The Turin Horse is by all accounts (most notably from the man himself) the last film by Hungarian filmmaker Bela Tarr. Tarr is perhaps most famous for his seven and a half hour epic Satantango and his extremely long takes. His film Werckmeister Harmonies (2000), for example, consists of 39 shots – its opening scene lasting approximately 10 minutes as the camera drifts and dances around a drab-looking bar, tightening and loosening its grip on our attention.
The Turin Horse similarly begins with a striking opening sequence. Over a black screen, a narrator tells us of an incident involving an abused horse which brought about the end of Frederick Nietzsche’s sanity and writing career. The film then starts with the evocative image of an old man driving his raggedy horse and cart through the blustering wind and across a barren landscape. We are left to conclude that the film has picked up the story of Neitzsche’s Turin Horse – though this may be overstating things. For in truth, the connections between the prologue and the film itself are more thematic than narrative. But what exactly those themes are I am yet to pin down precisely: is it human vulnerability and mortality? Our loss of morality? Our separation from each other and “Nature”? The revenge of “Nature”? The death of God? It’s not clear.
According to Tarr, The Turin Horse is a film about death and daily ritual. And of this, you will be in no doubt. It focuses in intense and often excruciating detail on the routines of the old man and his daughter as their lives are thrown off kilter over seven unusual days. At first their horse refuses to move, forcing the old man to stay at home; then it refuses to eat, growing weaker and more implacable by the day. Is it disturbed by the terrible wind that ravages everything around them? Does it sense something foreboding? No one knows. The reasons don’t matter. It doesn’t make sense. It simply asserts itself as a fact in their lives; and we watch as they act out their daily rituals in the face of it all.
We watch. And watch. And watch. And watch. For seven days. The same routine. Over and over again. The girl gets up. She dresses her father (who has a lazy eye and only has the use of one arm). She goes out to get water. She boils them each a solitary potatoe that she lays out on a wooden plate. They peel the potatoe and eat it, piping hot. The father has a nap; his daughter tends to the fire; later they both go to sleep in separate beds. Somewhere in between, these banalities are interrupted by occasional checks on the horse, unexpected visits from apocalyptic guests and a few rounds of Palinka (no doubt an alcohol made from potatoes). There is little variation in the ways these are staged or filmed across the duration of the film. And though it is beautifully lit and the steadicam photography is sublime, the oppressive austerity of the black and white images and production design soon lose their power as the law of diminishing returns begins to take hold.
I could not help thinking of the difference between what Tarr was striving for and what Tarkovsky achieved. Tarkovsky’s imagery, say in The Mirror or Andrei Rublev, burned themselves onto your memory. You might not always understand what’s happening on screen, but you were mesmerised by it. You succumbed to its force and its brilliance. Tarr hits these heights some of the time. There is the lingering wide angle shot of the old man and his daughter crossing a hill (past two intertwined trees) as they try to leave their home during the wind-storm; another from outside the house in which the woman is framed as a prisoner watching the wind blow through her window; and the opening sequence which so perfectly blends music and image. But there are also the moments where Tarr holds to the point of numbness on an empty wooden bowl; (one feels) almost willing some kind of deeper meaning on it. “They’re awfully poor and desperately hungry,” I thought. “We get it.”
Reading more about his work afterwards, it became apparent that Tarr doesn’t want his audience to have a comfortable viewing experience. He wants them, in his words, to resist him as director. To be as radical as he encourages his student filmmakers to be. It is, as Phillip French said writing for The Observer: an experience. But I couldn’t help but feel frustrated that it hadn’t ended earlier (say at the close of Day 5) and thinking that I would have liked it a lot more if it had. For most of its duration, I kept wondering why Tarr and his collaborators – co-director and wife, Agnes Hranitzky, and his co-screenwriter, the in-vogue Hungarian novelist, László Krasznahorkai – didn’t make even more of the awkward intimacy of the father and daughter’s relationship. They did well to depict her as the old man’s silent helper, trapped in her dead mother’s role for the remainder of her father’s life; but strangely chose not to show them bathing or going to the loo. I’m sorry, but if you’re going to obsess over the details, then why shy away from it.
This is not a film for everyone. But all I’ll say in conclusion is that it is one of those films that cannot be easily dismissed or enjoyed.