The final film from acclaimed Hungarian filmmaker Béla Tarr, The Turin Horse is an almost perfect encapsulation of the stylistic hallmarks and thematic preoccupations that have marked the director’s work, at least since the beginning of his collaboration with novelist and screenwriter László Krasznahorkai. The film opens in poetic-philosophical mode with a literal tabula rasa: Darkness fills the screen. A disembodied voice relates an incident, perhaps little more than an apocryphal legend, a footnote from the history of philosophy concerning the collapse of Friedrich Nietzsche after compassionately embracing a beaten horse in the streets of Turin. “Quiet and demented,” so we are told, Nietzsche lived out the last 10 years of his existence. The anecdote concludes somewhat inconclusively: “Of the horse, we know nothing.” This quizzical narration contains all the simplicity and ambiguity of one of Kafka’s fables, opening up vistas of ethical and ultimately metaphysical speculation. Likewise, the atmosphere of existential enervation that accumulates over the course of The Turin Horse suggests the bleak and barren topography of a late Samuel Beckett play as filmed by Andrei Tarkovsky. Ultimately, precisely what relation the film’s subsequent events bear to Nietzsche and his philosophy remains resolutely open to viewer interpretation.
Abruptly, and this is not a word that often applies to The Turin Horse, the scene shifts to one of frenzied motion: A horse in harness plunges forward, while Tarr’s ever-mobile camera moves from a low-angle frontal view to a lateral tracking shot, following the horse as it races between spindly trees before it comes to a halt in front of a squat stone structure. A breathtaking shot that lasts nearly six minutes, this sequence effectively marks the end of purposeful motion within the film. Hereafter, the actions of the two lead characters, the horse driver Ohlsdorfer (János Derzsi) and his unnamed daughter (Erika Bók), partake in what Tarr calls “the unbearable heaviness of being” (an ironic upending of Milan Kundera’s most famous book, its title cribbed from Nietzsche’s work), their repetitive daily round—getting dressed and undressed, fetching water from the well, stoking the fire, cooking and eating boiled potatoes, drinking brandy—an objective correlative for Nietzsche’s concept of the Eternal Return: a sort of thought experiment seeking validation for the brute reality of mundane actions by their imagined repetition unto infinity.
If all this sounds as ponderous as Tarr’s little joke on Kundera would indicate, rest assured that the viewing experience is far from stultifying. The choreography of Tarr’s extended tracking shots is as dazzlingly intricate as ever, their sinuous complexity doubly necessary in a film where precious little ostensibly occurs. And, too, Tarr never shoots these eternally returning blocks of action from the same angle twice, yielding a welcome enlargement of cinematic space within the stone hovel’s cramped and sparse interior. Sound design also contributes considerably to the film’s impact: When the daughter unbolts the front door and opens it to the tempest roaring outside, the force of its impact on her slight frame is downright palpable.
Every so often, the narrator’s voice intrudes on this desolate domesticity to expand on events, a novelistic sort of ploy that, rather than clarify matters, only casts them further into murk and doubt. Add to this narrative profusion another gargantuan break in the silence that holds sway over much of the film, a bizarre monologue from a visiting neighbor that slyly suggests, and simultaneously debunks, a quasi-Nietzschean etiology for the world’s disease (the debasement of all that’s noble in humanity): rapacious acquisitiveness. At the conclusion of this stunning geyser of verbiage, Ohlsdorfer tartly replies, “Come off it. That’s all rubbish.”
It’s been argued that Tarr’s films depict a post-Christian worldview, taking up traditional religious language and imagery (as in the title of his first collaboration with Krasznahorkai, Damnation) only to interrogate its cosmological and theological foundations. Accordingly, The Turin Horse marks the apotheosis of this approach: Structured by division into six days, as the world outside Ohlsdorfer’s hut seemingly winds down to wrack and ruin, Tarr and Krasznahorkai’s narrative serves as an anti-Genesis (a de-Genesis, if you will), de-creating the phenomenal world bit by bit. Ohlsdorfer’s horse one day refuses to move, the next to even eat. The well runs dry. By the end, even the howling gale dies away, and darkness eats away the light. The film’s final tableau suggests a terrifyingly tenebrous afterlife: a vision of humanity inert, uncomprehending, and eternally unfulfilled.
Frequent Béla Tarr collaborator Fred Kelemen’s black-and-white cinematography looks like it was etched with acid out of the primordial elements that figure so prominently throughout The Turin Horse. Cinema Guild’s 1080p/AVC transfer is suitably magisterial: with intense, inky blacks, and well-modulated grayscale and healthy levels of grain noticeable especially in the outdoor scenes. The DTS track nicely conveys the omnipresent howling gale-force winds and other sound effects, as well as Mihály Víg’s haunting minimalist score.
Since The Turin Horse is Tarr’s avowed final film, the selection and overarching tone of Cinema Guild’s supplements is fittingly retrospective. Jonathan Rosenbaum’s audio commentary, which takes up about half of the film’s running time, is conversational and more than a little peripatetic. After explaining why he’s avoided solo commentary tracks in the past, Rosenbaum dives into the Tarriana proper, putting the director into context within the Hungarian film industry, sketching the trajectory of his career, enumerating some important cinematic influences, and then discussing in great detail key collaborators who have worked with Tarr over the course of his career, in particular screenwriter László Krasznahorkai. Rosenbaum does a commendable job delineating some of the literary and philosophical themes that undergird The Turin Horse without getting too drily academic about it. Lengthy quotes from Krasznahorkai about his working relationship with Tarr round out the track, including this priceless comment: "Thinking back over our work together, I almost like the results."
Footage from the 2011 Berlin Film Festival’s official press conference is a decidedly mixed bag. Unless you’re intrigued by the prospect of watching cast and crew pose for a photo op, you’d better skip ahead about 10 minutes, to when the discussion actually begins. And even then you’re in for the usual press-conference blather: pointless softball questions and curtailed, content-light responses. Better by far is the feature-length Regis Dialogue, held in 2007 at the Walker Art Center. It’s fun to watch Tarr wrangle with host Howard Feinstein, disagreeing with the latter’s take on just about every one of his films. In his leather jacket and ponytail, Tarr comes across as refreshingly profane, his preferred pejorative to dismiss something as "a piece of shit" (as in his curt takedown of IMDb’s reliability).
The Blu-ray disc also includes Hotel Magnezit, Tarr’s first short film, as well as a theatrical trailer. Finally, there’s an accompanying booklet with a characteristically lucid essay from film critic J. Hoberman.
When the world is running down, you make the best of what’s still around. Cinema Guild gives Béla Tarr’s The Turin Horse a magisterial monochromatic Blu-ray transfer, supplied with a bounteous cornucopia of mostly retrospective supplements.