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Bela Tarr

The Monochromic Force Field   


Though Bela Tarr has made films in colour (Almanac of Fall is nothing if not an experiment with it), he is most significantly a filmmaker of black and white worlds. All his late films have been made in monochrome, and they create, partly as a consequence, a universe. Now many filmmakers do not do this, and there are several ways in which we can look at how Tarr manages to create this otherworldly aspect to his work whilst still insisting that it is black and white that cements it. When for example he talks of Damnation, he says, in an interview with Jonathan Romney, that “we shot the film at seven different locations. And that this city really doesn’t exist. It can’t be found on a map.” (Enthusiasm) But whether a film is using a specific location, happens to use several, or builds a film using sets, this doesn’t quite explain how a filmmaker creates a universe. When Michael Haneke based the apartment in Amour, set in Paris, on his parents’ flat in Austria, he wasn’t creating a universe, but merely a plausible mise-en-scene that would allow him to bring out more clearly the lives of his aging characters.  It is not a quite a world as we’re defining it, and perhaps one reason why many see The Time of the Wolf as one of Haneke’s weakest films is that it possesses a futuristic dimension that nevertheless fails to envisage a universe for this dystopian vision. Haneke may well be a great filmmaker, but he is at his best working with locations that have a strong sense of verisimilitude, and then generates disquiet within these environments, from Funny Games to Hidden.

Bela Tarr, however, like Tarkovsky and Sokurov, doesn’t seem much to care for this world, and wants instead to create a ‘parallel universe’, a world that resembles our own but doesn’t quite mimic it. Anybody expecting a realistic account of rural poverty watching The Turin Horse might wonder why the only thing the characters ever seem to eat are potatoes, and don’t even wait for them to cool down before picking away at the skin and scoffing them scoldingly hot. Those demanding a delineating of the village in Werckmeister Harmonies, and the social chaos that ensues after a giant whale and a dwarf called the Prince come to town, are going to be mystified. This is a place where our central character calls numerous men in the film ‘uncle’, and where the marauding masses near the end are suddenly stopped in mid-madness by the sight of a naked, aging man in the shower.

These unrealistic elements are contributing factors to Tarr’s universe, and we can include his capacity to remove from his screen space what in another filmmaker’s work would usually be seen as pertinent. It isn’t that there are no crowd scenes or large groups in the films: Werckmeister Harmonies shows men milling around the town square and marching towards a hospital; Damnation has large number of locals revelling in the town bar. It is more that there is no general living space in Tarr’s late works; no sense that this is a community he happens to be showing us, but instead atomisation occasionally alleviated by intoxication through alcohol or violence. But it also lies in the deliberation evident in the films’ camera work. He is a director who never assumes there is a general, most appropriate place to put the camera, and many of his shots indicate that there isn’t a great deal of difference between character and event, subject and object. The opening scene in Satantango doesn’t introduce us to the characters we will then be focusing upon, but instead laterally tracks for several minutes as we see a farmyard with cows slowly moving across the frame, and then we watch as the camera leaves the cows behind for a minute or two while  it passes a series of derelict buildings. It is a dilapidated world, and if someone were to ask us what sort of characters would be occupying this universe, we might easily reply very desperate ones – which is exactly what Tarr shows us. Yet this is desperation not coming out of the characters, with the place merely a backdrop, but a foregrounded and foreshadowed gloom that emanates out of the environment.

All the openings of Tarr’s late films are familiarly Tarr-like without at all resembling each other. Damnation opens on an image of coal buckets before the camera reveals that what we are seeing we are viewing through a window, then revealing, again, that it is a man watching. The Turin Horse focuses for several minutes on a horse, cart and its driver furiously moving through the windy flatlands. The Man from London is a caressing long take that tilts up to show a docked boat. Each moment gives us a little bit more information: like the opening of Damnation, it doesn’t establish the screen space in one instance, but instead reveals it methodically as we see water, then the boat, then a series of operations viewed from a character’s perspective.

