The Weakest Link
There are two moments in Bela Tarr's Satantango that sum up well the malevolent universe he creates and the impossibility in such a view of any notion of amelioration. The former is much the better known; the latter easily forgotten but perhaps even more useful in trying to explore what Satantango delineates. The first is a lengthy sequence where one of the children at the farming commune kills a cat and then herself. The second sequence shows the pub owner browbeating the crippled Futaki, a man whose main purpose in the community seems to be sleeping with the nymphomaniac wife of the character of Mr Schmidt. In the sequences with the daughter and the cat there is perhaps a hint here of the problem explored in Rossellini's Germany Year Zero - where a young boy murders his grandfather and then goes on to take his own life - a sense of culpability rising up within him but unlikely to find articulation in a conventional moral universe. Here it as if young Estika knows that she lives in a world where power begets power and her torturing and then poisoning of the cat fits in neatly with the dance of despair that inevitably leads to functioning as master or servant to others. This is an emotionally mechanistic universe that she then escapes by taking the very rat poison she has murdered the cat with. This seems not quite the guilty suicide we might attribute to the boy in Rossellini's film, but the wisest option given the availability of experience within Satantango's world. Earlier we've seen the brother do his sister out of her savings, claiming he is burying the cash in the ground so that a money tree will grow. Later when Estika returns to find the money missing, she is another loser in the world of power play. What can she do but find a victim herself to show that she isn't the weakest link, and so abuses the cat?
In the brief scene between Futaki and the pub owner, the owner rails against one man who has been drinking in his pub free of charge every evening for almost a fortnight and, feeling powerless in the face of this figure, shouts and splutters spittle at Futaki. The publican never quite abuses him directly, but does so by proxy - Futaki shrinks and shudders in the presence of this onslaught, knowing that he isn't at all the person with whom the publican is angry, but well aware that he is a weak figure expected to listen to a rant that could result in a wallop. This wallop wouldn't at all have anything to do with Futaki, any more than kicking a chair or a dog would have anything to do with what a chair or dog did. It would be no more and no less than about their presence as the weakest link. It wouldn't be entirely arbitrary that a dog or chair gets kicked, even though it wouldn't at all be motivationally the fault of the dog or the chair: they are the easiest scapegoats. In this sense the cat and Futaki are functionally useful: Estika and the publican cannot confront the person responsible, so instead find something or somebody innocent of deed but guilty of weakness. The accumulation of such emotionally motivational dysfunction, of people treating each other like musical chairs to be kicked, leads not to the notion of tango, where the purpose is to lead and follow, control matched by care and consideration, but satantango, where the point is to lead and control, to manipulate and bully. However, where the publican will continue no doubt to find others to harass, Estika chooses to end the power-play by taking the poison herself.
There have been other films, of course, where characters have taken object for subject, misapplied the frustration towards one thing by punishing another, and two that come to mind are Badlands, where Sissy Spacek's dog is killed by her father for her misdemeanours, and Kes, where Billy's brother kills the boy's bird after Billy fails to place a bet that would have won his brother some money. Neither the dog nor the bird have been errant, but they have been weak, and one suspects vital to Bela Tarr's malignant universe is that justice is a pragmatic notion based on characters getting what they want, rather than what they deserve. It is justifiable that Estika is angry, and understandable the publican is fed up of someone who has power over him exploiting his hospitality in the pub. But to take that frustration out on a third party, man or beast, is to add to the malevolence in the world rather than to alleviate one's own frustrations, as inevitably someone then exploits you as the weakest link and you in turn take your frustration at being weak out on someone else. Estika doesn't so much take her own life (though of course she does), but more especially escapes from the abuse meted out to others and also consequently to her. She might be a mentally troubled character (there is talk of her having been in a mental institution), but we shouldn't take her suicide merely as a reflection of this. As the voice-over informs us that she feels like an angel after taking the poison, it is as though she has found peace, or at least escape from the brutal manipulations of those around her, and of which she became a part.
