A gale sounds through the white-walled space and fans swirl leaves across the floor as a bare tree casts its shadow. To enter the first room of Béla Tarr: Till the End of the World is to instantly feel oneself back inside the elemental universe of the Hungarian auteur’s cinema, lashed by the indifferent forces of nature and time. The exhibition at Amsterdam’s EYE Film Museum is his first, and an assurance that he’s not pulled back from the public sphere entirely. After his 2011 masterpiece The Turin Horse he declared that he had said everything he wanted to say. The “circle had been closed”, and he would be making no more films. What came next was a film school in Sarajevo, film.factory, with Tarr as Dean (although he preferred to be regarded as a “colleague”). At the end of last year he closed the school, publicly putting the move down to a lack of funding. It’s clear Tarr isn’t afraid to call time on ventures when they no longer feel right.
Tarr has often said that if one has nothing new to say, one should say nothing. Recent events in Europe have clearly enraged him enough to want to speak out. The director is a vocal opponent of nationalism in its various manifestations, and of the “disgraceful” fence built by Viktor Orbán’s government to keep migrants out of Hungary at the height of the refugee crisis. A reproduction of a 2016 Tarr speech, written in Sarajevo and read out by activist theatre director Árpád Schilling at a pro-migration demonstration in front of the Hungarian Parliament, hangs near the entrance to the exhibition. In it, Tarr forcefully urges his fellow countrymen to change their attitude toward refugees, and to take them in as an absolute condition of human dignity: “We have brought the planet to the brink of catastrophe with our greediness and our unlimited ignorance… Now, we are confronted with the victims of our acts.” The second room of the EYE exhibition jolts us from the storm-blown tree to barbed wire and Hungary’s state border sign: a zone of territorial hostility. News footage loops on several screens, showing wartime devastation in the Middle East and clashes with border police – a reminder that the hardships of human survival are compounded in today’s Europe by the forces of politics and callous disregard.
It’s an overt political statement and a damning indictment of a civilisation gone awry. The rest of Till the End of the World revisits scenes from all Tarr’s past films – a kind of fragmented retrospective that’s hardly out of context with the refugee crisis, given that his life’s work has been concerned with revealing the lives of ordinary, downtrodden folk in desolate locations awash with indifference. Walking through the exhibition, I remembered a talk he’d given in 2011 at the New Horizons International Film Festival in the Polish city of Wrocław. The Turin Horse had just come out, and he was reflecting back on his career. “We have to make one thing very clear,” he said. “I was a film director, but I was not doing that to preach. I could simply share the pain that is in me and in the audience, and in those who made that film. A film is a film, and we can’t expect any more of it. For sure it won’t solve anybody’s life or problems. If someone watches it in a dark room, and after the lights go on that person feels they have more dignity, then we have done our job.”
‘If someone watches it in a dark room, and after the lights go on that person feels they have more dignity, then we have done our job’
Béla Tarr started making films as a teenager after his father gave him an 8mm camera, and launched into it as a profession after the government barred him from entering university to study philosophy: a film he had made about Roma trying to get visas to work in Austria had not gone down well with the authorities, and neither had one about a family living in a squat. His first features – Family Nest (1979), The Outsider (1982) and The Prefab People (1982) – were works of social realism that often used non-professional actors and focused on the strained lives of Hungary’s urban poor. He then moved away from this type of filmmaking to forge the distinctive approach he is most lauded for: a more metaphysical, soul-weary cinema of long takes, shot in black and white in godforsaken settings. These outposts of mud and biting weather, far removed from the trappings of modern life, are peopled by hapless philosophisers and heavy drinkers, their faces lined by the drudgery of work and misfortune.
Damnation (1988) revolves around the Titanik Bar, a dingy haunt in a mining town where the rain belts down. A depressed and fatalistic drifter is in love with the bar’s married torch singer, and passes on to her husband the offer of a smuggling job to get him out of the way. Accordion music accompanies a long panorama shot of the regulars, who stare ahead, both sentinels and absurdist grotesques. Music underpins an old-world melancholy. Tarr worked with composer Mihály Víg, writer László Krasznahorkai and editor Ágnes Hranitzky to create this world, and they remained his close collaborators on subsequent films. Another classic scene, from Werckmeister Harmonies (2000), sees a mass of angry, out-of-work locals trudge through the street in winter, ready to riot. The men have been stirred up by the seemingly portentous arrival of a ragtag circus in the form of a stuffed whale and The Prince, a performer who spouts revolutionary dogma. The sensitive young Janos (Lars Rudolph) looks on as irrational forces hit the town like an eclipse. The camera often moves with Tarr’s protagonists as they trek through his harsh terrains, the sheer physical effort of life underscored by the slow toil of repeated motion (in Tarr’s storm-battered worlds even refilling an emptied bottle of brandy can be an arduous trial). In Sátántangó (1994) – an epic masterwork that runs for more than seven hours – a young girl (Erika Bók) with shock-glazed eyes walks through night and day, wind and rain, carrying her pet. The cat is dead – she has killed it in a cruel outburst. We traipse with her, wordlessly, for some time.
In these majestically slow and sprawling works plot is secondary; it’s the sombre, existential atmosphere and weighty images that imprint themselves on the mind. That his worlds are full of bleakness is undeniable, and Tarr is often spoken about as a purveyor of nihilism and chaos. But that is not exactly the case. There is no thrill in cruelty, no provocateur’s urge to shock. As a director, Tarr allows us deep into a world that can be a very tough and shitty place. But with a bracing black humour he looks for a weight, an essence, something ineffable to bring us full circle back to a greater sense of self, and something approximating that word he used in Wrocław: “dignity”.