It is as though Tarr is insisting that we ought to see the image. How often do we scan the frame for necessary information and leave it at that, knowing the space is established and the characters sketched? Tarr asks us to see each detail both in and of itself, and also for their accumulated meaning. It is a variation we might say of the problem of plot versus story. Where the story tells us what the film is about; the plot orders the events as they are provided. In other words, the story of Altman’s The Long Goodbye is that of a man who has been screwed over by his best friend and his friend’s lover Mrs Wade, but the order of the events won’t allow us to make this statement until the film is almost over. Instead we would have to talk about Marlowe’s missing cat, Marlowe’s arrest, Wade’s death, and so on, because that is the order in which the information is given to us. In the opening scene of The Man from London we can say that someone witnesses a transaction at a port, but the quick summary would deny the slow accumulation of information, evident in Peter Labuza’s blow by blow account. “The camera then moves back, and allows the observer—the man who views and thus creates—to have a face. He was a body before; now he is a person. We follow his view, and as he leads us to the other side, suddenly we are confronted with land on the other side, a new part of this reality that exists almost independently of the train on the other side. Watch how the camera then treats the essential action—we watch as a man moves to the edge of the port, and then the camera turns to show a man now on the boat, holding a suitcase. That suitcase and man could not exist without the movement of the camera, and thus by the camera pointing us to him, he now exists and allows the suitcase to be thrown. Finally, Tarr gives us the full view via a long final pan—the mystery port, the boat, the train station. The train’s engine starts, but it can only move until the camera points the way forward, creating the railway for it to travel. The shot is complete—we now have a reality for this narrative to take place in.” (

Where we’d be inclined to disagree with Lubeza is over the notion of a reality into which the narrative is inserted. If we are claiming that Tarr creates a universe, then this is because he would be suspicious of reality and wants instead to create a world that can hyperbolize certain modes of feeling. If philosopher Michel Foucault could suggest that the world isn’t bad, it is dangerous, Tarr is inclined to disagree. Foucault would say, “Power is not a substance.  Neither is it a mysterious property whose origin must be delved into. Power is only a certain type of relation between individuals.” “What I am attentive to is the fact that every human relation is to some degree a power relation.  We move in a world of perpetual strategic relations.  Every power relation is not bad in itself, but it is a fact that always involves danger.” The world might be dangerous but it is surely bad, Tarr would say, insisting on the absolute depth of despair not only in the films but in interviews also. “At the beginning of my career, I had a lot of social anger. I just wanted to tell you how fucked up the society is. This was the beginning. Afterwards, I began to understand that the problems were not only social; they are deeper. I thought they were only ontological. It’s so, so complicated, and when I understood more and more, when I went closer to the people… afterward, I could understand that the problems were not only ontological. They were cosmic. The whole fucked up world is over. That’s what I had to understand, and that’s why the style has moved. Once I went down, I kept going down. The style became more and more downward, by the end, becoming more simple, very pure. That’s what was interesting for me, to discover something step by step.” (Indiewire) Elsewhere he says, speaking to Fergus Daly and Max Le Cain, “afterwards when we made a second movie and a third we knew better that there are not only social problems. We have some ontological problems and now I think a whole pile of shit is coming from the cosmos. And there’s the reason. You know how we open out step by step, film by film. It’s very difficult to speak about the metaphysical and that.” (Senses of Cinema)

Yet the purpose of the director’s work is to find a way in which to talk about metaphysical things. When the central character Karrer in Damnation goes into the police station near the end of the film and reports on a crime, he describes it so vaguely to the officer that we must glean from it that he is snitching on his lover’s husband concerning a deal Karrer has involved the husband in. As Karrer talks of fate and of certain paths people go down, Tarr matches the abstraction of verbal content with the adventurousness of form. When the conversation starts, the camera is elsewhere, slowly tilting, panning and craning outside the police headquarters; at one moment passing a damp wall before looking in through the window where Karrer and the police officer are talking. A tracking shot past a damp wall is a favourite Tarr image but only because his style can incorporate the irrelevant detail as significant matter. It goes back to our remark about the dissolution of subject and object, the desire in Tarr’s work to lay claim that the world is a mess and to assume that the individual can do anything about it is to generate a false sense of agency. In this sense Tarr is properly old-fashioned; he makes a word like evil pertinent by making much in his films that in other works would be irrelevant of surprising significance. Rather than the camera searching out the details of the characters lives and actions, Tarr often deviates from these lives and actions all the better to suggest the characters are not in control of their existence. When he opens a scene of Karrer and the barman talking in the toilets he starts by shooting the ceiling; in an earlier scene between them he hovers over the glasses while they talk before showing us their faces much later.

