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Foreign Films > The Turin Horse (Bela Tarr, 2011)

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message 1: by Robert (last edited Mar 30, 2012 05:29AM) (new)

Robert Beveridge (xterminal) Since I mentioned the 3,097-word review in another thread (which did grow by a few), I figured I'd post it here for the interested...

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A Torinói Ló (Béla Tarr, 2011)

NOTE: while nothing in this review is technically a spoiler (for reasons I go into detail about below), there are people who may consider some of the revelations in this review to be such. If you are one of those people, don't read this until after seeing the film.

There area number of directors—among them Ozu, Miike, Wilder, and Romero—who have more than one movie in my top 100 films of all time. But only one, Béla Tarr, has more than one film in the top twenty. Until the completion of A Torinói Ló, released in English-speaking countries as The Turin Horse, Tarr was not only the greatest filmmaker of modern times, but possibly the greatest filmmaker of all time. Now, he has retired. Aside form the fact that this is a major blow to the filmmaking industry, it does have bearing on how one reacts to The Turin Horse, which would be joining Satantango and Werckmeister Harmonies in my top twenty were it not for one minor problem (more on this later, however brief). This is because while one can certainy get a sense of The Turin Horse's soul-crushing despair despite having never seen a single frame of a Tarr film before, if you are familiar with the director's previous output, “soul-crushing despair” is far too light a term for what is, in every sense, a tale of the apocalypse. Yes, Tarr—Tarkovsky's greatest disciple, the man who took the long shot to such absurd lengths that even Tarkovsky never dreamed of—has finally made the love letter to Tarkovsky's science fiction days that has been markedly absent from his oeuvre.

“But wait,” I hear those of you saying who have gotten a chance to actually see the film (which has only played in very limited release in America so far), “there's nothing at all science fictiony about this movie—it's more of Tarr's dreary black-and-white realism.” And you would be right, but bear with me here. Explaining where I'm coming from requires a journey back thirty years. Possibly more, but getting one's hands on Tarr's early work has always been a bit tricky, and so the first of his films I've seen is 1982's The Prefab People (viz. review 15Apr10). It is intensely realist—I compared it to Jost and Cassavettes—but with the benefit of hindsight, I think this may have been the beginning of Tarr's creation of an alternate-universe Hungary, the taking of little poetic licenses here and there in the same way many filmmakers do in order to highlight a point or what have you. Then came Almanac of Fall, which is far more Bergman than Jost, and with Bergman must always come fantastic influences. (Never forget Tarkovsky leaning in the background.) It is an ugly, brutal, depressing film that manages to look realist while being the place where one can actually see reality fracturing away from Tarr's worldview. After this, three films with increasingly monumental events whose effects ripple through this now post-communist alternate Hungary: Damnation, Satantango, and Werckmeister Harmonies. It may be flip to say so, but the seemingly anomalous 2007 film The Man from London even fits; where else but in an alternate universe would Georges Simenon's novel have been set in Hungary? And while the events in the three preceding films echo throughout the country, in this one we have international implications. Where I'm going with this: the more you have immersed yourself in the world that Béla Tarr has created over three decades, the more this movie will mean to you. (In other words, if you haven't watched at least Satantango and Werckmeister Harmonies yet, wait on this one until you have.)

Which leads us to The Turin Horse, along with the reasons that (a) Tarr is retiring and (b) this is actually an apocalyptic sci-fi flick: Béla Tarr destroys the world.

This is not a spoiler, or at best it is only a minor one, since we find out quite early on, in a scene almost every review of the film I'd had a chance to read before seeing it focuses on: Bernhard (Mihály Kormos, a Tarr regular, as are all the principals in the movie)'s visit on the second day because he's run out of alcohol. Asked why he didn't just go into town to buy some, he tells us the town has gone to ruin. This is the beginning of a five-minute monologue about the metaphorical destruction of the Earth from a Marxist perspective (“man acquires and destroys, or man destrosy and acquires...”), which may throw you off a bit, but remember: the town has gone to ruin. Bernhard came to tap Ohlsdorfer (János Derzsi)'s dwindling stash because he can't get any in town. Outside MacKendrick's Tight Little Island, has that ever happened before? Anywhere? It points to the rest of Bernhard's speech being metaphorical, but that statement being absolutely literal. The town no longer exists. It has been destroyed. In fact, the world, with the exception of a few wanderers like Bernhard, now has its boundary at the tree that can be seen through the farmhouse window. There was a world there before the first day; the opening shot of the film, so quintessentially Tarr, shows Ohlsdorfer riding his cart, drawn by the title character, down the road to the farm. At that point, the wind is getting up a bit, maybe there's a little creeping fog, but by we get the “the first day” title card, we're in the middle of Stephen King's The Mist combined with Victor Sjöstrom's The Wind. We even get monsters from the former and crazy from the latter, both during the third day. Going into that would be a (minor) spoiler, but I will remind the reader that Tarr's films have always had the same structure of deep, lethargic slowness punctuated by a moment of shocking violence (the murders at the beginning of The Man from London and the middle of Satantango, the riot at the end of Wreckmeister Harmonies); here Tarr returns to making the violence the dead-center shot of the film, but the violence in question is not nearly as theatrical, or for that matter as violent, as in any of the previous films mentioned. It's actually quite pathetic, in every sense of the word, which serves to underscore the pathetic existence shared by Ohlsdorfer, his daughter (Erika Bók), and the horse (who, the credits tell us, is named Ricsi).