Futaki, meanwhile, doesn't escape from the world, but by the end of the film he seems to possess a certain wisdom concerning this power-play: he rejects help from the influential and manipulative figure of Iremias. Earlier he may feel he has got one over on Mr Schmidt through sleeping with his wife behind his back, but Mr Schmidt thinks he is superior to Futaki since he's at least able-bodied. There is a squalid egotism at work, with no one quite worthy of praise but everyone feeling worthy of a status a little more substantial than the person next to them. Futaki's gesture of independence feels like an escape from this low-grade egotism, without quite requiring, like Estika, his own demise. But how, we might wonder, can Tarr find a means with which to comment on the generally self-serving characters without arriving at the condescending, without finding a position beyond the situation but still within the social? Part of the film's broader purpose, a purpose some might call immanent, others transcendent, still others metaphysical, lies in this surprisingly prosaic eschewal. Surely one of the problems with satire and irony is that they create a position that is removed from the characters but not yet quite removed enough to avoid the smugness of a superior perspective. If a character says one thing and we know they mean the opposite; if a character's house is a filthy midden and yet they think it a palace, if all the characters believe they are brilliant while the film shows they are not, how can it find a place to allow for such judgements without arriving at easy condescension?
Here is where in Tarr's work form and content meet, and release a point of view that heralds from elsewhere, from a place beyond ready anthropocentric coordinates, a place that may deserve the term the beyond if we think of Estika's death and the film's implicit approval of her decision. As she dies next to a church and the mist gathers around her, we needn't see this as Tarr's faith in God and absence of faith in life, but we might wonder whether the last trace of religiosity is still more meaningful than the full existence of humans without even faith in each other. This helps make senses of certain ambivalences in Tarr's position concerning the metaphysical in interviews. "It's very difficult to speak about the metaphysical and that. No. It's just always listening to life. And we are thinking about what is happening around us. Everything is much bigger than us. I think the human is just a little part of the cosmos. If there's evil going on, do you think it comes from elsewhere? From outside the human sphere. No. I think human responsibility is great, enormous. Maybe the biggest factor. You know, I don't believe in God. This is my problem. If I think about God, okay, he has a responsibility for the whole thing, but I don't know. " (Film West)
Indeed, and ironically, it is after Estika's death that the shadowy figure of Irimias (played by the film's composer, Mihaly Vig) returns to the farming community, and offers a lengthy speech implicating all the locals in the death. On the one hand he is right to take into account what we've already examined when it comes to the characters taking frustrations out on each other, but on the other hand it seems like a crude appeal to add to the very manipulation and exploitation Estika has chosen to escape. Now one reason why we don't want to get too caught up in theological questions concerning Tarr's film is not because he himself comments on the absence of the metaphysical and the spiritual in interviews, nor because we want to view cinema with a positivistic tendency that demands we have to work with what is in front of our eyes, but because Tarr's aesthetic represents one of the most despairing ever put on film.
In its form and in its content, in its mise-en-scene and in its subject matter, Tarr's work offers the least optimistic of visions, and though the form has a certain elevation of feeling through the mastery of the camera and the elegance of its movements through space, equally this is a camera not given to eating up mise-en-scene energetically as we find in Boogie Nights, Good Fellas and Mission to Mars, but one that creates webs of inertia around character and situation. We need only think of Satantango's opening shot, a lateral track across a farmyard that half-follows the movements of the cows in front of the lens, but equally and unremittingly seems to have its own inexorable logic: sometimes it disappears behind buildings as it follows it own direction rather than attending to the movement of the cows.
