Béla Tarr, the Hungarian director who became something like the patron saint of slow cinema with 1994's 450-minute Sátántangó, has made some of the toughest endurance tests in film history. Watching his latest, The Turin Horse (co-credited to Ágnes Hranitzky), is an experience comparable to starting down the road with an empty sack and then, over the course of the journey, having it weighed down steadily with rocks until you can't go on any farther. But this backbreaking effect cannot be called an artistic failure. It is exactly what Tarr sets out to achieve.
This fresh descent into Tarr's pit begins with the director narrating, over a black screen, the events that allegedly preceded Friedrich Nietzsche's breakdown in 1889. Nietzsche witnessed a coachman whipping a horse in the streets of Turin, Italy, at which point the philosopher “put an end to the brutal scene, throwing his arms around the horse's neck.”
Then the first image, in a film of stark, silvery, daguerreotype beauty: A coachman with the face of a biblical patriarch (János Derzsi) drives his horse into the teeth of a gale, bare-limbed trees swaying at the roadside. Is this Nietzsche's horse? Is this meant to be the outskirts of Turin, though the scarce spoken dialogue and the pitiless weather are Hungarian? This, and much else, Tarr leaves the viewer to infer and ample time to think on.
The coachman arrives home to his dilapidated stone house with a stable and a well, in a forlorn, forgotten valley, where the remainder of the film takes place. His daughter (Erika Bók) helps him unhitch the horse, undresses her father, puts him into house clothes — we notice then that one of his arms is lame — lugs well water, and prepares their dinner of one boiled potato each, which he eats with joyless, animal ravening. When there is a lull in the daily chores, they take turns staring out the window to watch the incessant tempest blow.
This pair, this house, are the film's universe. Following their morning shot of pálinka, we will watch them repeat these same domestic rituals with variations in camera choreography and performance in taxing real time, through the six largely housebound days that make up The Turin Horse — six days being enough to suggest the infinite loop, the interminable, trudging, dray-horse life that has preceded what we see. Through each day, the windstorm pausing only for longtime Tarr collaborator Mihály Vig's sawing theme, signs of life shrivel away: The woodworms go quiet, the old nag won't eat, the well runs dry. And finally, in an inversion of creation, God — that is, Tarr — proclaims, “Let there be dark.”
The Turin Horse is Tarr's fifth film since 1988's Damnation, which began his collaboration with novelist László Krasznahorkai, a writing relationship that seemingly consists of mutually reinforcing each other's sense of the end. Much like Tarr's grinding, long takes, Krasznahorkai's novels ward off dilettantes with their pages of bricklike text written without the respite of paragraph breaks. Krasznahorkai's 1999 War & War contains a novel-within-a-novel whose author cannot find a prospect of peace for his characters anywhere in the whole of human history. A similar conclusion — that is, that man lives in a worst-case scenario — has been reached by one of the few visitors to the homestead in The Turin Horse, a neighbor who drops by to deliver a monologue about doomsday: “The excellent, the great, the noble” is “ruined and degraded. … Everything, everything is lost forever.”
Tarr, who is only 56, claims The Turin Horse as his last film, and it's hard to imagine a follow-up. Like Henry Adams, Tarr and Krasznahorkai point to entropy as the major agent in history; with The Turin Horse, a last-testament movie that mocks the idea of enduring testaments, they have finally burned themselves cold.
THE TURIN HORSE | Directed by BÉLA TARR | Co-directed by ÁGNES HRANITZKY | Written by TARR and LÁSZLÓ KRASZNAHORKAI | Cinema Guild | Music Hall, Playhouse