And yet Tarr, for those who are willing to devote to the film the concentration that it deserves, will note that while the family's existence is a mindless haze of numbing repetition, Tarr's depiction of it is anything but. Consider mealtime during the first two days. The daughter dips water (which she has brought from the well each morning, another series of scenes that illustrate this nicely) from the large bucket on the back of the stove into a pot containing two potatoes. They cook. She gets the wooden plates, the serving bowl, and the salt cellar from the cupboard and lays them out. The potatoes go into the bowl. “Kész.”, she says. (“It's ready.”) They go to the table. They eat, about half the potato each time, with the leaving scraped after the meal. The actions themselves are the same. On the first day, the camera is sitting just over the daughter's shoulder, and we focus on Ohlsdorfer, who is old and has lost the use of his right arm (a stroke, one assumes, or perhaps the horse kicked him at some point). Ohlsdorfer is not a patient guy. (This is important later.) He burns himself peeling the potato, he flings salt onto the plate, he wolfs down piece after piece, then thrusts himself from the table—as much as a guy with the use of only one arm can thrust—and stalks off, leaving his daughter to clean up, after she's done; it takes her about twice as long to eat her potato bits as it does Ohlsdorfer. The second day, the camera is behind, and a bit to the side of, Ohlsdorfer, and we focus on his daughter. We see that she is slower, more deliberate. She does not use salt. (In a film where everything is pregnant with meaning, I have a perverse urge to pontificate this was simply the actress' preference rather than Tarr and co-conspirator László Krasznahorkai making a comment about the daughter's personality.) She blows on each piece of potato. If these people were affluent enough to be able to afford utensils, you get the idea Ohlsdorfer would still go about burning his hands, while his daughter would at least have mastered the use of knife and fork. We hear Ohlsdorfer eat, but aside from a few arm movements, we don't see him. We see only her.

This may seem a small thing, but it is synecdochic of the way Tarr and cinematographer Fred Kelemen (the director of Krisana) gradually reveal the little universe of this film. We suspect the cupboard exists—those plates have to go somewhere—but we don't actually see it until the third day. The spatial relationship between the house, the barn, and the well also comes into focus on the third day; for all we knew before then, the barn was off on another planet, for all that it featured in shots. This is one of the things in the film that really holds our interest as viewers, that we continue on for the first two hours of this two-and-a-half hour film continually discovering things about the scenery. Which is pretty impressive given that the scenery is all but unremarkable save where it is destroyed (more on this in a bit). Tarr is creating something out of not nothing, but very little, and he's doing it successfully.

Where so many other reviews focused on the Bernhard visit, I'm actually coming to a piont with these last few paragraphs, what is to me the central scene of the film, the most important one, which takes place on the fifth day. This is not the climax—were it possible to think of a film this flat having a climax at all, one would have to place that at the moment of violence that sits in the middle of the film—but it is by far the most important scene, the one where everything crystallizes in your head (or should, if you're paying attention). Each day, part of the routine is dealing with the horse. There is stall-mucking, giving him hay, trying to get the recalcitrant beast to move. Now, in that very first shot, it syhould be obvious this horse is in a bad way. He's malnourished (but then, this is a symptom of life; everyone in the film save Bernhard is malnourished), somewhat flea-bitten, mangy. He does not look good. Each day, he spirals downward a little. (Again, this is not a spoiler; every plot summary focuses on Ohlsdorfer coming to terms with, as IMDB puts it, “the mortality of his faithful horse.”) Every day, we get the horse maintenance from a different angle, giving us more information. (This is not isolated. On day three, one of the exterior shots shows us, for the first time, that the barn wall has a huge hole in it. On the fourth day, after the barn door is closed, we linger in the barn, with the horse, the only light coming from that hole.) Day five: the “horse” shot happens after the daughter closes the door. We linger on the barn door. Not the whole door, just a piece; this is a close-up. Even the dimmest of filmgoers realizes what this symbolizes. And yet there's Schrodinger's tiny cat sitting there on your frontal lobe asking “is the damn horse really dead?” It ended up being as tense a moment as any I'd experienced in a theater in years. At the risk of sounding, well, snobbish (I am, and I'm unapologetic about it), that's the great payoff for paying attention to the smallest details in a movie. When you're at the mercy of a master director, even sitting there staring at a piece of a barn door for three minutes can become a pitch-perfect exercise in tension.
(to be continued.)