It is as though the director seeks a decidedly modern and modernist form all the better to reflect a much more old-fashioned idea of agency than we presently are seen to possess. Michel Serres, in an interview with Bruno Latour, talks about scientific probability on the body as an aspect of personal choice. “Once I know…the consequences of a certain food or some prescribed exercise, I become largely responsible for my illness and even for my death. As a product of objective knowledge, morality dislodges my very cultural background; I have to substitute for my usual ways…a certain dietetic and austere obligation…Gluttony, laziness, lust, and anger pass from the confessional to the laboratory, from spiritual and subjective intention to rational evidence and obligation, both final and causal.” (Conversations on Science, Culture and Time) Tarr is more confessional than laboratory since the idea of personal responsibility is of far less interest than the idea of cosmic determination. When Karrer speaks to the police officer, this is a case of jealousy, but is that all it happens to be? And where does this envy come from? It seems more than a simple problem of trying to get the husband out of the picture. The scene comes across as a combination of sneakiness, confession, self-hatred and self-aggrandizement. Tarr might later have co-written an adaptation of The Postman Always Rings Twice for fellow Hungarian filmmaker Gyorgy Feher, but Passion is a straightforward version next to Tarr’s ménage a trois.  One of the advantages of being old-fashioned is that you can paradoxically be more complex. Tarr doesn’t pretend to know where certain motivating factors might come from, and his characters become all the more unfathomable as a consequence, while his style becomes ever more visually baroque as he feels under no obligation to use the camera to show what somebody is clearly thinking and feeling.

When for example a filmmaker cuts from a wallet full of money that has fallen out of someone’s pocket back to another person looking at it we can assume with some confidence that they will steal it if they are a bad character and swiftly tell the person whose wallet it is that they dropped it if they are a good one. Equally, when someone looks like they feel threatened and the film cuts from their face to the knife on the kitchen table, we might wonder whether they will try and use it in their defence. This often doesn’t even need a point of view shot from the character to the knife – the linking of the two shots will put in our mind what is or will soon be on the mind of the character. This is straightforward motivation, cinematically, but how do you find a form that visualizes the malevolent universe Tarr constantly talks about? It is one thing to say you want to capture the thought processes of a character in the process of getting what they want, but how do you film not characters battling the elements or the enemy, but an abstract force?

Tarr manages to do so with a camera style that refuses to locate itself in the place of character but usually beyond character. In the opening scene from Damnation, Karrer is looking out of the window, but the film is not interested in the shot of someone peering through the glass that we find in many a film, and also sometimes great ones, from Rear Window and A Short Film About Love, to efficient works like Monsieur Hire and Body Double.

In each instance we are placed quite concretely in an epistemologically engaged situation, with what is going on beyond the window of important narrative interest. In Damnation this isn’t so, as Karrer is looking at nothing more than the coal buckets passing in the medium distance. What intrigues the director is an abstract element beyond character rather than Karrer’s curiosity, and what counts is not to set the story in motion, but the camera. It is as if the camera is autonomous as it slowly reveals a man looking out of the window, but withholds showing his face as the camera pulls back and shows the rear of his head. The first few minutes bring together two common details in the director’s work: characters looking out of windows, and walls laterally passed, details that add to the director’s yen for refusing the anthropocentric.

Now it happens to be the case that sometimes this looking contains a narrative dimension (Satantango, The Man from London) sometimes not (Damnation, The Turin Horse), but even when it possesses active curiosity rather than passive gazing, the film plays up the passive element. In Satantango, Peter Berling’s burly homebody spies on the neighbours and takes notes in his little black book; the figure in The Man from London is watching a fight take place and a man falling into the sea. In Satantango, Tarr is more interested in the wheezing, hefty man hauling himself around his small apartment than he is in getting the story moving. In The Man from London, the elaborate shot that opens the film is as important as any content within it. In Damnation the passivity is played up: what can he possibly be seeing looking at the coal buckets? In The Turin Horse the inertia is even more in evidence. There are a number of occasions where we see the film’s two leading characters, a father and daughter, looking out of a small window in their farmhouse, at nothing in particular. But whether the scene hints at narrative to come, or denies its likelihood, what matters is filming the sequences in a way that the emphasis doesn’t lie in action, but the emptiness that surrounds it. When Tarr films ceilings or walls he does so not because there is anything interesting to look at there, but to emphasize a context that diminishes human agency, even responsibility.