We can also think of the following shot that opens on a darkened image which steadily lets in the light as we see a table with two chairs, and, after a minute, a character enters the frame who we will find out is Futaki, and who is in the middle of a liaison with Mrs Schmidt. In the opening plan sequence the image feels almost bovine in its fixity, its movements a little like that of a cow half-grazing, yet at the same time alert to the minutiae, and tracking like a train slowly easing out of a station. One draws analogies with the animal and the mechanical to suggest ways in which Tarr escapes ready narrative anthropocentricity. One sees usually in the camera a movement and framing that places the human both at the centre of the frame and also the centre of the perceptual framework. It is tautologically human as what is in front of the camera and behind it reassures the viewer of their anthropocentric convictions. The camera moves with the people, and the shot invokes the human from behind the camera. When Hitchcock introduces us to the various characters across the way in Rear Window, we are half-surprised that L. B. Jefferies isn't looking out the window at them, and it is partly because Hitchcock has set the shot up with human interest in the frame and a strong sense of human interest behind it.
Yet Tarr does not give us this sense of human dominion, and it is this refusal that helps him avoid condescension. The camera has not the knowing quality of the ironic, or the comedic, as Jonathan Rosenbaum proposes in The Chicago Reader when he says the film is a "very dark Hungarian black comedy", but the blank stare of the uncomprehending, of a gaze that looks but cannot quite see because the world it looks at doesn't quite make sense. This is the case even when the film utilises point of view, evident for example in the scene where Estika looks through the window and watches the villagers dancing drunkenly and seemingly endlessly to the accordion playing of one of the members. And it is also the case when the local doctor looks out of his window and sees Futaki leaving and hiding behind a barn after his assignation with Mrs Schmidt. In each instance there seems to be a perspective beyond the point of view, or even perhaps within the point of view. When Estika looks through the window at the villagers, the film could have done no more than utilise it for immediate judgement: Estika's forlorn and the villagers, getting rumbustiously drunk, are too obliviously engaged in their drunken revelry to see Estika's loneliness and despair. But Tarr films it differently, as Satantango goes beyond the point of view of Estika's feelings and into the metaphysical density of the problem. It is not only that these are figures indifferent to Estika's life; these are people indifferent to their own, and the world seems indifferent to them. When the doctor watches Futaki from his window, the observational intensity is reversed. It isn't about the people being watched, but the watcher being watched as Peter Berling's wide girth is observed as he shuffles his way around his small house, breathing with difficulty, and where movement from one room to another is Sisyphian. The interest in the drama of observing a situation outside his window, gives way to the film watching his body mass, this ever-expanding matter in the world.
There is, the film appears to be saying, something inexplicable in this mass. When cinema looks at obesity it often does so with humour, whether it is the rotund figure sweating as he watches Sharon Stone part her legs in Basic Instinct, or the same actor, Wayne Knight, scoffing endlessly in Jurassic Park. Then there are films like Shallow Hal and The Nutty Professor also covering an amused take on corpulence. Sometimes film observes it with pity, evidently on display with the portrayal of the mother in What's Eating Gilbert Grape? But Tarr seems fascinated with the body mass of Peter Berling's character. When Tarr says in interviews that "We have a story, but I think the story is only a little part of the whole movie. I have to tell you I absolutely hate movies that I can watch at the theatres. They are like comics. They always tell the same story," (Pop Matters) we can see how he refuses the same story by taking the narrative element (the doctor watching Futaki's affair) and turning away from the story to the basic elements of a man's day to day struggle shuffling around his apartment.
