dir: Bela Tarr
Sometimes you watch a film knowing you’re not going to enjoy it. It’s with the foreknowledge that the reason for watching the film is not the pursuit of entertainment or escapism; it’s with the expectation that the experience is going to be a difficult one with no promise of redemption or eventual meaning.
What compelled me to watch this film, The Turin Horse, and review it, for you, the utterly nonplussed reader?
Curiousity, dear reader, nothing but curiosity.
I have heard of Hungarian director Bela Tarr, but never seen one of his films before. They are famous, or notorious, for being extremely long, consisting of very long, uncut scenes of people not doing very much. His most famous film, Satantango, is over seven hours long. He’s the quintessential director of the kinds of films people who never watch arthouse films think arthouse films are all like.
As such, The Turin Horse is practically the epitome of a parody of European arthouse films: it’s in black and white, the tone is overwhelming in its sombre dourness, there are peasants in peasanty clothing doing peasant things, the soundtrack is a repetitive, depressing four tone dirge, and what dialogue we hear (or read, since it’s subtitled, unless you’re Hungarian) is either trivial, makes no sense or is pretentious drivel and the point of it all is almost a complete mystery even to the most attentive and hopeful of viewers.
Within that, though, there’s possibly something powerful about the experience. You wouldn’t keep watching it if you were flicking through the channels and caught a few seconds of it on SBS or World Movies, because it’s the kind of flick you have to force yourself to watch. In the process of doing so, perhaps there’s something meaningful that comes out of it.
Note that I didn’t say that something meaningful definitely comes out of it because I have no idea whether it was a worthwhile way to spend two and a half hours or not. I love film, though, so it doesn’t seem like a waste to me. And this is the purest film experience for film wankers the world over that they could ever dream of.
It’s called The Turin Horse is because it’s a reference to a famous anecdote regarding that champion of puppies and candy, German philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche. The story goes, which has never really been confirmed as actually having happened, that Nietzsche was taking his daily stroll through the streets of Turin, in Italy, whereupon he heard a terrible commotion. The driver of a hansom cab (you know, like a horse-drawn carriage) was whipping not a dead horse but a live one unable or unwilling to keep trudging along through this world. The more the horse remained motionless, the more the driver beat it. Overwhelmed with horror at such cruelty, Nietzsche is said to have flung himself around the neck of the poor beast, hugging it for dear life to stop its torment. He is eventually led away from the scene, sobbing uncontrollably, and spends the next ten years being looked after, succumbing to illness and eventually, death.
How do we know all this? Well, when the film starts, white credits on a black screen, a narrator in voiceover tells us this very story with nothing visually (apart from the subtitles) to see.
And then it starts, as that presumed driver of the cart and the horse trudge their sorry way back home. This first scene goes for about ten unbroken minutes, the driver is old man Ohlsdorfer (Janos Derszi), the horse is old and obviously not well, and around them, as they make their way through a bleak landscape, winds storm and surge against them, making their journey even more arduous. The dirge-like music starts up, and we watch them for a long time, as the camera follows their path, unblinking.
With the set-up of the Nietzsche anecdote, we’re meant to assume it’s the same driver abusive driver and the same abused horse, but as far as I could tell, there’s no real other necessary connection between the two.
They arrive home, at a hovel on a wind-blasted plain. The stable for the horse is bigger than the hovel. The man’s daughter (Erika Bok) helps him put away the cart, puts the horse in the stable, gives it some hay, then joins her father inside, helping him get changed into his ‘home’ clothes. The man, who looks like Methuselah or some other Old Testament-type chap, has seemingly suffered a stroke or some kind of paralysis, which affects his right arm and leg. They change him together, she serves up dinner, which is two boiled potatoes, which he peels and eats with his burned fingers. He finishes, drapes a blanket over himself, and sits and stares out the window, which is I guess the 1890s equivalent of a television, until dark.
Soon enough, he tells his daughter, brusquely, to go to bed.
This has all taken exactly half an hour of our time to watch, and it has about two edits. The dirge music plays, fades away, and always we hear the howling of the wind outside. Everything the two of them do is done without comment, without thought, indicating that they’ve done every one of these things thousands of times and will do them thousands more.
I can’t begin to tell you how disconcerting watching them is; it’s really quite bizarre. There’s nothing that you’re really getting from watching them do stuff story-wise or thematically, you’re just watching them do stuff.
And do the same stuff, every day, for another five days, with some differences. I know it must sound like the most boring thing you’ve ever imagined or heard, and I can’t argue with that. But it really does have some strange pull to it.
When you’re watching these unblinking scenes, that have a fluidity to them indicating that the scene could virtually go on forever, of course your mind starts to wonder: you wonder about why they’re doing what they’re doing, whether anything more compelling or something completely random is going to happen (as happens four times, as far as I could count), then you realise that this is it, and no-one’s ever going to leap into the scene to explain anything to you. And you’re left watching people living a crushing existence and burning their fingers from eating boiled potatoes.
