The much feted Hungarian auteur discusses The Turin Horse and announces his retirement.
"I’ve lost my humour," is how Hungarian director Béla Tarr – a wry, nicotine stained smile sketched across his face – announces his retirement in his low, measured growl. Though he delivers this statement with a blasé shrug, the news that one of this generation’s most unique talents will never direct a film again has a sombre chime to it.
For a start, at 57 years old, surely he’s far too young? "I did movies for 34 years. I started from somewhere and I nearly arrived back. With The Turin Horse, the circle is closed. Now the work is done, I have a feeling I have said everything that I wanted to." There is some truth in this remark.
In The Turin Horse, a father and daughter go through the monotony of existence with only a derelict cottage as protection from the punishing elements, and a dying horse as their sole hope for survival. It shares a strain of heady bleakness first seen in his 1977 debut, Family Nest.
Both films teeter on the brink of nihilism and lack one of the most enthralling and overlooked aspects of Tarr’s work: his mischievous sense of humour. “Every good thing has comedy because you can see both sides of life,” he says. “You cannot just show tragedy. I have to tell you, in The Man from London, I had humour and I could say I did comedies. I had a feeling that you can always laugh at it. During The Outsider and Autumn Almanac you can laugh a lot. In Werckmeister Harmonies you can laugh not too much. Now, in The Turin Horse, we cannot laugh.”
Tarr’s remarkable career has seen him slowly climb the ranks of European auteur cinema. With The Turin Horse, he could trade blows with any directorial visionary you’d care to mention. He is best known for his employment of long takes – as seen in 1994’s jaw-dropping, seven-hour masterpiece, Sátántangó – which he uses to support his brooding, mesmeric storytelling style.
You don’t have to speak to Tarr for long to realise that he is disgusted by the idea of making a film motivated by anything other than personal conviction. "I really don’t want to be a fucked-off, shitty, bourgeois film director. It’s a comfortable job and you’re famous. If I do one more film, it will look like a profession, and I don’t want that. Of course I can do some more films, but then I’m just repeating and doing copies. This is not my style."
Despite the political undercurrents within many of Tarr’s films, especially the so-called ‘Proletariat Trilogy’, his first three features that all focus on the plight of the disheveled and downtrodden, they never feel overtly didactic.
“When making Family Nest, I was of course a very strong leftist and I was totally against the whole fake socialism which, then, was a kind of feudalism. I was always on the side of the ugly, miserable, humiliated people. My first movie just wanted to show you how they are, how they have life and dignity and humility and nobody has the right to destroy them. Of course I felt that, but not in a political way. This is a question of social sensibility. Politics is a shitty, dirty, ugly business. It has to be much deeper than just taking political sides.”
The Turin Horse is a demanding film, opening with an anecdote about Nietzsche that inspired the film’s title. It concerns the philosopher’s descent into madness after seeing a horse being beaten in Turin. “Everybody knows how it was with Nietzsche. But our question was: what has happened to the horse?”
It is of little surprise that Tarr originally wanted to become a philosopher, an impulse articulated in his films to various degrees. Werckmeister Harmonies uses humorous digressions to ponder aesthetics and religion, while elsewhere, in such works as The Outsider, he explicitly voices the discontents of the working classes.
Bar the deafening wind, The Turin Horse stands apart from his previous films due to its minimal use of dialogue. As such, there’s a tendency to search the lonely silences for subtext or metaphor, a tendency Tarr is keen to shoot down. "Filmmaking is a very primitive job. If you see a movie you cannot see any metaphors or symbols or allegories because film is concrete. You always see concrete pictures. You always see concrete actions. Everything is concrete."
This ideology underscores the sincerity of both his approach and his films. If you’re looking beyond the screen for meaning, you are looking in the wrong place. Tarr forges the entire beginning and end of the world, as is evident in his explanation of The Turin Horse. "It’s very simple: If you are a coach driver and all you have is a horse, every day making your money with this horse, and your horse gives up, we just see how the horse is getting weaker and weaker. In parallel, the world is also getting weaker and weaker because the world is getting smaller and smaller. And for the human characters in this film, this is the real end of the world when the horse starts to die."
Music is an integral aspect of Tarr’s cinema and he never uses it as a cheap device to accentuate emotion. Mihály Vig is Tarr’s regular composer and he has used him for every film since 1985’s Autumn Almanac. "I like to know the music before the shooting, because the music, like the set and the landscape, is one of the main characters. It has a face. This is terribly important. It is like scouting for the location. If I don’t know the whole scene before shooting, it comes in the stupid film music category which is a piece of shit. When a director is not able to create tension he just calls the musicians and they watch the screen and play the music. For me, that’s ridiculous."
Though he puts the concrete world on the screen, he is keen never to impose his own values. His central characters are rarely wholly virtuous or malicious. More often they are a combination of the two. The suggestion that The Turin Horse could be perceived as sad startles Tarr. "When I was watching it, I didn’t feel sad, no. I think ‘sadness’ is not a good word. I have no courage to say if something is good or bad, or something is happy or sad, because if you see a thing which you call sad, you find beauty immediately. In the middle of the big sadness, you could find something which is truly beautiful."