The story becomes not narratively driven but almost sculpturally probing: one watches the doctor as one might observe the shape and texture of a piece of sculpture in a museum. Tarr's suspicion of story allows him to avoid the condescension of perception. The easy option narratively and perceptually would be that the doctor is an obese man with obviously no sex life who gets his thrills watching the sex lives of others from across the way. But Satantango keeps pushing beyond ready assumption, as it wants not to sum the character up as a voyeur and a spy (though he happens to be the latter as he takes down details on all the locals), but instead to try to weigh up his existence: the sheer struggle of passing water, pouring a glass of spirits, scribbling in a notebook. Tarr's suspicion of story coincides one feels with the film's capacity to avoid ready anthropocentricity. When the character in Basic Instinct watches Sharon Stone we know exactly what he thinks and where we are: Paul Verhoeven is a fascinating filmmaker on occasion, but he likes a crude shorthand that shows up the Hobbesian as libidinous and lewd. Tarr's longhand method manages to push us beyond the assumption and towards the indeterminate. The readily ironically comic becomes the indecipherably cosmic with the camera the correlative of certain thoughts by Schopenhauer and Heidegger, between Schopenhauer's notion that one should ask oneself "honestly whether the swallow of this year's spring is absolutely a different one from the swallow of the first spring, and whether really between the two the miracle of the creation out of nothing has repeated itself millions of times, in order to work just as often into the hands of absolute annihilation," (The Will to Live) and Heidegger's notion of anxiety in "What is Metaphysics'. "In anxiety, we say, "one feels ill at ease..."What is 'it' that makes one feel ill at ease? We cannot say what it is before which one feels ill at ease."
How do these remarks relate to the avoidance of condescension, as the film takes flight from the readily ironic mode of the anthropocentric, and still allow us to follow through on earlier observations about the film's interest in the humanly malevolent? Schopenhauer's comment captures well the cyclical nature of all things where from a certain perspective the event as singular gives way to the situation as endlessly recurring. When the doctor shuffles around his house, he might be a bigger man than most, but it would surely be an erroneous response to smirk at his weight as one does at the obese figures in Jurassic Parkand Basic Instinct, with Spielberg and Verhoeven putting us clearly in the position of the non-fat as a viewer. Tarr focuses so specifically on the doctor's weight, and at the same time is so willing to find an aesthetic position beyond it, that what we have is the exhaustion of existence in the albeit large shape of one man, rather than the smug feeling of being a thinner viewer than the hapless Wayne Knight. The doctor is but one figure amongst many passing through time and struggling with existence. Heidegger's remark, meanwhile, sums up well the film's capacity to remove the condescending by inserting within the image the anxious; the ability of Tarr's camera to generate unease in the length of the shots and their positioning. One notices this for example in the three and a half minute long shot in the film where the camera forward tracks through the Hungarian landscape, with no character in sight and the film's images accompanied by Mihaly Vig's melancholy accordion. We are no longer in the story but in the anxiety of being, as character and narrative recede to show that whatever the problem is with being in the world, it is bigger than the daily concerns of the characters. As Tarr says of his earlier Damnation: "The question is really what is film for?...Film is not about telling a story. Its function is really something else. So that we can get closer to people, somehow we can understand everyday life. And that somehow we can understand human nature, why we are like we are...And that's how we found this rather simple story, even primitive criminal story which is a real banal story, as this is the thing that we can get furthest away from." Tarr adds that "it's from such a story that we can get into a circular dance. It was getting away from the story, because we thought that a wall, the rain, and the dogs have their own stories and that these stories are more important than the so-called human stories that we write." (Enthusiasm)
Yet the malevolent dimension comes through the human story even if Tarr nevertheless claims the final cause seems to be cosmic rather than readily human. It is this tension - between the cosmic force that can't hold the human too readily responsible and the human actions that illustrate this force - which can keep in abeyance too commonplace emotional reactions, and which stops the film falling into a mere illustration of a thesis concerning cosmic despair. There is no doubt much humour in the situation where Futaki receives the abuse at barely one remove, but the humour is secondary to the grim realization that here is a world where everyone takes out their frustrations on someone weaker than themselves. It is the ever broadening sense of malevolence that incorporates, it seems, all humans, which leads to the universalizing of evil, and at the same time the force of a universal evil that makes all humans malevolent. An ironic response would seem a pretty paltry one next to the acknowledgement of the wider chaos. As Tarr says, in the Film Westinterview with Fergus Daly and Maximilian Le Cain, "We have some ontological problems and now I think a whole pile of shit is coming from the cosmos. And there's the reason."
