A Torinói Ló (The Turin Horse) is the first film I’ve seen by Hungarian miserablist Béla Tarr – purportedly the last he will make – and my interest was piqued by the praise the film has received from earnest chin-strokers in roll-neck sweaters who will happily spend a bum-numbing three hours gawping at long, heavy black and white European art house, conveniently ignoring the fact they do not have a Scooby Doo as to what it all actually means (lazy stereotypes? On this blog? Eat it, bespectacled Millhouses!). The director is spoken of in the same hushed, reverent tones as Fassbender and Tarkovsky, and his films have a reputation of being sombre, bleak and fairly long. The Turin Horse is actually short at around 150 minutes when compared with the equally highly-praised Sátántangó, which clocks in at a marathon seven hours, but it maintains a deliberate, slow pace with a series of long, unbroken shots – just thirty in total.
The premise is simple: while residing in Turin, in January 1889 Friedrich Nietzsche reportedly saw a cabman struggling with his horse, which refused to budge. The cabman beat the horse repeatedly, at which point Nietzsche stopped the man, threw his arms around the horse’s neck, and began to weep uncontrollably. Nietzsche lay motionless for two days afterwards, uttered his last words on the third, and then lived for ten years silent and demented. As Tarr’s stark title sequence points out in deadpan style using no-frills Times New Roman: ‘We do not know what happened to the horse’. The film, written by screenwriter and novelist László Krasznahorkai, examines what appears to be the six subsequent days in the life of the cabman (Olsdorfer, played by János Derzsi), his daughter (Erika Bók) and the horse itself, concentrating mainly on the two humans.
It opens with a frankly stunning scene of the horse and the wildly-bearded cabman as they struggle through bad weather and return home. The camera moves along looking upwards toward man and beast, alternating between close proximity to the horse’s neck and a slightly more distant, parallel view. You can almost feel the wind and the struggle they have against the weather, and the camera is never again as mobile as it is in this scene. Upon arrival we see that the cabman and his daughter live in a simple, small stone house with an adjacent stable, and their life is tough; the wind is ever-present, howling across their plain, and begins after a while to take on musical qualities, complementing the repetitive Philip Glass-like dirge made by long-time Tarr collaborator Mihály Víg.
Olsdorfer and his daughter live off the land, and their only source of income is the cart and the horse. The pair are so completely governed by their daily routine they barely feel the need to communicate with each other: she doesn’t speak until the 20th minute of the film, he doesn’t say anything until the 25th, and there isn’t too much dialogue between them in the two hours that follow. We see six days in which they repeat certain actions wordlessly: dressing, firing the oven in the morning, gathering buckets of water from the well outside, drinking palinka (a type of fruit brandy), trying to move the stubborn horse, eating boiled potatoes and sleeping. If that sounds like a depressing existence consider too that their leisure time consists of staring mournfully out of the window at the wind-swept plain. As the days progress they are visited by a neighbor (Mihály Kormos) who complains that the world is going to hell in a handcart (his rantings are dismissed out of hand by the cabman) and a band of travelling gypsies, who are chased off the land.
Even the most committed and patient cinephile would have to admit that this sounds like an utterly tedious and miserable viewing experience, and no doubt such a bland-sounding synopsis will put a lot of people off watching The Turin Horse. Not that IMDB’s comments should ever be taken too seriously, but it’s interesting to note that the message boards for this film feature many furious posters complaining about the fact they felt they had wasted over two hours of their lives watching a couple of people eating potatoes, time which presumably could have been better spent devolving or watching Jason Statham kick people in the face. There’s no doubting that this kind of material requires a leap of faith from the uninitiated or the skeptical, but it’s worth it: Tarr’s film is completely mesmerising in the way it depicts this hard and basic existence, with a surprising amount of interest in the daily routine created as a result of the director’s decision to film each day using slightly different camera angles. He occasionally leaves some elements out of the routine and occasionally includes others, in an impressionistic fashion, so by the fourth and fifth days your mind wonders about the diversions from the routine, even if they are just slight. The differences begin to grow in significance.
A task as simple-sounding as gathering water from the well becomes a mammoth and tense operation in Tarr’s hands; as the door is opened and the daughter faces the swirling wind each day it feels like a key scene from a biblical epic, and watching this happen over and over again is more involving than you would assume. The long takes lend the on screen ‘action’ (for want of a better word) extra significance. As the gypsies approach the house in a horse-drawn cart, for example, they begin as a speck on the horizon and gradually get bigger as they wind down a hill path, ominously and noisily moving closer to the property. When the cabman or his daughter stare out of the window the refusal to cut away gives those scenes a surprising intensity and ensures the spartan images resonate and stay with you long after the film has ended. Tarr makes shots of a man tearing at the skin of a hot potato with his hands, or drinking a glass of firewater, among the most memorable you will likely ever see.
So what does it all mean? Tarr has confirmed that the film is concerned with mortality and the inevitability of death. (Americans! Let this be a warning to you. As long as you continue to foist Michael Bay, McG and Zack Snyder on us, we Europeans will counter-strike with the likes of Tarr, Herzog and … erm … Paul WS Anderson.) The characters here struggle to find any meaning for their existence, and life is boiled down to naught but a futile, hand-to-mouth struggle. By the sixth day the horse has given up completely, the wind carries on howling, and the house becomes shrouded in darkness, with the pair completely silent and immobile as they sit opposite each other. Are they dead? Given that their life appears to be a kind of starkly-lit purgatory anyway, does it even matter? Is there any difference? It is hard not to equate the impending death hanging over the film with Tarr’s own decision to stop making films, apparently having said everything he feels he needs to by the age of 56; the exhortations of the gypsies to the daughter – ‘Come with us to America!’ – may also be a reference to the director’s chosen career path.
The critic Jonathan Rosenbaum states ’For me the abiding mystery isn’t what the film means but how and why we watch it. “Try not to be too sophisticated” was Tarr’s suggestion the first time he introduced it at the New Horizons International Film Festival in Wrocław, Poland.’ Rosenbaum explains that he watched the film three times on three separate days because he was fascinated by the way a film in which nothing much happens can be so powerful and beautiful.
In a world consisting of raving, ranting IMDBers on the one extreme and pretentious arthouse fans wearing difficult viewing experiences as if they were medals on the other, it seems pointless for me to say whether this is or this isn’t worth your time. I’m sure you’ll know the answer yourself. Personally, I was pleasantly surprised by the fact that watching The Turin Horse does not require a feat of endurance as I expected, although I admit my concentration waned by the ninth and tenth potatoes, and I took to Twitter briefly. At that point, feeling guilty, I wished I was in a dark cinema, with all its attendant rules and social conventions.
I’m glad I’ve had my first taste of Tarr’s genius. The Turin Horse may be bleak, unrelenting, monotonous and glacial, and it is one of the most downbeat films I have ever seen, but it’s also utterly gripping, and there’s something fascinating, beautiful and lasting about the way it is filmed, the way it sounds, and the way in which it is edited. I look forward to experiencing more by the director, in time.
Directed by: Béla Tarr
Written by: László Krasznahorkai, Béla Tarr
Starring: János Derzsi, Erika Bók, Mihály Kormos
Running Time: 155 minutes