Anyone who has passed the endurance test of Sátántangó, Béla Tarr’s 450-minute epic that represents in slow-crawl detail the disintegration of a Hungarian farm community, may feel like his previous film Damnation, running a mere 116 minutes, will be less taxing, less hectoring. But those viewers ought to redirect themselves to Tarr’s most recent existentialist nightmare, Werckmeister Harmonies, whose phantasmagoria includes the dramatization of a solar eclipse by a holy fool among the boozy all-nighters at the local bar, a mummified whale that stands in as a vast allegorical leviathan, and a mob of peasants that gathers in the town square to build bonfires and stoke their resentment before laying siege upon a ramshackle hospital. For all the talk of Tarr’s best work moving at the speed of a glacier, tremendous social unrest leads to apocalyptic upheavals within the worlds of Sátántangó and Werckmeister Harmonies.
If you’re expecting more of the same, you may be a little surprised at the comparatively small scale of Damnation. Imagine a love triangle where a worker (the strong silent type) in a mining town falls desperately in love with an unhappily married cabaret singer (the femme fatale), who dreams of a life in the big city. He schemes her husband out of the picture by involving him with some corrupt smugglers, and indulges in an extramarital affair with her where he promises her that if she wants the moon, she can have it. This unhappy little tale ends badly for everyone, since they’re ultimately ignorant peasants trapped in a life of quiet desperation. Damnation follows noir archetypes but stretches each familiar-seeming moment into a long-running, slow-moving, somnambulistic shot that returning Tarr viewers will be well versed in.
Those new to Tarr’s “Cinema of Patience,” as Facets Video refers to it, should not start with Damnation and are advised to heed this advice: watch some of his other films first, preferably Werckmeister Harmonies. Viewers are well advised to consider that the famous opening shot of Sátántangó is a crawling 10-minute depiction of cows emerging from a barn and stupidly wandering through the rain and mud, and that shot is very active in comparison to the drawn-out beginning of Damnation: from an open window, mining cable cars creep back and forth in a slow daily grind. Eventually, it is revealed that we’re witnessing the point of view of the worker, Karrer (Miklos Szekely), from his spare and lonely apartment. Next, we see Karrer shaving his coarse, rough-hewn face, a tough-looking mug that would find a kindred spirit in Harvey Keitel. This time, the camera hardly wavers, and we’re stuck on Karrer and the slow, scraping sound of the razor going up and down, up and down. If you haven’t figured it out by now, things move very slowly and repetitively here, and as a spectator you’ll be as longing for escape from the mundane, boring routine as Karrer is.
Escape is found in the club, where patrons sit glazed over thick mugs of beer as the singer (Vali Kerekes) is slumped over a stool, hanging onto the microphone as though she might fall over otherwise, muttering her seemingly half-asleep way through a despondent love song about how there’s really not much chance of finding love, and the need for the hopeless to dream of Shangri-La. Though it might seem like a dead crawl of a musical number, the viewer is so inured to a world where so little transpires, even a mild thread of hope gets you to perk up your ears, and respond as Karrer does to the thought that she could give him a small spec of happiness. The black-and-white photography is purposefully leaden and oppressive; there is never-ending rain, muddy streets, cramped houses, wandering mongrel dogs, and half-empty packs of cigarettes. The world Tarr overwhelms his characters with is so bleak that even a half-hearted pop song feels like good medicine.
In terms of creating a strong cinematic world, Tarr has few equals. His camera movements are so purposefully slow, his takes so purposefully long, and his gaze so purposefully unblinking, but when his films achieve brilliance he places within that world something loaded with mercurial power. The hero of Werckmeister Harmonies is commonly referred to as a holy fool, but is in fact an articulate philosopher with a sense of poetry and a flair for drawing out members of the community with his cosmic passions. He has dreams and visions, which are gradually snuffed out by the forceful pessimism of Tarr’s cinematic space, his representation of peasant class rage being kindled by baroque mysticism. The characters in Damnation simply move toward their grim fates as if they were no smarter, no more audacious in their choices, than the lumbering cows of Sátántangó.
If one is to appreciate Damnation, it’s the same way we might impassively study animals at the zoo just after feeding time. They begin their day as it ends, trapped within their cages. Tarr’s fascination with their ennui is matched by his preoccupation with the gathering rainstorm and the piles of straw and dirt that make up their simplistic life as prisoners. He extends that logic to these idle, unhappy townspeople, and while his statement about them is not lacking in visual power and philosophical heft, it is also questionable whether it’s the strongest statement an artist of his caliber can make.