Often in interviews Tarr wants to point out the practicalities of filming, the basic ingredients in getting a film made and telling one's story however obliquely and bleakly, but if his work matters it lies in his ability to ask a certain type of question that can't readily be filmed and then finds a form in which to film it. Jonathan Romney makes a fair point when saying that he's read some abstract interpretations of Tarr's film "but in fact all your films are very concrete". But we might say, invoking A. N. Whitehead's term 'misplaced concreteness', that Tarr's concreteness is never misplaced. It does not make assumptions of the real that allows us safely to believe in the world as it is mechanistically. We can see that there are causes and effects, see that Estika gets ripped off by her brother, is dismissively treated by her mother, see the locals drunkenly and emptily dancing all evening in the bar, but are these reasons enough to kill a cat and kill oneself? Misplaced concreteness cinematically sets up situations that can allow for pay-offs which have their own logic, so that when a person kills Mad Max's family the logic demands that he kill the perpetrators. When the village is destroyed and many of the villagers murdered in Braveheart, Wallace must wage war against the English who imposed themselves. The misplaced concreteness rests on setting in motion stories that can be told with a logical precision but often with various other aspects of the problem being ignored. The variables of the historical, psychological, environmental and sociological are back-dropped features of the plot logic. Tarr is more interested in displaced concreteness, and says that "we believe that apart from the main protagonists in the film there are other protagonists: scenery, the weather, time and locations have their own faces and they are important, they play an important role in the story. That is why we shot this film at seven different locations. And that this city doesn't exist, it can't be found on a map." (Enthusiasm)
Obviously there are many films that lack location fidelity, and Thom Andersen's LA Plays Itself is a fine documentary account of film and LA focusing on many of these problems, with characters exiting the frame in one location and entering the next shot in another but as if they are still in the same part of town. However, such a method is often acceptable as a filmmaker willingly sacrifices geographic fidelity to dramatic license. Tarr's approach to playing with locale is to create a space that doesn't quite exist, as opposed to a space that dramatically transcends the importance of location. The location still seems very important to the filmmaker, but not because of dramatic license but despite it. Tarr is more interested in a certain cosmic license, as if trying to find cinematic spaces that aren't quite of this world but close relatives to them. Realist cinematic space can too readily lead to denotative images, images that keep characters grounded in the every day without quite proposing a further dimension to their actions. Tarr uses various means by which to extract the connotative from the denotative, and the play with space is but one of them, alongside the camera movements already invoked, the audio exaggeration in certain scenes, and of course the monochrome he has used exclusively in all his films since the mid-eighties: Damnation, Satantango, Werckmeister Harmonies, The Man from Londonand The Turin Horse. These elements brought together create the connotative, and we may notice this especially in Tarr's soundtrack here where in certain scenes the clocks tick loudly, and in others aren't to be heard at all. There is even a play on this in the scene where Irimias and his cohort sit and wait to see the police inspector. They comment on the clock, and yet no sound is heard coming from it. In other scenes there is no clock so obviously present (and no character commenting on it), but the sound tick-tocks throughout. It is as though we can't fall into the story, and its denotative function, but remain alert to the connotative sense that there is meaning beyond the concrete.
But despite this interest in the connotative, at the same time Tarr focuses the film on emotional problematics not that far removed from filmmakers apparently much more grounded in the everyday as well as those fascinated by the otherworldly. This lies in the nature of cruelty in cinema, explored by filmmakers as varied as Mizoguchi, Welles, Fassbinder and Lav Diaz and where the fundaments of power find their expression in individuals' need to exist not with the minimum amount of selfishness that can make a spiritual thinker like Pascal or Dostoevsky, a Simone Weil or a Coetzee, as they fret over our distressingly self-oriented condition, evident in a remark like Dostoevsky's: "we are all guilty for everything and everyone, and I more than all the others." No, this is the problem not of the failed good but the assertively evil as Konrad Lorenz couches it in On Aggression: "Evil, by definition, is that which endangers the good, and the good is that which we perceive as a value." A deliberate endangering of the good is often what we see in these filmmakers' work, as characters exist not to the minimum detriment of others (as in the Dostoevskyian ideal), but to the maximum detriment. Whether it is the woman in Mizoguchi's Osaka Story treated badly and ignorantly by her boss, her prospective fianc and her family, the abuses meted out in Fassbinder's The Bitter Tears of Petra von Kant, the regular raping of the daughter in Diaz's Florentina Hubaldo TCE, this is a cinema of cruelty segueing inevitably into a world of evil as cause and effect eventually gets lost in a vortex that can seem nothing less than cosmic. Where did it start and where does it finish? Does Satantango explore the beginnings of this evil in the cruelty of the characters, or was the cruelty in the situation, and thus the characters merely play out their role within this cosmic nightmare because they do not themselves know where it started from, and so cannot know how to stop it?
