The Turin Horse

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He’s So Heavy
by Jeff Reichert

The Turin Horse
Dir. Béla Tarr, Hungary, Cinema Guild

“In Turin on 3rd January, 1889, Friedrich Nietzsche steps out of the doorway of number six, Via Carlo Albert. Not far from him, the driver of a hansom cab is having trouble with a stubborn horse. Despite all his urging, the horse refuses to move, whereupon the driver loses his patience and takes his whip to it. Nietzsche comes up to the throng and puts an end to the brutal scene, throwing his arms around the horse’s neck, sobbing. His landlord takes him home, he lies motionless and silent for two days on a divan until he mutters the obligatory last words, and lives for another ten years, silent and demented, cared for by his mother and sisters. We do not know what happened to the horse.”

Following this opening epigraph, Béla Tarr, in the first shot of his final film, begins to explore the beleaguered animal’s fate. The camera is traveling, as it is so often in Tarr’s films, but instead of its typical creeping, meditative approach toward some revelation, here it moves at a breakneck pace, capturing the beast from a low angle as it gallops, the tops of trees passing behind it in the corner of the frame providing the only snatches of environmental context. The horse weaves to the left and to the right, its neck muscles straining, veins bulging, spittle gathering at its lips, and the camera tracks its motions, pivoting back and forth, ensuring the massive animal fills the frame. From the low angle, it looks as though it might run us over; for the shot’s duration you can imagine the terror of those apocryphal early French viewers of L'arrivée d'un train en gare de La Ciotat. As it careens back and forth across the road, we catch glimpses of its cruel master (János Derzsi) exhorting the horse onwards. He sits oddly in the saddle, handles the reins with difficulty; we’ll learn later that this is the result of an enfeebled arm. It seems Nietzsche’s pleas have fallen on deaf ears as the driver pushes his animal to the breaking point in his race to somewhere. What’s his hurry?

Underscoring this intensely physical image are the strains of a typical composition by Mihály Vig, Tarr’s frequent musical composer—a few instruments (here it seems almost raga-esque as an angry hurdy-gurdy swirls around an organ) wheezing, cyclical, always threatening to build towards some majestic climax, always shying away in favor of continuing the trance. Vig is part of the filmmaker’s small band of regular collaborators which includes noted author László Krasznahorkai, who co-writes Tarr’s screenplays, cameraman Fred Kelemen and editor/co-director Ágnes Hranitzky, all of whom return for this final effort under the Béla Tarr banner. In certain circles, the Hungarian master has become a recognizable cinematic brand on the level of Nike—step into one of his films and you’re likely to have some idea what’s in store: gorgeously grim black-and-white compositions; an easily countable assemblage of extended, elaborately choreographed shots that strain the capacity of the average 35mm film camera magazine; a focus on marginal human existence, not of contemporary “rural” poor folk, but collections of miscreants, dreamers, schemers, drunks, and the occasional intellectual who all seem to live in an alternate universe (Hun-gray?) untouched by any time or history we’d recognize; often dire events treated with equal doses of whimsy and fatalism.

Viewed cynically, Tarr’s aesthetic is a pile of the baldest of art-film stereotypes; that he’s been so elevated is less a function of kool-aid drunk by thirsty cognoscenti (at least one hopes) than a product of the clear commitment he’s shown towards exploring his singular conception of cinema and the artistry he and his team have demonstrated along the way. The first shot of The Turn Horse is classic Tarr, unmistakably his from the first frame, but features a full-frontal muscularity and velocity that’s new to his cinema, suggesting that, though the more mystical films he’s made following his grungy early social realist efforts may seem cut whole from the same cloth, he’s continued to evolve.