This is partly what we mean by saying that Tarr creates a universe. Where most filmmakers tell a story, Tarr films its relative absence. Our example of the purse and the knife are instances where the director focalizes the telling: the director tells the story with telling images. Tarr concentrates instead on the emptiness that potentially surrounds any story that we might tell, if we call into question the agency of the characters, the concreteness of motive and the state of the world. Yet would Tarr’s films have the same impact if they were made in colour? Does monochrome give them the otherworldliness they seek? Where the mid-eighties Almanac of Fall plays with using different colours to separate the planes, with say a chair lit by green in the medium plane while the curtains in the distant plane would be reddish tinged, the film perhaps became more artificial than indicative of a parallel universe. Watching it one can see Tarr refusing realism but falling into mannerism as the film resembles late Fassbinder works like Querelle, but without Fassbinder’s particular sensibility. It feels like an experiment in colour, but not quite like a Bela Tarr film as we have come to know it. This is true also of other early Tarr films like the fly on the wall approach to Family Nest, and the anthropological specificity in The Outsider. They don’t quite suggest the discovery of a universe.

It is as though the director and his now regular team of editor Agnes Hranitzky, composer Mihaly Vig and writer (the novelist) Laszlo Krasznahorkai found a means to build a world based on escaping certain assumptions and couching them in monochrome. When Krasznahorkai talks of the sentence it is similar to how Tarr uses the camera. “… the short sentence is artificial – we use almost never short sentences, we make a pause, or we hold on a part of a sentence end …“he reaches for it with his left hand as it passes “… but this characteristic, very classical, short sentence – at the end with a dot – this is artificial, this is only a custom, this is perhaps helpful for the reader, but for only one reason, that the readers in the last few thousand years have learned that a short sentence is easier to understand, this is also a custom, but if you think, you almost never use short sentences, if you listen …” (Guardian) If cinema often uses short shots to tell the story, most writers use shorter sentences to do likewise. But the long sentence can give to the work a particular breath that writers like Saramago, Bernhard and Krasznahorkai utilize in their novels, as the story gets deliberately lost in the complexity of the syntax. Something of the same happens with a certain approach to cinematic syntax also. If Tarr had worked in shorter takes, then some of the narratively superfluous information he provides would carry a much greater burden of meaning than it does through the long take. When he opens on shots of a ceiling, or of a wall, or allows his camera to pass along a building, Tarr builds the details into the shot so that the detail doesn’t ask us to question its presence as a brief shot might, but instead asks us to see it as part of a wider choreography. It doesn’t announce its apparent irrelevance, it becomes simply a component of the long shot that has its own logic. This is even the case in more mainstream-oriented long take films like Boogie Nights, where the long take has to absorb everything on its way to the narratively informative. At the beginning of Boogie Nights, the film introduces us to the main characters before concluding on Mark Wahlberg’s leading figure working at the bar, but the film observes various superfluous characters too as it holds to the one lengthy shot. The difference with Tarr is that he will play up the smaller details and downplay the narratively pertinent ones, so that when in Damnation he shows Karrer waiting outside his lover’s place until the husband leaves, the story aspect will be embedded within a larger feel for location, meteorological conditions (it is often windy and raining in Tarr films), and the weight on an individual’s soul – even, as we will see, a horse’s.

