Thanks to funding by Alexander Korda, Hungary implemented the world’s first nationalized film industry in 1919. Despite what Hungarian cinema has achieved since then (not to mention the historical significance of the aforementioned cinematic “first”), it is largely eclipsed by the cinema of neighboring countries. Native director Imre Gyongyossy (Sons of Fire) has described the Hungarian language as “very difficult,” and its culture “very closed”; this assessment explains the characteristic nature of Hungarian cinema and the reduced availability of these films outside the country, especially in the United States. These native attributes are intrinsic to the works of many Hungarian filmmakers, including Béla Tarr.
Counting his production of Macbeth for Hungarian television, Tarr has directed nine films since 1979’s Family Nest. Said to emulate the vérité style of John Cassavetes, Tarr’s early work inherits the durable socialist stance of Hungarian cinema (this political trend is perhaps best exhibited in the work of Miklós Jancsó) and is rooted in common, insular social environments. Tarr’s later films are similarly distinctive but their visual styles are more meticulous, often characterized by frequent long takes that recall the work of Andrei Tarkovsky. This rigorous style is on beautiful display throughout the director’s seminal Sátántangó, a film that is routinely lauded but has rarely been seen by the public.
Sátántangó begins with a formidable opening shot: within a rural, permanently saturated farming community, a single take observes a group of cattle as they exit a warehouse pen. Some wander around, grazing inattentively while others impulsively copulate. The entire herd begins to move between houses and barns, toward a subdivision end and slowly toward the horizon. This action is stark, unusual and darkly satiric, for in these opening minutes the farmers’ livestock is able to freely move around—to simply leave. It is this option of freedom that no human character in the film shares.
Rain is constant in this location (the photography makes it almost tangible), and Tarr seems to analogize it with poverty—both are unremitting plagues. Most of the film’s principle characters develop a scheme to rob a sum of money that has been promised, in shares, to each farmer. The possibility of wealth—and, therefore, escape—fosters greed, deceit, and infidelity. Futaki (Miklós Székely B.) and Mrs. Schmidt (Éva Almássy Albert) are seen post-coital: the pair immediately begins to conspicuously plot, and are interrupted by Mr. Schmidt (László Lugossy), another secret conspirator who unknowingly reveals his scheme to a hiding Futaki. One sin fosters another and deceit interconnects each person in the entire community—their respective vices prohibit their individual departures. As with the metaphoric link between weather and poverty, it’s apparent these farmers lack the community of their livestock.
Tarr is deliberate to correlate his film to the structure of a spider’s web, after which two of the film’s episodes are named. The characters in Sátántangó are assembled in a hierarchy of domination and betrayal; it’s a trap where even the most secret conspiracy is disruptively repercussive. At the fringe of this web is the young Estike (Erika Bók). She has been fleeced of her modest savings by her bother, and this loss results in frustration. She latches on to a pet cat, terrorizing it and finally forcing its head into a bowl of poisoned milk. (Affected by the gravity of her violence, she spends her final hours with the animal’s stiffened corpse in tow.) Afterward she fashions an identical elixir for herself. In this manner, betrayal inevitably tenders the highest cost for the lowest-tiered conspirator. The tragedy affects everyone.
The entire film is stitched together from a series of long shots—a minute number in proportion to the film’s epic length. This cinematographic tactic visually manifests the film’s thematic intentions. There are numerous instances of this visual signature, and the effect is hypnotic: sunrises occur in real time; figures move toward distant horizons and diminish; close-ups track along walking heads that bob vertically—and endlessly—in and out of frame. These actions are all captured with bold, static patience, and are demonstrative of the ennui of the film’s deprived community.
Sátántangó is structured in a repetitive chronology that apes the rhythmic tally of the tango. Episodes are followed or preceded by others that transpire simultaneously but from different perspectives, and passages without action (for example, a lengthy scene where characters engage in the titular dance) are supplementary to ones that precede or follow. Slowly, the viewer is informed of every betrayal and lie, of every deceit in a community that relies, ironically, upon faith.
The film is divided into 12 episodes, some of which only indirectly convey the film’s signifying theme of desperation. In illustrative contrast to Estike’s desperate violence, a community doctor, a voyeur who records the actions of neighbors through his window, fumbles through his every scene in a permanent vodka-induced stupor. He is as poor and desperate as any other character, yet his behavior is comic in what is an otherwise tragic film. Sátántangó is a compilation of such stark and discriminated pieces. It’s the cumulative alliance of a number of contrasted themes that derives the film’s irony: it is at once sympathetic and patronizing, both tragic and satiric. It is this insidious yet ambiguous political nature that characterizes Sátántangó as a Hungarian film, in turn perpetuating its obscurity and qualifying its art.