An apocalyptic tale of human survival in a godless world, Béla Tarr’s The Turin Horse is a graceful rebuke to the hypnotic temptations of nothingness.
The Unbearable Darkness of Being by Mark Wilshin
CAUTION: Here be spoilers.
Like a nihilistic antithesis to the Book of Genesis, Béla Tarr’s The Turin Horse dismantles the world in six days, passing from cosmic order to dark nothingness. The film kicks off with an anecdote about Friedrich Nietzsche, the German philosopher who famously killed God, and who on 3rd January 1889 witnessed a Turinese cabman frenziedly whipping his resolutely immobile horse. Throwing his arms around the beast’s neck to protect it, Nietzsche immediately suffered a mental breakdown, crying out “Mutter, ich bin dumm.” It’s unknown whether Nietzsche’s lament began a renunciation of his compassionless philosophies of the Übermensch and man’s will to power, but it provides nevertheless the humanistic starting point for Béla Tarr’s The Turin Horse with its slow rumination on man’s godless existence. Like Sátántangó and Werckmeister Harmonies before it, Tarr’s existential story is captured in sumptuous black and white, and builds around a slow discovery of his characters’ lives. But there’s also a new symphonic potency to The Turin Horse absent from his previous films that’s whipping up a storm.
On the first day Tarr created wind. And dust. And in a long sequence following a cabman driving his aged, jittery and matted horse along a country lane, this is in every sense the calm before the storm. It’s an ageless, archetypal scene which, like The Turin Horse in miniature, transports us from pastoral to ethical meditations. Whipped up by the dusty wind and contorted by a twisted rein, the cart becomes an instrument of torture, the beast of burden as much a stand-in for humanity as Bresson’s donkey in Au Hasard, Balthazar. But as the scene wends its way through barn and farmstead, the hypnotic camera is forced to shut down its gaze. And as the scene is emptied of everything but wind and leaves, the cut becomes tantalising, if not excruciating, in its prolonged inevitability.
Inside, father and daughter dine on two boiled potatoes, and it’s a scene that is repeated several times, each from a different angle. First, the father’s desperate finger-scalding hunger, then the daughter’s seething self-control. Like sequences of fetching water from the well, dressing and undressing the crippled old man, or stowing and unstowing the horse and cart, the pair are trapped in a deathly embrace, dancing the same steps in silent codependence. As she dresses him, the father looks at his daughter with cold ambivalence, no loving small talk to ease the daily grind. And like Sydney Pollack’s They Shoot Horses, Don’t They? their metaphysical death dance is a clockwork prison, one cog forcing the other to keep going.
This wind-and-rewind repetition lends a dramatic tension to proceedings, and there’s an end of days feeling to the protagonists’ plight. The woodworm stop their noisemaking for the first time in half a century and the horse’s refusal to work, move or eat takes on epic proportions. The Turin Horse, with the fading vestiges of its opening Nietzschean anecdote, isn’t just a tale of man’s inhumanity to beast, it’s also the story of god’s inhumanity to man. The horse’s humiliating drudgery parallels the bitter existence of its owners, her poise stoic as she stands free before the open door but refusing to move. Man is born free and everywhere he is in chains, and for both man and beast, the battle against the raging elements is above all a battle against God.
The well gone dry, father and daughter are forced to leave their homestead in search of a better life. But unable to make it beyond the horizon they return – the daughter’s face in the window the very symbol of hopelessness. The home fires extinguished and the lamp refusing to light, father and daughter are reduced to eating raw potatoes with desperate swigs of palinka straight from the bottle. It’s a desperate extinguishing of existence, and it’s with an almost heroic, indomitable will to survive that the pair decide to embark on their Sisyphean task again tomorrow. But it is the sixth day, and as the camera fades up and out on the couple, not eating and shrouded in dead silence, the film’s nihilistic drive to darkness and nothingness remains truly disturbing.
Punctuated with lingering sequence-ending close-ups of black doors, white shirts and wooden gates, the passage of time in The Turin Horse is both free-flowing and killed with time-elapsing cuts. It’s a rippling, mesmerising stream, carefully divined by Tarr, lighting up the screen with its intertwining camera movements like phosphorescent trails of afterglow. It’s perhaps this symphonic majesty which stands up to the raging dust-swirling nothingness most powerfully, and Béla Tarr’s authorial hand guides his earth-made creations with a godly frame of narration and music. It’s a far cry from the white screen both father and daughter sit in front of, their window to the world filled only with uninterrupted bleakness. And it’s this very nihilism that Béla Tarr rebels against the most, destroying that poverty of image with all the divine richness cinema can muster. A masterful piece of filmmaking, equally distressing and uplifting, The Turin Horse is a captivatingly existential slow dance in the dark.
The Turin Horse is released on 1st June 2012