In The Turin Horse, a lengthy sequence where the two leading characters try and get the horse out of the stable is a variation of Bartleby’s I would prefer not to. Following in the tradition of Melville and Kafka’s The Hunger Artist, Tarr films the resistance in the soul of the beast, a horse that has been shown an alternative ,taking into account the story that opens the film. Here a voice over tells us of the moments before Nietzsche’s final breakdown, where he saw a horse being brutally beaten by its owner. Nietzsche goes over to the horse, puts his arm around it and sobs. Later he goes home, lies down and becomes insane for the remaining eleven years of his life. Nobody knew what happened to the horse, but this is where Tarr’s film picks up, as he ignores completely Nietzsche’s break down and concentrates instead on the horse’s equivalent. It is a horse that would prefer not to as Tarr focuses on the impossibility of the father and daughter’s life, and the no less difficult existence of a horse that seems to know even better than the father and the daughter that life is not worth the effort. Tarr combines the long take method which possesses its own logic – a logic that insists that wherever you start a shot from you must follow through on all the information contained within that shot – with what balances the sequence: the exploration not of an action but a condition. The state if the soul. Boogie Nights will possess the same syntactical reasoning as a Tarr film, but the purpose will be quite different. The lengthy opening to Boogie Nights captures frenetic activity in the club, but concludes on the despondent Walhberg wishing he were more central to the action. The typical Tarr take indicates much more the shape of someone’s ontological aspect. This can sometimes be the illumination of a positive soul (the holy fool figure played by Lars Rudolph in Werckmeister Harmonies; the beast in The Turin Horse), sometimes negative: Karrer in Damnation, Peter Berling’s character in Satantango, and sometimes in between. One can think of the young girl and her horrible cruelty to the cat in Satantango, but see her as both an innocent and a victim simultaneously: she is treated badly by others and takes it out on something more helpless still.

Thus we notice that Tarr’s work is very interested in capturing the temperature of the soul, and that his lengthy takes find their balance in this enquiry. However, we have also insistently proposed that monochrome is vital to his filmic universe, and we don’t want to be overly symbolic when we say it reflects well his interest in the notion of a world of black and white morality, of good versus evil. Yet alongside David Lynch, Bela Tarr is a filmmaker of immense formal vigour who at the same time couches this originality within a moral system that is often regarded as outdated next to the developments in psychiatry, sociology and biology. However, if we’ve invoked Serres talking of agency and the body, we can also think of fellow French philosopher Alain Badiou and remarks made in an interview ‘On Evil’. Here the interviewers Christopher Cox and Molly Whalen discuss in their introduction the problem of evil that has fascinated philosophers from Socrates, Leibniz, Augustine and Kant, and see its return in contemporary philosophy under the influence for example of Lacan. Badiou couches the problem of evil in a rather different way than we see in Tarr’s films, but sees in it a similarly abstract purpose, however tied it happens to be to the givens of an act. In other words, Badiou is very suspicious of a well-known formulation that we can find in Levinas and Derrida concerning “respect for the other”, which he feels “has nothing to do with any serious definition of Good and Evil. What does “respect for the other” mean when one is at war against an enemy, when one is brutally left by a woman for someone else…” as he believes what counts is the situation and not some universal application. But where Badiou gives concrete situations in which to couch questions of good and evil, Tarr offers instead filmic universes in which similar notions can be played out, and plays them out all the more incisively through using monochrome. In this sense we can understand why Tarr insists that there are no abstract things in his films, evident when he says  there “are very simple and definite scenes in the films and we try to think a little about the quality of life, because everybody has just one single life and it does matter how they live that one life.” (Enthusiasm)

Yet his characters act as if controlled by forces stronger than their own will in locations that deliberately lack ready verisimilitude. Whether it happens to be the coastal town in The Man from London, the isolated farmhouse in The Turin Horse, or the village made up of numerous locations in Damnation, we can’t locate these places on a map, and equally we cannot quite locate them in a realistic ethical world where people are fallible chiefly because of the everyday quandaries that we can readily understand. A film like Psycho might be a genre work, but it still places us in a location (Phoenix), in the work environment (Marion is a bank employee) and in her ready motivations: she steals the money from the bank so that she can start a new life with her lover who is trying to get out of a failed marriage but doesn’t have the money to hand. Good and evil become irrelevant next to pragmatic needs, and even later Norman Bates’s actions are justified in psychological terms. Hitchcock sets the scene beautifully, but he doesn’t expect us to assume that the tensions come out of the milieu. This is what Tarr does expect, so that the desultory rain, the vicious wind, the cruel cold all invite pathetic fallacy but not at all the anthropomorphic. It’s as if Tarr set out to invert the Camus problem in The Outsider concerning the sun’s influence of Meursault’s murder of an Arab, and wonders what deeds can take place in a cold climate. Good and evil (and mainly evil) seem to come out of the environment more than the strong motivations of the characters, so that even if we do have Karrer’s desire for a woman in Damnation, it functions not very differently from the horse’s refusal in The Turin Horse or the mob’s reactions in Werckmeister Harmonies. By removing the focus on the humanly motivational, Tarr opens up his films to forces that can’t be so centrally located.

