Only Their Breathing
“Hey you.” The screen is black, as Ohlsdorfer (János Derzsi) call out to his daughter (Erika Bók) from across the cottage they share in wildest, most barren Hungary. It’s dark night, and the wind howls outside. “I can’t hear them, can you?” the father asks. She has no idea what he means. The wind persists. “The woodworms, they’re not doing it. I’ve heard them for past 58 years. Now I don’t hear them.” The daughter calls back, “What’s all about, papa?” He answers, “I don’t know. Let’s go to sleep.”
This brief conversation is the longest you’ll hear in The Turin Horse (A Torinói ló), the movie that Béla Tarr has called his last. More often, Ohlsdorfer and his daughter have little to say to one another, or to the horse that draws the cab with which he makes his living. They worry when that horse refuses to go out into the wind, they worry when the lights go out. And they worry too when the well runs dry. But they don’t talk about it.
Their silence speaks to this gorgeously black-and-white film’s focus on hardship and brutality, survival and exhaustion. The people are surely weary: it takes long minutes to walk from the barn to the cottage, to the well and the laundry line, bent against the wind that increases in velocity and noise over the six days that comprise the film. Inside, they sit, on their beds, at the thick wooden table where they eat boiled potatoes out of hammered metal bowls, sometimes on a chair set to look out the window.
Their view from inside is bleak, a far-off horizon where tree branches shake and dust blows, framed by a heavy, paned window, while the interior hardly seems safer or warmer, only less windy and darker. Inside and out, the steadicam is restless, tracking the horse heaving against its harness, swooping across the dry ground and around Ohlsdorfer’s daughter as she makes her way to the well and fills buckets one by one, or following her from stove to table, from table to water tub. Every task is a journey.
Occasionally the camera stays still, as when Ohlsdorfer’s daughter wakes each morning and dresses her father: she puts on his trousers, his short, his coat and his boots. Shot from different angles on subsequent days, this ritual has a weird sort of weight, in its repetition, its awkwardness, and in Ohlsdorfer’s awful expression, gazing at his daughter with what might be affection but looks more like bewilderment, or imbecility, or something some base desire. Their relationship doesn’t take much of a shape in The Turin Horse, though it’s clear enough their lives are furiously, hopelessly intertwined. It’s also clear enough that when the horse refuses to work—and the storm builds—those may be at more risk than usual.
The horse is the film’s philosophical and narrative point of departure, as well as the first subject on screen. The story is inspired by one about Friedrich Nietzsche, spoken by a narrator at the film’s start, over a black screen. One day in 1889 in Turin, he came upon a cabdriver whipping his horse, flung his arms around the horse’s neck and sobbed, and then was returned to his home, where he spoke “the obligatory last words, ‘Mutter, ich bin dumm.’” He then lapsed into dementia, the story goes, and was cared for over the next 10 years by his mother and sister.
The film’s version of this story serves as a prologue that ends with something like a question, that no one knows what became of the horse. But neither does the story tell what happened to the mother and sister, only that they did what mothers and sisters do. The Turin Horse imagines the cab driver’s abuse of his horse as a portent or (or at least a plot event before) apocryphal events. The film’s numbered days become darker, windier, more difficult. Amid these changes, Ohlsdorfer and his daughter are incidental, elements in a landscape, unable to affect it or their fate, no matter their puny efforts to maintain routine, perhaps the most alarming sign of their so-called civilization.
This routine is most visible in the nameless daughter’s experience. Her skirts blowing in the wind, her movements limited, her eyes dark and disenchanted, she’s at once resilient and acquiescent, tending to her father’s needs as well as the horse’s, at once relentless and resigned. Her face, wide and lined and deeply shadowed, reflects the days stretching before her.