Béla Tarr is known for his long takes and his bleak view of humanity. In my essay about watching his seven-hour film Sátántangó, I quoted Tarr from an interview saying, “I just think about the quality of human life and when I say ‘s**t’ I think I’m very close to it.” Tarr’s movies are definitely not for everyone. You need to have a strong stomach for Ingmar Bergman, Andrei Tarkovsky, and Michael Haneke, and it helps if you really like the work of Samuel Beckett. (Keep those caveats in mind with the rest of this review, particularly regarding its final score. You probably know if this movie might be for you from this opening paragraph.)
The Turin Horse is Tarr’s last film, so if you haven’t seen any of his movies before, I’d suggest first watching his haunting masterpiece Werckmeister Harmonies. After that, then watch Damnation and maybe Sátántangó. As for The Turin Horse itself, it’s like a Beckett play but without the humor. Tarr’s final artistic statement seems to be that life is a hopeless, futile struggle.
This is a nihilistic movie. Just how bleak can it get? None more bleak.
The Turin Horse
Director: Béla Tarr
Release Date: February 10th (New York City)
The Turin Horse is a suffocating experience. Its two-and-a-half hour run time is made up of only 30 shots, the first of which is of a sickly horse pulling a cart through a merciless gale. Sinister music — like a string section played through an organ grinder — simmers all the while. For almost five minutes, Tarr’s camera wanders ghostlike around the animal and the man in the cart. It’s so strangely compelling. It seems like Tarr is trying to crystallize states of absolute despair in every one of his long takes.
A majority of the other 29 shots are set in a tiny hovel where an old farmer with a bad arm and his daughter seem to await death. Outdoors, it’s cold and bitter and dry, with heavy winds whipping debris into a frenzy. In this barren world, even the horse has lost the will to live. We watch them like fireflies trapped in a jar, their light diminishing and their movements slowing steadily. While there were moments of whimsy and absurd humor in other Tarr movies, The Turin Horse is as grim as a death mask.
For his final film, Tarr reteamed with his long-time collaborators: novelist László Krasznahorkai and composer Mihály Vig. Tarr said he treats music as a character in his films, and Vig’s score for The Turin Horse seems to be a relative of the wind: it’s dirge-like and oppressive; it sounds like the slow erosion of a soul.
There’s not much of a plot to describe in The Turin Horse, and actually much of the film involves the repetition of certain events over the course of six days: the daughter helping her father dress, fetching water from the well, boiling potatoes for supper, eating said potatoes, checking on the sorry state of their dying horse, staring out the window at the desolate windswept land.
The moments that break this drudgery take on additional significance, though they mostly reinforce the sense of bleakness and resignation in the film. We’re told at one point that everything in the whole world is debased and that there’s no point to saving or preserving it — the good people will die, the good people of the world shouldn’t even try because to attempt is to guarantee failure. It’s this scene, the only scene with lots of dialogue (it’s a monologue, really), that presents something that resembles an outright thesis for the film.
Prior to that first shot of the weakened horse, the narrator says the following (taken from the press notes, with my small addition in brackets):
In Turin on 3rd January, 1889, Friedrich Nietzsche steps out of the doorway of number six, Via Carlo Albert. Not far from him, the driver of a hansom cab is having trouble with a stubborn horse. Despite all his urging, the horse refuses to move, whereupon the driver loses his patience and takes his whip to it. Nietzsche comes up to the throng and puts an end to the brutal scene, throwing his arms around the horse’s neck, sobbing. His landlord takes him home, he lies motionless and silent for two days on a divan until he mutters the obligatory last words, [“Mutter, ich din dumm,” (translation: “Mother, I am dumb”)] and lives for another 10 years, silent and demented, cared for by his mother and sisters. We do not know what happened to the horse.
Perhaps this sickly horse is the one that Nietzsche saved. If so, the horse and its owners share in Nietsche’s ultimate fate — a sort of death of spirit.
I detect an odd specter of Nietzsche in The Turin Horse, though it’s more of an anti-Nietzsche. A lot of people brand Nietzsche as a nihilist, but he was far from it. He didn’t think that the world had no values, but rather we should engage in a reevaluation of values in order to move forward. We could destroy the old values and create new ones that were life affirming and bold. And so you notice recurring ideas in Nietzsche of wellness conquering sickness, strength overcoming weakness, people bringing light into dark places, and the daybreak eradicating the night. In his idea of the eternal recurrence, Nietzsche essentially asks, “If you knew you had to live your life exactly the same again and again with all its misery and pain, would you do it?” The answer Nietzsche thinks you should give is “yes” — “yes” to life.
In The Turin Horse, everyone gives in. The fight to live is shown as meaningless, joyless toil; the farmer is sick and doesn’t look strong enough to get well. Their diet is simply a single boiled potato each day, with a little salt. There’s nothing alive in the trees or the landscape, and we even hear that a nearby town is in ruins. It’s as if the entire world has suddenly rejected the possibility of life. A number of people have described The Turin Horse as apocalyptic, which is appropriate. The film shows the world saying “no” to life.
And so gradually, I noticed the light fading in the film. The only glimpse of the sun I can recall is in the opening shot, but it’s clouded over. The picture seems to grow darker as the drudgery of life wears on. The camera also becomes less dynamic as the film draws to a close, opting for stationary images rather than those moving shots from earlier. When we come to the final scenes, we are practically in the dark. In the universe of The Turin Horse, even light seems to have given up.
The final shot of the film — the final shot of Béla Tarr’s entire body of work — was botched at the screening I attended. The last reel came on and the screen filled with an awkward trapezoid and a glimmer of something. A skirt? Cloth? Hair maybe? The screen remained like that for a few confused minutes until suddenly the projectionist corrected the frame and I was able to watch that final gloomy tableau until the end. There it was at last: a little touch of absurd comedy to the movie, a blip of whimsy, and it came about as a result of human folly. Perhaps Tarr himself would find this moment bitterly funny.
This little mishap got me thinking. If there’s an underlying assertion of meaninglessness to The Turin Horse, and if that’s what the state of humanity is supposed to be, why did I care so much about a projectionist mistake? Why did I feel like something about this experience was tarnished a little?
There is something that matters even in works that assert meaninglessness as the way of the world. Art matters, at least I want to think it does. The Turin Horse is an incredibly depressive thing, a gloomy work of art, a big black period at the end of the long and dense sentence that Tarr has written with his films. And it matters.
I remember those lines from Werckmeister Harmonies about the eclipse, that eventually the darkness will diminish, and the warmth of the sun will return, and that cycles of shadow and light (and of cruelty and love) will continue without end. I’d like to think that’s the way of the universe; that’s a world, harsh as it might be, that I can live in. Maybe I’m just trying to reject the oppressive dark of The Turin Horse. I want to believe that there’s still light left in dead fireflies.