Bela Tarr: Satantango

The doctor sat sourly beside the window, his shoulders and back resting against the cold and damp wall, and he did not even have to turn is head to be able to look out onto the squalid run-down group of houses through the gap between the rotting window-sash and the filthy sprigged curtains come down to him from his mother; he had only to look up from his book, a single glance sufficed to note the slightest change and though every once in a while it did chance to happen that something escaped his attention–either he was deep in thought or because he was abiding in a more distant part of the premises–even on such occasions his excellent hearing always came to his aid: but he was rarely, if ever, deep in thought and left his arm-chair padded wth blankets and his fur coat, even more rarely, the position of which had been determined by the accumulated experience of everyday activities–for he had succeeded in reducing the incidents forcing him to forsake his look-out post beside the window to the barest minimum. This was of course by no means an easy task of the sort that can be accomplished overnight. On the contrary: he had had to amass and arrange, in the most serviceable positions possible, the objects indispensable for eating, drinking, smoking, diary-writing, reading and countless other trifling tasks, and even had to renounce allowing the occasional error to go unpunished out of self-indulgence pure and simple.

Laszlo Krasznahorkai, “Knowing Something,” Satantango

Tarr’s movie adheres to the action of this chapter faithfully: the doctor sketches the scene from his window, drinks until he runs out, then goes to find more booze, visiting some prostitutes along the way. He runs into a little village girl who has a nasty fate in store for her, and eventually collapses out in the woods for the evening. Like much of Krasznahorkai’s fiction, it is narrated in this hyper-discursive, half-interior and half-omniscient style, with physical and verbal action buried amongst ever-burgeoning context. The film replaces this baroque style–it does not approximate it–with extremely long takes, often statically framed, of the objective action and little else. In this segment, one of the more unfilmable, few of the doctor’s thoughts are made public; instead we are treated to the doctor drinking, sketching, drinking, looking, tersely writing down what he sees through the window, drinking, walking, drinking, talking (though the conversation is greatly truncated and simplified from that of the book), drinking, and collapsing.

In Tarr’s subsequent film The Werckmeister Harmonies, based on Krasznahorkai’s brilliant The Melancholy of Resistance, the socio-political philosophical arguments simply never made it into the film. (A friend who had not read the book was at a loss to discern any political statement from Werckmeister.) The loss isn’t quite so drastic here because the action is on a smaller scale, but given that Krasznahorkai collaborated with Tarr on the screenplays for both movies, Krasznahorkai does significant violence to his own original statements. Krasznahorkai’s style and content is in no way approximated by Tarr’s techniques or the film’s stunning length (7.5 hours); Tarr replaces them with a cinematic language that is as unique to its medium as Krasznahorkai’s language is to his. The passage above gives no indication of the utter slowness of the corresponding scene in the film, nor of how long Tarr is willing to focus on a tableau of a man drinking at a window (or walking, or sketching) before anything happens. Nor does the text communicate the impact of the pervasive rain in the film.

The basics of the film are adequately covered in two other articles, “And Then There Was Darkness” and “The Melancholy of Resistance”. The film’s simultaneous fullness and emptiness makes it daunting to discuss, as it’s easy to abandon the fairly simple plot to focus on the details and eccentricities of visual technique, framing, chronology, and the like, since they are so prominent. It is too easy to say that the ten-minute shots of nothing (or one thing) and longueurs are “a different way of seeing,” or that they force us to look more closely and understand more about the characters. For one, they don’t: Tarr creates a unique mood and tempo, but he is ultimately as focused on surfaces as Bresson. The characters of The Werckmeister Harmonies are more fleshed out after thirty minutes than many of Santantango’s characters ever are. And it bespeaks an indulgence granted to those who are audacious enough to make a visually beautiful seven-hour film to begin with. I want to look at how the visual language and the film’s structure do or do not reflect on the thematic content of the film, and that means that no quarter must be given for the innate appealing (or boring) otherness of Tarr’s style alone.

First, some antecedents. Tarr is too often compared to Tarkovksy, when the two are almost polar opposites, and not just in their view of humanity. Tarkovsky continually is attempting to bring out aspects of his landscapes, while Tarr burrows deeper into it. Tarkovsky will film a clump of underwater reeds in an uncommonly beautiful way, and awe is usually one of his goals. Tarr does not give us the extraordinary; he overdoses on the ordinary. Static shots of rusty stoves reinforce their decrepitude; rain and empty fields overflow the film. Tarr has more in common with his fellow Hungarian Miklos Jancso, but aside from lacking Jancso’s brilliant sense of physical space, Tarr is not as aggressively artificial as Jancso, where the camera is as much an actor as anyone. The stylistic heritage is there, but I think it’s a mistake to make too much of a connection.

Tarr’s visual style is ultimately simpler than either of these two, and it relies primarily on two techniques. The first is the static tableau. Tarr often uses slow tracking across these tableaux, but he just as often stays absolutely stationary on a noticeably composed shot. People may drift in and out of the frame, or they may be as fixed in it, or they may caterwaul within it, but the camera almost never follows a character in the normal way. Likewise, the second technique is the extreme close-up of a person’s face while they talk: their face is not contained within the frame, and the viewer is sometimes unsure of their placement in the environment or the placement of others.

There is a bit of Bresson in the tableaux, but the influence of (late) Carl Dreyer is more apparent in their lack of flash. Like Dreyer, Tarr sticks with basics and avoids the ornate; like Dreyer, he uses shots that are almost stage-like in their geometric construction, most notably in the tavern sequence in the middle of the film. But the decentralization of the people from these scenes comes from another source entirely: Antonioni. Godard has used such destabilized scenes, but Antonioni made depersonalized camera drift his specialty. And while they work in very different moods and milieux, Antonioni’s relation of form to theme is extremely helpful in deciphering Tarr’s more oblique constructions.

To be continued…

[Satantango is playing at MOMA until next week. One dead body. Tons of drinking. Cat torture. Waggish says check it out.]

[Also see Zach Campbell’s incisive commentary.]

4 thoughts on “Bela Tarr: Satantango

  1. Mr. Waggish has his sources. English-speakers interested in Krasznahorkai can find prose excerpts and “a special literary project” related to “War and War” at his website:

    http://www.krasznahorkai.hu/

    A French translation of Satantango is available, and many of his books have been translated into German, although they’re remarkably scarce even in the best American libraries. The man needs more hype. Does James Wood like his work, I wonder? He’s the closest thing to a helpful public intellectual I can muster, present company excluded.

  2. Tarr is one of the best at what I call “the cinema of the rigorous”. This type of cinema, which Hou Hsiao-hsien does to some degree is basically about stripping down cinema to the point that it transends reality. Enjoyment is not what he is trying to achieve but it doesn’t mean his film’s aren’t good. I think Antonioni has a more artistic sensibility because he uses symbols and movies that have a message to them. Tarr is closer in some ways to Cassavettes except cinematically he is much purer and more removed from the action.

Leave a Reply