Béla Tarr has the slightly sad privilege of being the only contemporary Hungarian filmmaker whose films are regularly seen outside his native land, the reason for this, no doubt, being their intense visual splendour. His latest, The Turin Horse, was true to form. The Pompidou Centre is holding the first complete retrospective of his work in France, with some fifteen films.
It is always a bit of an exaggeration to say that one can recognise a filmmaker right from the first shots, but in the case of Béla Tarr it can be said that three shots are enough to lead us into known territory. First of all, because with Tarr a sequence shot can last fifteen minutes. And also because his latest films have a profoundly original visual signature: a rather greyish black and white, the prodigious choreography of the camerawork, heady music—this is the Béla Tarr style. Of course, it wasn’t always that way. Born in 1955, he learned his trade as a filmmaker in communist Hungary. His first films therefore have a not-really-socialist realist feel.
Family Nest (1977), for example, reflects on the housing crisis in Hungary at the time. A young couple is forced to live in the same room as the husband’s parents. Inevitably, it all turns out badly. The Prefab People (1982) tells more or less the same story: in a cramped home, a working class couple fall out of love. Tarr films this conjugal violence in the style of Cassavetes, in an almost documentary mode, very close to the faces so as to pick up the affects of destruction and despair circulating in these modern prisons. Then comes the revolution, Damnation (1987), made not long before the fall of the communist regimes: no connection, but then who knows how the zeitgeist works? One of the great changes in Damnation, and the films that come after it, is that the filmmaker has emigrated to the countryside, a kind of urbanised countryside, where the weather is usually filthy, rainy or windy, and the earth turns to mud. No doubt this “rural exodus” can be attributed to the Hungarian writer Lázló Krasznahorkai, who had become his regular supplier of stories. Damnation inaugurates another major change, too: the camera steps back from the bodies. Gone is the closeness of the early period; now what interests the director is men in their setting, men as sad as the stones or dirty earth. But, if the style has changed, the confinement remains. Humans are still the prisoners of their destiny, of poverty, alcoholism, political violence or bad luck in love. Simply, in opening up the space Tarr invented new ways of conveying confinement. The interminable and magnificent circularity that ends Damnation, or time starting up again in a loop in Satan’s Tango (1994) are one – just one –of the ways that Tarr has found for telling us that we are locked in and will never get out.