A film like this forces you to provide yourself with the meaning that you usually rely upon some aspect of the film to grant you, whether it’s a voice over, treacly music or just a plot that goes from A to somewhere. When that’s missing you’re forced to think of whys and whats for which there are no ready answers. Long scene after long scene either puts you to sleep or hypnotises you in a remarkable way, such that your mind is conjuring up more and more with less and less.
And when the film gives you answers, you’re either not going to like them, or, like me, you’re not going to understand what they mean. Tarr himself has said of his own film that he wanted to show the “heaviness of existence”, and that by representing the crushing nature of such a repetitive life, we’d see why the world has already been destroyed, without our noticing. You didn’t know, did you, that the world ended without even a whimper back in the 1890s?
I don’t really know what any of that means, but I know that I watched this strange, agonising film the whole way through, and it left me feeling as bleak and depressed as the landscape surrounding their hovel. Though they repeat everything they do, small changes, like their well running dry, and the arrival of a neighbour who unleashes a ten minute rant (at exactly one hour in to the running time) telling them that their nearby town (which we never see) has been destroyed, and telling the driver why and how the world was destroyed without people noticing. The driver responds at the end of this rant by saying something like “Come on, that’s bullshit!” which gave me the closest thing to a smile I had for two-and-a-half hours of my life.
But he does seem to have a point. The world apparently was destroyed, and it was our fault because of our cruelty, or because we failed to stop the cruelty others, and it’s God’s fault because He didn’t stop it either or because He was dead just like Nietzsche said.
I guess. I mean, it could mean anything. Maybe the point was: humanity sucks, let’s evolve into something better.
Other small things go wrong, the world’s destruction apparently continues apace, but their routine stays the same. They wake up, daughter dresses herself, draws water from the well, helps her father dress, they have their morning glass of palinka (some kind of brandy-spirit), and then the daughter wonders why the horse doesn’t eat any hay. Go on, eat something. Please eat, do it for me.
Ever slowly the grind grinds ever down, but we don’t know towards what. At one point the old man decides they have to leave immediately, and we watch all their preparations for their departure. We watch them depart, as the camera films through the window of their abandoned hovel, as they trudge up a hill, over the hill (of course it’s all one unbroken scene), and then, eventually, we watch them trudge back, unpack everything, and do what they usually do again.
Still the wind blows. I might be wrong about this, but when they departed, it seemed like the wind was blowing about heaps of black ash in the air, which perhaps explains why they came back, and it’s as good an explanation as any, since they never tell us why they came back and neither does it matter.
Was there a point? Maybe that nowhere is safe, or that you can’t escape existence, which surely is a sentence parents should tell their cheerful children as their tucking them into bed every night.
And on and on it goes until we have no idea what happens, except that their world is completely consumed by darkness. Well, at least the storm has stopped finally, on the sixth day. Thank the Lord for small mercies.
Is this the most depressing film I’ve ever seen? Quite possibly, but then I like depressing stuff. My music collection is 90% doom-laden, depressing music; the rest is rock, a smattering of rap and about 5 comedy albums, so you can see where my sensibilities lie. Even with that inbuilt propensity to seek out stuff that other people would run away from screaming, it’s the existence of such a film that fills me more with intellectual curiousity rather than melancholy.
Of course it’s depressing, in that just listening to that soundtrack sounds like a government-mandated solution to over-population (in that they’re trying to get Hungarians to slit their own wrists to save the government the trouble). And yet now I can’t get the theme out of my head.
It’s more curious to me that Tarr makes films like this, has been making them for years, and yet I can’t imagine there being more than a handful of people worldwide with the stomach for it. This isn’t like extreme horror flicks, for which there is a massive audience of gorehounds, sadists and masochists. This appeals to, like, fifteen people worldwide, tops, and even they have to fake their enthusiasm. Even so, I’m unsure whether it deserves to be written off for its nicheness.
It’s so pure in what it is, in what Tarr is trying to do, that I find it hard to either criticise it or recommend it to anyone. It’s an experience, like an agonisingly slow car crash or an amputation, something that you endure rather than enjoy, but you’re left with something in the end, even if it’s an absence.
I’m not sure what it is, but it’s got to count for something.
I really don’t think such a film can be rated, because it will give a false impression as to comparability with other films of a similar score. In truth there are very few films like this, for very good reasons. But my system forces me to nominate some score, and such is life, even when it’s not being crushed out of you by some miserable, frozen landscape and the crushing daily bleakness of soulless repetition.
0-10 times they should show this to criminals in maximum security prisons out of 10
“And all at once they realised, that there is neither god nor gods. All at once they say there is neither good nor bad. Then they saw and understood that if this was so, that they themselves do not exist either!” – The Turin Horse
“God is dead.” – Friedrich Nietzsche
“Nietszche is dead.” - God
“Mother, I am stupid.” – Friedrich Nietzsche’s alleged last words