Bela Tarr's is a world in which the evil is neither categorically coming from character or from the cosmos, but the advantage of neither pinning the problem on the characters nor claiming the problem rests in cosmic inevitability is that it gives to his oeuvre a querying despair missing from works of apocalyptic assertiveness or films readily judging the character's actions. When Tarr says that "I think a whole pile of shit is coming from the cosmos", it is perhaps by analogy a little like man-made environmental problems where a hurricane isn't caused by anyone, but the accumulative effect creates what seems like a problem that has nothing to do with the readily human, and can be passed off as a natural disaster. When we compared Estika's cruelty with the cat and the bar owner's bullying of Futaki, we did so not so much to say there was a moral equivalence between the two actions, but to recognize the cycle of a power structure that embeds itself within man and for which the characters can hardly be held personally responsible.
If we accept Satantango's vision is troubled more than judgemental, we're thus inclined to disagree with Rosenbaum when he says in his nevertheless useful piece on the film that it's a black comedy, even if it means disagreeing with Tarr also. He reckons all his films are comedies except for The Turin Horse according to an interview with R Emmet Sweeney in Film Comment. Yet this seems more a moment of facetiousness than a serious critical self-assessment, evident in the exclamation mark Sweeney acknowledges. Satantangosearches out the absurd inability of Tarr's characters to find meaningful lives, but that doesn't mean he finds a position beyond this meaningless that can allow us to laugh as we might in even great comic visions containing within them the serious: films like Dr Strangelove or The Great Dictator. They fall under the rubric of satire without much difficulty, but Satantango? It is horribly funny that Futaki receives the abuse that should rightfully be reserved for someone else, but the humour sticks in the craw rather than makes it out as a full laugh. This is the human comedy as cosmic tragedy, as humankind doesn't come close to earning the suffix.
Consequently, there is little in Tarr's filmmaking approach that suggests the comedic, with the music, camera movements and acting indicative more of the open question than the closed timing of the comic. If we think of the TV that one character carts around though we never see it switched on (as Rosenbaum notes), then we might find it wryly amusing, but Tarr doesn't set it up as a joke with any kind of pay off, and he doesn't even frame it in such a way that it becomes a gag. Maybe this is just comedy at its most subtle, but perhaps it is more useful to see it as the horribly pointless unavoidably containing within it a humorous absurdity. Tarr might see The Turin Horse as his only non-comedy, but as in all his work there will be space in the film for a mild chuckle when, for example, the father and daughter finally leave the house and try and get their horse to climb up a hill and eventually give up, or when they eat their umpteenth potato.
Tarr's work, then, is perhaps a comedy of terrors rather than errors, but it would be useful to invoke Kierkegaard's thoughts in The Concept of Dread where he differentiates fear from angst, and see how this type of differentiation would play out in the comic sphere. As The Encyclopaedia Britannica notes: "Kierkegaard makes a clear distinction between what he call angst, or dread - a feeling that has no definite object - and the fear and terror that derive from an objective threat (eg. A wild animal, a gunman)." Tarr in this sense is a filmmaker much more interested in the dread of being than in the comedic possibilities of the set-piece. Dr Strangelove has serious points to make about nuclear annihilation, but it often contains them within the comedic set up. The scene where Peter Sellers gets some money together to make an important call to the Whitehouse is based on the expectations of situation comedy, and the three roles Peter Sellers plays consistent with the comedic notion of impersonation. Maybe seeing Tarr's films as comedies mean they don't have to be addressed as metaphysical works, as films interested in a problem that can't be grounded in everyday, rational responses, but surely they open themselves up to the very troublesomeness Kierkegaard sees central to dread as opposed to terror.