message 2: by Robert (new)

Robert Beveridge (xterminal) (As an aside, there was a great station identification-style reel that played before movies at the arthouse in Philly where I was first introduced to, among others, Jean-Pierre Jeunet and Charlie Chaplin back in the early nineties. It started off with a spoof trailer for an Eastern European art film called Look at My Potato. It was hilarious. There are those who would have you believe The Turin Horse is the ultimate realization of Look at My Potato. And if you're not the kind of filmgoer who catches on to those little details, and realizes what Tarr and Krasznahorkai and Kalman are doing here, then I can kind of see their point. Which is not the same as saying those people are right; they have just never been properly educated in the art of watching films. Like any other discipline, be it poetry, carpentry, steak, whatever, any beginner can take a whack at creating it, and anyone can consume it. In poetry, there's the doggerel that you find in Reader's Digest compared to, say, Longfellow. Carpentry? Your dad building you a backyard fort is awesome, but unless your dad was Frank Lloyd Wright, it's not really going to compare to Taliesin West. And any fool can toss a steak in a frying pan and make a piece of shoe leather, but it takes true artistry to craft a perfect filet, and a discerning palate that has developed a taste for its proper accompaniments to really enjoy it. My point being: The Turin Horse, like every other film Béla Tarr has made, is emphatically not for beginners.)

Another aside: for the record, you're reading about a tenth of what I originally wrote. There is so much to be said about this film that a shot-by-shot-style book (a la Geoff Dyer's excellent Zona: A Book About a Film About a Journey to a Room) would be warranted simply to review the thing. I can point to things about the movie and say "this is what makes this movie great," but thing 1 intertwines with thing 2 intertwines with thing 3 intertwines with...and then we load on all the personal baggage (I could go on for pages about the blasted, haggard beauty of Erika Bók in this film and how much she reminds me of two other women and what they mean to me... and actually I did, but you're not going to be reading that bit because I'm saving it for Kész.: A Book About a Film About the End of the World), just like the shots gradually reveal the landscape in the film, and then use that landscape to great effect in the next scene (a la the hole in the barn wall), and it all deserves not only mention, but scrutiny. In most cases, I, or any reviewer, can tell you why you should see, or not see, a movie based on a few factors; Howard Hawks' infamous "a great movie is three good scenes and no bad ones" line in critical form. With the great movies, most of them anyway, that is not possible; everything works with everything else in order to create the experience. Jeux Interdits is an obvious example to me because I saw it only a few weeks ago. The Fisher King is like that, as well, and Solaris kind of goes without saying (even if the car ride to the spaceport stands out). You'll have movies like that in your head--think of favorite films you have, but favorite films where there isn't an iconic scene that springs immediately to mind, where the movie made that much of an impression on you because the whole thing is iconic. That's what I'm trying to depict here. That is The Turin Horse, in the same way that it is Satantango. It's a two-and-a-half hour film that feels half that length, because it's that compelling even though not a damn thing is going on most of the time. (That said, those reviewers that say Bernhard's visit is the only action in the movie seem to have somehow missed day three altogether.)

I did say, way back at the beginning of this review that I started writing days ago, that the movie wasn't perfect in the same way as is Werckmeister or Satantango. I also rushed to qualify that the problem is minor, and to be fair I am almost--almost!--willing to excuse the problem because of the piece that balances it. But not quite. The problem lies in Mihály Vig's score, and when I say "score" here, let me not suggest that someone is ever going to release a Turin Horse: The Original Soundtrack album. There are two composed pieces in this film. One of them is so subtle I'm guessing very few people without my rather eclectic (read: no one in their right minds would study this stuff) musical training would even notice it. The second is the piece of music you hear in the trailer. And that first time you hear it, in that long, long first shot (the first thirty seconds or so of which is the beginning of the trailer), it's majestic and somber and, well, let's face it, there's a reason I used the term "soul-crushing despair". And then the second time you hear it, you're thinking, "okay, there's an echo of the opening here", maybe, even though there isn't. An hour into the film, you're wondering if it's the only piece of music Vig wrote for the movie; an hour and a half after that, when it plays yet again over the closing credits, you know it will be the soundtrack to your nightmares that night.

