Poetic Filmmaker Honored by CIFF

Cinema According to Béla Tarr
Béla Tarr

The current 44th edition of Cairo International Film Festival (CIFF) honored the unique filmmaker, Béla Tarr. He might not be as famous as the Russian Tarkovsky, the Swedish Bergman, or the French Jean-Luc Godard, but he is definitely creative and distinguished from the mainstream.

The Hungarian Béla Tarr exhibits an ingenious style in showcasing his stories which mostly revolve around the human influence on society and society’s influence on people, including topics of cultural, economic and even military invasion.

Celebrated by CIFF, it is time to highlight some of Tarr’s movies, two of which are screened by the festival: The Turin Horse and Werkmeister Harmonies, in addition to a seminar in which Tarr spoke about his works, philosophy and how it is distinguished from other styles.

The problem was that the seminar was held before screening the films, so the audience was not able to relate the information and opinions expressed by the Hungarian filmmaker to his work.


Béla Tarr’s Sátántangó


CloseD Windows

Béla Tarr was born in Pécs, Hungary, in 1955. He graduated from the Theatre Academy in 1981. After one short film, he directed his first long movie Family Nest in 1979. His next movie was The Outsider (1981) adapted from Albert Camus’s novel. Then he filmed his version of Macbeth for the Hungarian TV, before returning back to cinema in 1982 to make The Prefab People.

All these movies were just a debut for his journey towards the groundbreaking work in Hungarian cinema which promoted him to a much higher rank. In 1994 (after few years of absence), Tarr created his epic movie Satantango which was screened in the Toronto Film Festival in the same year.

The 439-minute film in black and white was seen by 70 viewers, ten of whom watched it to the end, because some critics had to watch other movies or didn’t admire his style.

I was one of those ten who stayed and was amazed by the contemplative cinema that belongs to Tarkovsky, Aleksandr Sokurov and Theo Angelopoulos. It was another slow-pacing-and-long-takes movie, but it excelled for its unique style, as with Tarr’s subsequent works.

In the film, Tarr features a desolate village whose residents have mostly left, except for a pub in which psychologically and physically aging characters dance as they can’t find any other place to go. A drunken doctor stayed there while two men were followed by the director as they walk for a long distance in the rain while windows of houses on both sides of the street are closed.

“Why are all village windows closed?” I asked him at that time.

“If I opened them, I would have to speak about every person inside,” he replied.

His reply was odd enough to think about, and the only way to understand it was to link the scene to being a part of a movie about unity among the remaining people in the village.


From Werckmeister Harmonies

An Elegy

When I met the filmmaker here in Cairo, I reminded him of that conversation. He laughed and said, “I remember that question, because you are the only one who asked about it. I still adhere to my answer.”

“How do you see the film now?” I asked.

He replied, “My opinion is not neutral. Every movie I made is a result of huge efforts in writing and implementing, so I can’t say I prefer a scene to another, or a film to another. All my films are the fruit of my intellectual process and a huge effort I exert on paper and on the set.”

Before he left for the seminar, I asked him another question, “Do you approve if I called you ‘a cinema poet’?”

“Definitely,” he replied, “although I didn’t intend to be a poet. I just present parts of life that are really interesting to me. Poetry comes in the form of the visual images and their connotations, and is also fused in the long takes. My films are elegies of circumstances, and might present bleak approaches. But I can’t communicate happiness that I can’t find around me.”

In the beginning of Satantango, a herd of cattle enters the small village which is the setting of most events. The camera follows the slow movement of the herd in a tracking shot. Although an old worn wall stands in the middle of the path so we can’t see the herd’s movement, the camera goes on to track the herd at the other end of the wall after a minute or more. This leaves us in a worn place. There is also a swamp on a road full of holes and what seems to be the ruins of a building, along with a barking dog, mysterious growling, and sounds of a far train.


The film’s exposition is not the only extraordinary part, the intentional slow pace is also beautiful. It is unique for its indication of the pace of life in a Hungarian village in a special moment of its history. This moment can’t be reflected at any other pace. The village is dead even before the movie starts and before we know that one of the remaining residents is a drunken doctor who takes the responsibility of recording what happened before and after the village’s desolation.

It is an exposition haunted by the gloomy spirit of the place, particularly by the growling sound that replaced the soundtrack, and by the still camera which refrains from any movement that would shake the dismal silence.