One sees this in relation to the figure of Irimias (Hungarian for Messiah), and Tarr's insistence that he remains a shadowy figure of duplicity rather than an outright villain, and the villagers outright schmucks. From a certain point of view he is a saviour to these villagers who are so riven by backbiting and despair that Irimias's capacity to unite them as a utopian collective draws out an apparently positive quality in each character. They feel they have to pull together rather than tear each other apart. When they start to have doubts after spending a night in a rundown building far from home on their way to the promised land, before Irimias turns up hours late, they express their reservations. Irimias then lectures them on their lack of faith, and one might feel he is right in principle no matter if he lacks any principles of his own. He is right to try to convince them to have a little faith in each other and their project, and in someone who wants to help them better their lives. He is wrong because he is someone who wants to exploit theirs. They are right to hope, but wrong about where they are putting that hope: their instincts for sniffing out their own well-being have long since gone, or maybe were never evident, and haven't been for generations, even since the birth of man. It is this infinite regress in Tarr's films that indicate the metaphysical: as if they are asking questions not only about the immediate story, but also echoing back and beyond to other stories, other situations. The laugh of the comedy tends not be metaphysical but decidedly physical, a very bodily response to the immediacy of the situation; metaphysical cinema often refuses the readily humorous: from Tarkovsky, to Bresson, from Dreyer to Dumont, Reygadas to Malick. Von Trier is one of the few filmmakers who seems to want the readily humorous within the metaphysically enquiring: who wants us to laugh even as he invokes the clearly spiritual, even the religious, as we find in Breaking the Waves. The image at the end is the miracle of a higher being and the absurd as cinematic image: a bell tolling in the skies.
One feels Tarr expects us to take his bells decidedly straight. They echo through the film, intermittently heard on the soundtrack and contributing to the rumbling despair of the malevolence of the universe. These aren't heavenly bells we hear, but hellish ones, but where does this hell come from? Tarr's achievement is to say that it does not categorically come from anywhere: neither from above or below, from the cosmos or from the humanly cruel. But the consequence of this is that its originary lack creates a permeating evil that gives the film its circular despair: the sense that characters cannot readily escape their fate nor improve their lot. But this doesn't mean their actions are necessarily being puppeteered by higher beings, though they might, for all they need to do is look at their own lower purpose to see many an example of human hopelessness. To suggest a higher or lower source for such actions could seem an awful lot like bad faith, when surely the problem is a lack of faith in all its manifestations, and any attempt at buying into a purpose bigger than one's own (the commune Irimias proposes) carries with it surely a further misery.
After all, if the characters believe in Irimias is it not because they believe he has power, but that they see him as the strongest link, the one figure capable of leading them to a better life and away from their wretched condition. Yet taking into account the manner in which everyone treats everyone else, is it not logical that the strongest link wouldn't be interested in giving them a better existence, but in simply exploiting them even more effectively than they exploit each other? Tarr's film is an exploration of malevolence, cruelty and evil in all its manifestations, concentrating on the human and constantly alluding to possibilities beyond it. But finally it is a thorough and fascinating exploration of the problem of the weakest link, and we might conclude that the film's most optimistic moment would in another film be its most desolate: young Estika's suicide. Who knows where she might be going, but we know what she has escaped: a world where people aren't held together by the ties that bind, but the chains that allow for links weak and strong. Few filmmakers have inverted so strongly the hymn: "I led them with cords of human kindness, with ties of love." Hosea 11:4
© Tony McKibbin