Béla Tarr might be a man of few words, but like the striking cinematic images he’s spent the better part of three decades creating, those words pack quite a punch. During his short introduction before a screening of The Turin Horse at this year’s AFI Fest, Tarr spoke softly and wisely about the many ways cinema and life intersect. He also showed a keen sense of humor toward the entranced audience: “It’s sunny outside, and you could have done a thousand things today, yet you chose to see a black and white, sad, windy movie.” If this statement is any indication, Tarr clearly understands the sacrifice both artist and viewer makes when engaging a film, how each group is woven together by the overlap of expectation and intent. It’s not surprising then that every frame of The Turin Horse, a wrecking ball of cinematic formalism and fury, is obsessed with the way weathered characters sacrifice energy, time, and breath one hellish minute at a time.
Co-directed by Ágnes Hranitzky, The Turin Horse opens in darkness, with an omniscient narrator introducing the film’s historical context/question: What happened to the abused horse whose plight ultimately drove Nietzsche mad in 1889? When the darkness fades only slightly to reveal a world of desaturated starkness, Tarr and Hranitzky deliver a cinematic right hook to the viewer’s jaw. There won’t be a more audacious first shot in a film this year (maybe this decade) than the pummeling rush of movement and sound that opens The Turin Horse. A hurricane of wind, dead leaves, and dust rips across the densely layered frame as a lone man furiously drives a cart being pulled by the horse in question. Tarr and Hranitzky’s endlessly roving camera blankets the frame, careening back and forth, zooming in and out, jumping ahead then trailing behind. Every worn-out corner of the cart and horse gets examined in gripping detail, specifically the textures of wood and fur worn down by man’s incessant overuse. Astoundingly, the fluid single take goes on for over six minutes, pushing the kinetics of cinema to their breaking point, leaving us breathless before the frame finally fades to black.
When the driver, a bearded rube named Ohlsdorfer (János Derzsi), finally returns to his austere country cabin, Tarr and Hranitzky’s film slows to a measured crawl, tracking his daily routine with a stalker’s eye. Immediately met by his equally grizzled daughter (Erika Bók), Ohlsdorfer lurches through the ever-present wind to unsaddle the horse and return the cart to its shadowy stall. The pair moves inside, going through their daily routine that includes cooking, laundry, staring out the window longingly, and finally a little bit of sleep. The filmmakers give these seemingly benign moments a level of immediacy, filming the same tasks from different angles as one day melds into the next. Ambient sound cues, like the howling wind outside and footsteps on wood floorboards, along with the film’s haunting score by Mihály Vig, become the film’s sturdy skeleton. Contrastingly, the filmmakers and cinematographer Fred Kelemen visually manipulate the mise-en-scène to deepen the worldview of the characters themselves. This fascinating strategy represents Tarr and Hranitzky’s desire to find the unique qualities in the sameness of everyday life, something Tarr also commented on briefly during the Q&A after the film.
Themes of resistance, durability, and duration all present themselves through Ohlsdorfer and his daughter’s struggle to survive the deafening windstorm and a lack of rations that threatens to displace into the harsh world beyond. The film’s incessant closeness to these characters proves that Tarr is one of the few filmmakers that values time above all other things. The film’s roaming camera lingers on small aspects of the frame, like the way matted hair blows in the wind, the cavernous wrinkles under a man’s eye socket, and the deep scars defining a horse’s leg. Maybe most indicative of this style is the few sequences that find Ohlsdorfer and his daughter eating boiled potatoes, each consuming the food at their own pace and in contrasting styles. By suggesting the importance of what some would call tedious actions, Tarr and Hranitzky deconstruct what it means to observe the existence of others, not through subjective judgment but objective consideration. The pressure they feel is ingrained in the waking moments most of us tend to ignore.
Instead of culminating in a “make or break” scenario, The Turin Horse confirms the steady recycling of both pain and beauty in its staggeringly sudden final shot. No matter the location, time always moves forward, and for better or worse, so do we. Even when the daily toil wears down knuckles to the bone, or breaks whatever spirit remains, something more always awaits us; another shot of vodka, another chance occurrence with gypsies, another surprise meeting with a philosophical neighbor. These are life’s contradictions and oddities, and whether or not we want to embrace them speaks to our relationship with cinema, religion, and all the small issues of faith in between. Tarr and Hranitzky value the art of sacrifice above all other things, vividly sharing their own so that their audience may respect and consider the sublime process of living in a new way.
AFI Fest ran from November 3—10. For more information, click here.