So, what follows this horse? (The shot is so affecting, almost nothing could.) According to Tarr: the “heaviness of human existence,” but perhaps more specifically, the apocalypse, as lived by our violent carriage-driver, his emaciated daughter (Erika Bók) and their graying steed. Over the course of six days in their remote farmstead (if we are to take the epigraph literally, we must be somewhere near Turin) we witness the humans painfully enact and then reenact the same barebones routine. The light comes, the daughter arises from bed, pulls a ragged covering over her equally ragged shift, takes a heavy wooden bucket outside to the well where she is buffeted by a howling, disorienting wind (this constant aural assault batters one’s ears over the duration of the film; by the end you’ll almost welcome the introductions of Vig’s never-changing, always-shifting music cue), draws water, boils it, then adds a pair of potatoes. Meanwhile, her father arises, dresses with difficulty, limps over to a spartan table for his meal. The two steaming hot potatoes are served, and without waiting for them to cool, the pair begin pulling at the burning peels. When satisfied with his pile of scrapings, the father smashes his tuber with the bottom of his fist, creating more manageable bites, and continues eating. This is consumption not for pleasure or taste, but to achieve the most meager of sustenance. The Turin Horse repeats this routine with each new day, each time with the cadence and solemnity of a religious rite.

After the film’s first few days, when its become clear we’ll never leave the barely sketched confines of the family’s shack and adjoining stable, you might begin to feel like one of those potatoes, unceremoniously smashed, steaming, consumed without regard or care. Tarr has never made a film consisting of fewer elements patterned so repetitively. Even Vig, who usually contributes variations on his central theme, is only allowed his one persistent, droning cue. Tarr’s two previous films, Werckmeister Harmonies and The Man from London, though hardly conventionally paced, practically race to their respective conclusions in deviations the often enervating experience that is The Turin Horse. Even so, there are variations from day to day: a neighbor stops by to preach of the ongoing apocalypse (shades of Werckmeister’s generalized anxieties) and leaves a warning text behind; a few days later, a gypsy caravan approaches, asks to share in the well water and is violently rebuffed. The horse is not forgotten—he stands mute and silent in his stable, still massively filling the frame, but his stasis suggests he’s wasting away too. By the fifth day, the water has gone and father and daughter attempt escape. In the film’s most drolly comic moment, we watch as their carriage disappears over the horizon, only to return moments later. We never know what they see. By the sixth day, even the light has left them, as if the sun has given up illuminating this hardscrabble existence out of futility, or worse, boredom. Yet, their routine grinds on.

The Turin Horse’s opening shot suggests a far different work than the nearly immobile film that follows—even though the camera continues to rove, its perambulations are amongst the most circumscribed in a Tarr film. The hard contrast between extreme kinesis and stasis suggests at first a work somewhat at odds with itself, the heavy emphasis on repetition a paucity of ideas, but Tarr is too careful a filmmaker to introduce these kinds of strategies without intent. Perhaps asking his audience to sprint alongside a horse is merely his abrupt, jolting method of passing viewers over into the isolated universe where they’ll spend the rest of the movie; once we are hypnotized and fully transfixed by the screen, the repetitions and variations, and, more importantly, how they wreak havoc on our physical ability to endure becomes as important as the viewed events themselves. More than most films, The Turin Horse creates bodily effects.

It’s rare to see more than a baker’s dozen of truly great films in a year, rarer still to find more than a couple of those you might call masterpieces, those films that truly upend expectations of the art form. Even more endangered are those grand works that not only stretch the limits of cinema itself, but come bearing coherent, fully formed philosophical world views. In 2011, we can point to The Tree of Life and, now, The Turin Horse. In many ways polar opposites—one cosmic and full of wonder, color, and light, the other bound to the earth, dark, and grim—both have similar aims. The Turin Horse is perhaps more admirable than pleasurable; it certainly never reaches (or attempts for) the ecstatic heights of The Tree of Life, but, no less than Malick’s massive overachievement, it provides a new way of viewing the world that surrounds us. Its allegory may be dreadful and its delivery brutal, but Tarr’s missive ends on an optimistic final note that turns the entirety of what you’ve seen upside-down, and reveals that, no less than The Tree of Life, The Turin Horse is a work that simply celebrates life. Though humanity has seemed constantly on the verge of annihilating itself throughout the Hungarian filmmaker’s career, this queasily hopeful note recasts his morbid fables in a new light. Isn’t it said that it’s always darkest just before the dawn?