David Auerbach on literature, tech, film, etc.

Bela Tarr: Satantango [3]

(Also see Part 1 and Part 2.)

I just think about the quality of human life and when I say ‘shit’ I think I’m very close to it.

Bela Tarr in interview

Last time, I said that Tarr’s cinematic style deprivileged the characters humans from the center of the frame and put them with equal weight with the gray, surrounding scenery. Ultimately, I believe this makes Tarr’s style extremely compelling in the most physical sense of the word. But what does he say with it?

The plot of Satantango is very simple. Shocked by the suicide of a young girl, a group of townspeople in an impoverished Hungarian village choose to follow the manipulative “prophet” Irimias who, with promises of a bright new collective beginning, takes their money, leads them to an abandoned mansion, and then disperses them and sends them off to menial labor. This last task puts him right with the local authorities, who have been harassing him for being a petty criminal. With one slight exception, the townspeople are mostly sheep throughout the movie, something Tarr underscores in his long shots of cattle wandering through the streets early on in the film. Irimias too has contempt for them, though he is not above a bit of quasi-religious experience himself.

The center of the film is those two individuals, the girl and Irimias. The girl tortures her cat before poisoning it and herself. The obvious interpretation is that on the great ladder of being, she is taking out her frustration and impotence on the one creature lower than her. (She was earlier robbed by an older boy.) I’m not so certain. In one of the few points where Tarr quotes extensively from the novel, the narrator intones that the girl knows that even in death, she is still incontrovertibly connected to the entire town around her and its people. (Tarr’s shots of spiderwebs echo these words.) It is presented in a neutral manner, but one shouldn’t confuse neutral with benign. These people live together, act together, and are damned together. Irimias manipulates them as a whole, and ultimately there is little to distinguish them. I prefer to see the girl’s actions as a testing of the barriers between herself and an animal, as she wonders what other kinds of relations are even possible between beings. She poisons both the cat and herself alike, and does so, I think, in solidarity with the experience of “shit” of which Tarr speaks.

For Irimias, it’s best to consider another Tarr/Krasznahorkai creation: the Prince of The Melancholy of Resistance (book) and The Werckmeister Harmonies. The Prince is a creature of pure chaos who speaks in an unintelligible language interpreted by his “agent,” and accumulates a mass of followers that, at his command, go berserk and tear up the town, leading to martial law being imposed and a new regime. In contrast, Irimias does what the existing regime wants, but his own imprint is on the way in which he rips apart the community, thus proving the girl ultimately wrong.

Politically, the film is bleaker than Werckmeister. What I saw as a Burkean influence on that work shifts to the more absolutist perpsective of Hobbes in Satantango. Irimias serves as the sovereign: divested of their cattle and their happiness, they place their trust, their money, and their futures in Irimias’s hands. He offers them nothing in return but their lives, though here it is more metaphorical than in Hobbes. Their existing lives were poisoned and taken from them with the girl’s death, and in sending them on their way, Irimias does give them back some direction. It’s shit, of course, but the townspeople are not observably worse off at the end of the film, post-Irimias, than they were at the start. Like the Prince, Irimias is a chaotic force of change, shoving out the old and heralding the (no better) new.

I say absolute because Hobbes saw the power interchange between the people and the sovereign as the best possible choice to avoid a violent end. The liberal hope, from Locke to Rawls and onward, has been that better options can be created. Tarr’s position in Satantango is that such hopes are entirely false. (The Werckmeister Harmonies is more ambivalent and holds out the possibility of ephemeral beauty.) Beyond that, Tarr portrays this state of affairs as primoridally ontological: there is little sense given of how Irimias came to be or the inner minds of any of the characters. They act out their roles in the same way that the cattle, the spiders, and the scenery do theirs.

The overall effect is brutally powerful, but monochromatic. Tarr has put a grim Hobbesian view of the world on display in as visceral a manner as Godard and Antonioni used with their Marxism. Godard’s films succeed where Antonioni’s fail because Godard’s restless and relentless creativity causes the films to escape from their ideological straitjacket. Tarr is somewhere in between. In The Werckmeister Harmonies, the added element of fantasy provides a gateway out of the narrow political dynamics. The more mundane material of Satantango makes for a film that, for all its intensity and sheer length, cannot seem larger than the world in which it exists.


  1. Hey waggish,

    The Melancholy of Resistance has, to the best of my knowledge, the longest opening sentence in Hungarian literature. The unintelligible language spoken by the Prince is Slovak. No lack of political implications there, either.

  2. “Godard’s films succeed where Antonioni’s fail because Godard’s restless and relentless creativity causes the films to escape from their ideological straitjacket.”

    Whoa! If you are up for a debate on that one contact me.

  3. J. Rosenbaum recently posted an excellent interview with Tarr.

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