The Turin Horse, the film to end all films, begins as it ends: in pitch-blackness. An episode is narrated in voice-over: in 1889, Friedrich Nietzsche saw a carriage driver whipping his horse, a brutal scene that upset him so much he lost his mind. This voice-over casts Nietzsche’s philosophical legacy (the death of God, an irrational world) like a storm cloud over the rest of the film, though the philosopher himself does not materialise. Instead, over six days the horse's ageing driver (János Derszi) and his daughter (Erika Bók) carry out their gruellingly austere daily routine in an isolated cottage, barely exchanging words. They dress, fetch well water, eat boiled potatoes with their hands. The horse loses its will to eat. A gale rages relentlessly – a howl as intrinsic to the film’s aural beauty as the organ-heavy score. A lantern goes out. The film, in all its sublime, old-world weight, plays like a funereal lament for a style of European art cinema that is dying out in the digital era of flash and superficiality.
Tarr's films play like a funereal lament for a style of European art cinema that is dying out
The cottage’s wooden table stands in Till the End of the World, a bowl of potatoes on top. Above it a screen plays a scene from the film in which an outsider visits in search of brandy, and rants about the world’s degradation. It’s fitting these are the only props (if you can call them that) to appear in the exhibition, as it brings home their physicality even more. And physicality is everything in Tarr’s merciless, radical paring-down to concrete basics. Simplification brings us face to face with the bare human condition, allowing metaphysical truth to make itself felt. The refusal to treat objects as symbols means Tarr has always been cautious not to over-describe things or dictate their meanings – a frustration at times for interviewers intent on extracting from him some definitive interpretation. “When an artist has been carried away by his artistry there is something suspicious about it surely,” he said in Wrocław. “I always collaborate with people who never speak about artistry. Rather, concrete situations – here’s a glass, and you drink water from it - are artistry. The rest is written in the face – people have their fate in their eyes.”
It’s an unspoken, intuitive language he shares with his closest collaborators. Back in Berlin after the exhibition, I meet Fred Kelemen in a cafe. Kelemen, who was born in Berlin to a Hungarian and German family, is the cinematographer behind the sublime look of The Turin Horse, and before that The Man from London (2007), Tarr’s grounding of a Georges Simenon crime story within a slow and eerie take on solitude. He is also a director in his own right (Susan Sontag championed his film Fate). Like Tarr, he insists there are no symbols in cinema (“Of course we know what it all means, but that doesn’t mean it’s a symbol.”) I ask him what it’s like to work together. “The special thing about working with Béla is our connection,” he says. “We have known each other for a long time, and there is an understanding which is beyond words.” This attempt to get to the essence of things, then: is it spiritual? “I wouldn’t call it spiritual immediately but metaphysical. If it has a spiritual level that’s another question, and it’s something Béla and I never talk about. It’s not our topic. There is also a secret that is untouched that belongs to the individual, to each of us alone, and it finds its expression in the images.”
Tarr may have vowed to never make a film again, but he has created one more scene. He and Kelemen shot it together in Sarajevo, and it screens at EYE as the exhibition’s finale. The camera focuses on the face of a boy, Muhamed. He was cast after Kelemen noticed him playing accordion every day in the street. “Everybody has an inner world and that is something you bring into a film,” Kelemen says. “Looking for actors of course means looking for faces and eyes, and the expression of their gaze.” The boy plays his instrument, and it seems at first as if the scene would be at home in any of Tarr’s timeless rural landscapes. But as the camera pulls away, Muhamed’s surroundings slowly reveal themselves: a shopping mall. It’s a setting jarringly dissonant with the accordion’s old-world charm, and it changes our impression of the boy in relation to his environment. He may still be a keeper of folk traditions or some sort of timeless sadness, but he is probably also a busker, forced to ply his talent for coins on the margins of a consumerist society. “In our times there is a conflict between archaic ideas and a civilisation of simulation, of fakes,” says Kelemen.
Tarr is often spoken about as a purveyor of nihilism and chaos. But that is not exactly the case
The scene is a startling addendum that seems to suggest that the doom on the horizon of Tarr’s work might all along have been the greed of unbridled capitalism, cheapening and laying waste to all it touches. Is this pessimism? Perhaps not: in Tarr’s language, to communicate this at all is a force for life. In Wrocław he told a story, and it stayed with me because it says everything you need to know about his motivations. “A man wakes up at 4am, dresses, goes out into the darkness to the location of shooting at 6am. It’s dark, fucking cold, the wind is blowing. It’s raining, and an actor appears, with a hangover too, and with one thousand problems. An actress comes. Her baby was crying all night. A production manager appears. And says what was said at the meteorological institute, the weather forecast. And a man is standing there waiting for the light to go slightly up so one button can be pressed so the scene can be recorded. And if I did not believe you were all going to see it then for what fucking reason would I be doing all this? I am not a masochist. I did it all for you. There is no greater proof of optimism.”
Béla Tarr: Till the End of the World shows at the EYE Film Museum in Amsterdam until 7 May 2017.
The New Horizons Film Festival in Wrocław will devote a retrospective to Fred Kelemen’s work from 3 - 13 August 2017.