Not a problem but perhaps an indulgence (and one I did not take points off for): the final three shots of this film could have all put an equal stamp of finality on Tarr's illustrious career. (In other words, warning: heavier material than usual ahead.) They could have been mixed up in any order and still would have had the same effect. It's like the end of a career with a double underline. I note this not to say it's a bad thing, but just to note it.

In sum: I had a chance, a few minutes after The Turin Horse finished playing, to see Surviving Life, the latest (as I write this) Jan Svankmajer film. I revere Svankmajer. Otesánek is at #50 on my top 1000, Alice at #123. I may never again have the chance to see Surviving Life on the big screen, and I had planned on staying. But when I walked out of the theater, I simply got into my car and drove home. I could not even fathom the idea of trying to process another movie so soon after the experience that was The Turin Horse. And I can't imagine a film commanding a better recommendation than that. **** ½

message 3: by Phillip (new)

Phillip | 9088 comments nice. this comes to the bay area in a few weeks. i am so all over it.

message 4: by Sooz (last edited Mar 30, 2013 05:36AM) (new)

Sooz finally. finally i got to see The Turin Horse ... and so i came looking for this thread. i didn't want to read your review Robert until i had a chance to see it.

first i want to say thanks for sharing this Robert. i haven't the experience of Tarr that you do. the only thing i have seen prior to today is The Man From London. having just finished The Turin Horse, i agree with much of what you share. for example, i too noticed immediately how day one we watched the father eat the potato and how day two it was the daughter we watched. watching the father and daughter harness and unharness the horse i was reminded of back in the day when i was married, living on a farm and my then-husband and i were milking cows, separating the cream to sell for butter and feeding the remaining skim milk to veal calves. there was a seamless routine we followed every morning and every night. we never wasted a motion and we never had to say a word to each other. each milking had differences of some sort but they were only noticeable to someone intimately knowledgeable with each cow .... in other words ... us.

second .. a few of my own reactions. i had no idea. no idea. wow. let's see what did i know .... i think just that preamble about Nietzsche's encounter with the horse, how we all knew it had affected him but knew nothing of what happened to the horse or the owner. i think i was expecting something along the lines of Bresson's Au Hasard Bathazar .... i certainly was NOT expecting the apocalypse.

so that opening. wow. the camera low to the ground looking up at the horse. and how curious we see the wind and do not hear it. we hear that music. THAT MUSIC. and the wonderful tone and clarity of the film itself. to call this black and white is just wrong. it is so rich and saturated and clear and beautiful.

i was thinking how -for the most part, and certainly for the crowd that inhabits the world of Goodreads- our struggle is that of 'man' against society there is little left of 'man' against nature so evident in The Turin Horse. 'man' against society creates talk and more talk and yet more talk. 'man' against nature generates little conversation. what is there to say? Tarr shows it to us in the daily struggle the three of them undertake. and then there is THAT music!

so i had no idea that this was an apocalyptic tale. even when the neighbour shows up and gives that rambling account of the end days of the town ... i am not convince it is meant to be taken literally. i'm sure it's no coincidence that the story is told over six days. it is the unmaking of creation after all. and i am not at all surprised when we see the three of them return to the house. when i saw them packing up to leave i said to myself, 'where is there for them to go?'

it is a criterion edition of this film -which i got from my public library- and it has a commentary. i do not want to listen to it now but i think i would like to get it again in a couple of weeks and hear what it has to say. for now i just want to enjoy this moment.

message 5: by Tom (new)

Tom | 4156 comments The horse deserved the Oscar for Best Actress. I'm not kidding.

message 6: by Robert (last edited Mar 29, 2013 06:24PM) (new)

Robert Beveridge (xterminal) oh oh oh oh oh, you have GOT to see Werckmeister Harmonies. Sooner rather than later. All the punch of Satantango, but is five and a half hours shorter. (Not that you don't also want to see Satantango ASAP... though for god's sake avoid that Facets release that looks like it was taken straight from a third-generation VHS dub taped off a staticky television set.)

