somehow the reason we were afraid of it is somewhat »story-connected«. We’re afraid that we may turn like »the-guy-from-that-story« or we develop a scenario ourselves which is, in many cases, far more dreadful in theory than in practice.

This is mostly because the stories we are attached to or we develop have an end. We know how this end looks like and we understand it. If they wouldn’t have one or if we could not understand it, they might not be so popular, would be »bad stories« or unfinished ones.

The same rule applies to cinema as well. Most people don’t see a film; they just see a group of stories. The film begins and ends with them. A consequence to this is that many movies are just a group of stories, there is no language, no energy inside.

Béla Tarr’s work is exactly the opposite: one can barely discern a story in his films, but if they get to you, you wouldn’t care to hear one. Indeed, there are but a few directors who make such great demands from our patience as Béla Tarr. Most of this is caused by the very slow pace and by the fact that there are very few familiar things to hold on to. His works go to the other extreme, they are devoid of any narrative device. His characters, in some cases, may be easy to connect with, until you realize that you are dealing with sketches (although blurs would be a more adequate description). Nothing happens here or, better said, nothing that affects them in any way. But there is extreme attention given to all the aesthetic aspects: from the way the takes are composed and choreographed to the score and the facial expressions of the actors.

At the first glimpse, you make be tempted to think that the director is an exponent of social realism, since his films take place in some gloomy villages of Hungary inhabited by characters who are dealing with poverty and a corrupt system. However, as the movie unfolds, this idea gets lost in the mist little by little, because there is nothing that sustains it. It is just a pretense.

The opening scene of his most accessible work, Werckmeister harmóniák, may tempt you to think you are dealing with a movie of strong tarkovskian scent. Indeed, in appearance, the two directors have some things common: long takes, slow pace and dialogue that would seem to be more appropriate for a novel rather than a film. But in reality, they barely have anything in common, or – better said – nothing in common except some technical particularities. Tarkovsky’s films work the best way on an emotional level by depicting – in cinematic language – things we can feel and we are connected to, things that are tangible, but can rarely be verbalized. The slow pace is giving them a clearer form. Ultimately, his films communicate something, whereas Bela Tarr’s work is not about communication: we are not told, but shown. The slow pace here is does not have its roots in a mechanism, his films are slow because they have to, otherwise they’d be artificial: an event is not supposed to be manipulated.

Bela Tarr’s films are not about something. Instead they show something and, in this particular setup, a story may get in the way. The long takes, the choreography, the music have the role of making the viewer become a part, without forcing him to do so. Tarkovsky’s films share a lot of common ground with poetry, Tarr’s films share a lot of common ground with music: events, pieces of dialogue, contained inside a wandering movement only few notes alike to what we are familiar with. This is even clear when we are to consider the scores of his films: lingering, sometimes minimalist melodies that seem to go on forever.

These aspects also explain the use of black and white: color would distract as it would also distract placing the action in very populated and dynamic cities so that is why all of his films are set in small towns, where the inhabitants seem to be stuck and live in a continuous state of absence occasionally interrupted by their frail attempts to escape.

The dialogue in his films either cements the overall gloomy atmosphere, either simply alienates, or both. This is a rather common characteristic of a many art-house films for the simple reason that we are not presented a mere immediate reality, but a multilayered one formed by what one may perceive and feel familiar with and abstractions associated with the flow of life (collective or individual). The opening sequence of Werckmeister harmóniák is a good example: what starts as an usual gathering is transformed in something resembling a surreal rite.

In the movie’s final 30 minutes there is another similar scene which starts as a riot, but in the end resembles a funeral. One can try to rationalize them, but the answers will be rather forced, especially in this second scene. It is the image that has great power and the mob’s reaction is basically the reaction facing an image this powerful. Nothing is said because there is nothing to say: images work better than words.

The physical space of Bela Tarr’s work acts as a vacuum zone bringing together elements of both immediate reality and inner reality: what we see and what we feel.

Somehow this movie reminds me a little of Werner Herzog’s Herz aus glas. Both films present people who fell under a spell, but whereas Herzog’s film is rather constant in its eerie and outlandish tone, this one makes it more familiar by inserting social commentaries (slim and underdeveloped, but they are present).

In his previous film, Damnation, we have the same setup, but this time the hook is an ill-fated relationship. Little is done to save it or end it and little does the protagonist to reach out for the woman he claims to love. Even when he does, one cannot escape the feeling that is more of a rationalization of sorts. In the end, nothing changes and few events are paid special attention. Few to none.

All in all, Bela Tarr’s films are demanding as they are – to some people – hypnotic. The director does not tell stories, but show events, situations, that may happen everywhere. The tone and dialogue seem to be part of a meta-reality re-experiencing itself in different contexts. Maybe the only reliable storyteller is the camera, which, in his films, can be considered a character on its own.

The inhabitants of Tarr’s world are sometimes »awoken« by incomplete visions, a false prophetic call, thus, at every turn, hope for escape/resolution is delayed until evaporated. So is the idea of action: the characters are defined by their dreams, obsession and a more-or-less legit anguish. Gilles Deleuze called this false »narration« based on anomalies/irregularities the »crystalline narrative«.

Tarr creates a dynamic setup, but, more than maybe any other director, he seems more fascinated with the dynamic itself, so he moves slowly, patiently, allowing, however, for everything to breathe and live. The result is either hypnotic or unbearable, depending on each viewer. So enter, if you’re willing…

By Shade

photo | Werckmeister harmóniák. 2000. Movie still

Full article here.