The story is narrated at the same pace that lends the movie a brilliant artistic unity. It is about a man who introduces himself to the village residents as their savior from poverty, need, and dysfunction of the unnamed communist era. But this man, Irimiás (accompanied by Petrina) is only a manipulator who steals the residents’ money. One reading of the film is based on a suggestive comparison between Irimiás and the Christ, as Irimiás returns from death with a promise of a prosperous life which will not be fulfilled, namely, capitalism.

The melancholic poetry about nature and man flows and is repeated in the scene of the drunken fat doctor. He falls to the ground, and the camera is above him to make you feel he drops dead. After a minute or two, he strives to get up, carries a barrel and leaves his house to fill it with wine. The camera follows him as in a poetic elegy. The whole movie communicates this concept and treatment.


The Turin Horse


Misery is a recurring theme in the films of Hungarian director Béla Tarr. It is not the subject that most people want to see, but it is the subject that concerns a few directors around the world who are distinguished primarily by their desire not to share their whims, desires, thinking, and the colors of their lives with the majority of people. They are as lonely as their characters, and so is Béla Tarr.

It is not necessary to select scenes from his films that depict images of misery, but it is sufficient to mention these films. Every film he made and cared about is a reflection of the people’s misery in his world. The challenge is how this bleak subject would arouse the interest of intellectuals and critics all over the world. Why do we find a clear artistic motivation in these films? Why does his work not fall into the melodramatic category of other cinemas?

The answer to these questions is that Béla Tarr does not make up what he presents. To do so, he must first be a storyteller, but Tarr's films are not made to tell stories, but rather to explore the general social environment and the personal clash between one situation and another – between old and new, or stability and change.

Even in the film Satantango, the few events do not constitute a narrative theme, but rather remain part of the work that is life. So it is part of an observed life that does not provide stories in the way we are accustomed to seeing them. It can take years for a story to unfold if its events end at a certain point.

Béla Tarr by himself in his cinema

Part of an Overall Picture

Watching Tarr’s work, one discovers that the world depicted by this director is the film itself. This world may be the house, the village or town, or (usually) any secluded location, but it is the entire world for his characters who know nothing but their immediate surroundings.

As a result, one believes everything the director presents, and believes the misty sky while it rains, the cold as it pinches the bodies, and the characters who are in need and suffering as a consequence. The viewers can believe the film with all its viewpoints whether they agree or disagree with some of them.

Béla Tarr’s film is an opinion, a vision, and a director’s philosophy. Thanks to the treatment, the viewer respects what he sees and interprets as long as they accept the technical conditions imposed by the director, viz., an extremely monotonous cinematography, a slow pace, limited movement, and spaced-out events. His films are not aesthetic-decorative (either in mental or visual perception), and they have been described as "not beautiful" by some in Hungary. He was dubbed "a director of ugliness" after only three films in the early 1980s.

However, this is only a small part of a larger picture. There is the method used by the director in his work. Those long shots make it appear as if the film didn’t undergo the editing process, and filming from afar maintains a distance that he, as a director, should not cross towards his characters.

This is what creates the schism between the director and the film as a narrative medium. If this gap had not existed, there would have been no need to present films in this style, and films would have transformed from being an art to study into a story to watch, as Tarr told me in 2001.

Any Béla Tarr film slaps the viewer with scenes that are difficult to forget. In fact, his very long film Satantango lingers as if you saw it yesterday, with its long scenes and extended experiences that leave you wondering when it will end and move on to another experience with his penetrating shots that frame the environment on the screen. Thus he keeps the ambience under the spotlight and as the vast space in which objects and characters interact. The director is apparently afraid (or perhaps realizes) that getting too close to his characters will force the viewer to ignore the setting. As a result, he only takes close-up shots when necessary, especially in cases that show the full extent of the misery.

The two Béla Tarr films screened at CIFF 44 are of the same caliber in terms of creativity and the ability to mix dark reality in the manner of special existential poetry, they are absolutely no less than Satantango.

Béla Tarr, now in his late sixties, is content with the few films he has made. He announced his departure from directing to teach cinema and give lectures wherever he is invited.

Before leaving, I asked him if he, like any director who abandons his passion for directing, regrets it or would return. He replied, "I do not think so, because filmmaking requires effort that I can no longer bear. Of course, I could have made more films than I have [eight] if I had agreed to do films that don’t address concerning topics nor have a distinct style, but I do not regret it. Rather, I am pleased that with my few films, I have satisfied both myself and my audience. This is sufficient for me."

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