Thus while we might not agree with Tarr’s insistence that he isn’t interested in metaphysical things, we can see that his fascination is in the concrete sense of screen space that is both unreal in its geographical coordinates and visualized in a style that undermines our ability to understand what is perhaps going on in his characters’ minds. If Tarr ignores the metaphysical, it is in the sense that he is not at all concerned with it in its Cartesian formulation: I think therefore I am. If characters often look out of windows in Tarr’s work we shouldn’t be musing over what they might be thinking, but instead the general absence of thought as they do so. When the daughter in Turin Horse spends much of her time seated by the kitchen window, our interest lies not in what thoughts she might be having, but the emptiness of the view in front of her and how matched it might be by what is in the back of her mind. This is not at all the Kuleshov effect where a fixed expression on an actor’s face is read in various ways based on the counter shot, so that a man is seen to be mean, kind, cruel, hungry or sad because of the image of a baby, food, violence etc. In The Turin Horse there is a moment where the camera, which has usually given us the shot from inside the house of the daughter’s gaze outwards,  shows the reverse angle and looks back at the daughter from outside the farmhouse, slowly moving in on her as she looks out. It is a shot of devastating emptiness, of the human as null and void, and for all cinema’s achievement of getting inside a character’s head when it doesn’t possess literature’s immediately evident ability to do so, we realize at the same time how rare it is to show a character who is not thinking at all. In The Turin Horse it isn’t that the director wants to give the horse the characteristics of human feeling as we watch while it prefers not to, but that he removes from the human the psychological characteristics that can turn this preferred state not into an existential choice, but into a mental evacuation.

States of good and evil come in consequently less as strong motivating factors, but more as strong forces against the weakest of characters. Rudolph’s figure in Werckmeister Harmonies is probably the closest to a good person, though the daughter in The Turin Horse possesses some of the same qualities. But theirs is a goodness that passes through them as the bad passes through Karrer in Damnation, through the mob in Werckmeister Harmonies, the villagers in Satantango. They all seem like empty vessels capable of allowing forces to enter without much thought or consequence. Even the visitor in The Turin Horse who comes to buy potato-based alcohol unleashes a speech that though initially appears politically motivated, turns into an incantatory rant; finally more focused on the needs of unleashing anger and resentment than on a coherent view of oppression. The betrayals in Damnation and Satantango (where everyone is spying, cheating or destroying each other) are examples of human moral frailty rather than personal gains, with no one really capable of explaining their actions, but driven by powers beyond their ready ken.

Black and white at a time when colour cinema is the norm can give to such ‘thin’ characterization a visual alibi: it can ask us not to take this world for our own and not to look for actions causally generated from complicated psychological structures. It can generate a monochromic force field that doesn’t allow us into the film but quite deliberately keeps us slightly removed from its workings.  As Tarr says: “It’s very simple. If you want to make a colour movie, and you go out onto the street, and you want to create the right atmosphere, you must paint the whole street, because every house is red, blue, green and so on. And you have no colours, you just have some colour chaos. For me it’s a kind of naturalism, the colour movie. With black and white you can keep it more stylistic, you can keep more of a distance between the film and reality which is important.” (Senses of Cinema) The combination of Mihaly Vig’s music, whether sweetly reflecting the innocence of Janos (Rudolph) in Werckmeister Harmonies, or insistently repetitive and capturing the world at the end of its tether in The Turin Horse, the various cinematographers’ camera movements around the centre of actions in all the late films, and Krasznahorkai’s dialogue that allows things to be said without saying anything, generate a universe indeed. It manages brilliantly to create a world in parallel to our own. It indicates the core of our being without diluting it through the many and myriad actions that give a superficial impression of purpose and meaning, but that might finally be a futile distraction from the final futility of our existence. Such is the world Tarr offers.


©Tony McKibbin