Side note: I'm about forty-five minutes into Tarkovsky's Offret as I type this. I always thought Tarkovsky was more a spiritual father to Tarr then anything else, but my god, I understand SO much more about what Tarr was doing with his cameras in Damnation and Satantango now than I did an hour ago. Tarr has obviously seen this movie many, many times. (And I can understand why, but then I would watch Erland Josephson read the phone book.)

And since you're enjoying the moment I will not elaborate, but I do have the "official" answer, and don't remember whether I gave it above (I think I found it out a couple of weeks after I wrote the first draft of the review). I have no doubt it's in the commentary...

[so so so bummed I did not get to go see it on the big screen again last weekend. But FWIW, it was an incredible gig.]

message 7: by Phillip (new)

Phillip | 9088 comments i think you mean carl dreyer's OFFRET...

message 8: by Robert (new)

message 9: by Sooz (new)

Sooz yes. i was thinking of Tarkovsky's The Sacrifice (or is it just Sacrifice) after watching The Turin Horse. just because they both deal with the end of the world in a very quiet, personal -almost insular- way ... not so much because i recognized anything similar in their method of making the two films. Sacrifice had such a Bergman feel to it i thought ... it was one of Tarkovsky's last movies wasn't it? made after he had left Russia?

message 10: by Sooz (new)

Sooz oh and i don't know what you mean by 'official answer' Robert. though i am just up .... typing this while i wait for coffee to brew and i'm definitely not at my sharpest. what answer? what question?

message 11: by Phillip (last edited Mar 30, 2013 11:29AM) (new)

Phillip | 9088 comments oh, i see - OFFRET is "sacrifice" in norwegian/swedish. that makes sense - there is definitely a film by carl dreyer by the same name. it's one of his classics, i recommend it if you have the chance to see it. criterion released it in that box set with a few others.

THE SACRIFICE is my least favorite tarkovsky film. i've actually never been able to get through it. it's probably me - but i have a hard time with the films tarkovsky made after he left russia (this includes NOSTALGIA). he doesn't feel at home with those films - and it feels like he's recycling earlier material - but it's probably just me. and his health was in bad shape when he was making THE SACRIFICE ... oh well.

message 12: by Tom (new)

Tom | 4156 comments My big complaint with Tarkovsky's films outside Russia is the ponderous quality they all have. They're solemn to the point of being almost self-parody. THE SACRIFICE is particularly bad in this regard -- the characters all talk like badly translated philosophical texts instead of human beings. Or it might just be badly translated subtitles.

message 13: by Phillip (last edited Mar 31, 2013 08:10AM) (new)

Phillip | 9088 comments yeah, that's part of it - i'm thinking of the decaying images of the house falling apart in the first hour (rain falling indoors) - is more than remnant of numerous images from ZERKALO, SOLYARIS, and STALKER ... just seem like he's recycling material and spinning his wheels. and then there's the dialogue. he may have enjoyed working with erland josephson, who made all those films with bergman, but there does indeed seem to be a language barrier ...

message 14: by Robert (new)

Robert Beveridge (xterminal) Sooz wrote: "oh and i don't know what you mean by 'official answer' Robert. though i am just up .... typing this while i wait for coffee to brew and i'm definitely not at my sharpest. what answer? what ques..."

this one:

so i had no idea that this was an apocalyptic tale. even when the neighbour shows up and gives that rambling account of the end days of the town ... i am not convince it is meant to be taken literally.

Tarr answered it at a Q&A after the film was screened in New York last year.

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I didn't really mind Offret, though it certainly didn't have the power of Solaris or Andrei Rublev or (etc.). I did miss the whole "Tarkovsky shot" thing--even the very last shot, the best in the film, where the kid's looking up at the dead tree waiting for it to bloom, and we pan up and look at the tree, and WE expect it to bloom, only lasts about four minutes by my watch. A far cry from the drive to the spaceport in Solaris...

the characters all talk like badly translated philosophical texts instead of human beings.

The hazards of making a message film. When you start thinking in terms of "oh, I'm making a film ABOUT nuclear war and how bad it is" it seems your characters become two-dimensional plot-advancement devices almost by definition.

message 15: by Erik F. (new)

Erik F. Phillip wrote: "oh, i see - OFFRET is "sacrifice" in norwegian/swedish. that makes sense - there is definitely a film by carl dreyer by the same name. it's one of his classics, i recommend it if you have the chance..."

Dreyer's film is called ORDET ("The Word"). Speaking of which, I really should watch it again.

message 16: by Phillip (new)

Phillip | 9088 comments damn, wrong again! ... but it's a great film, i know that much. thanks for the correction, erik.

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