Hungarian Master Béla Tarr’s Austere, Atmospheric Masterpiece: ‘The Man from London’

It would be an understatement to say that Hungarian director Béla Tarr has never been one to care about his films’ commercial prospects. Since the late ’70s, he’s been making films that stubbornly ignore even the most token marketplace considerations — Satantango, the seven-hour epic that many consider to be his masterpiece, notoriously opens with a silent shot of a herd of cows that lasts for eight solid minutes.

He’s among the last of a certain kind of filmmaker: the Uncompromisingly-Intellectual European Arthouse Director, making Serious Art Films. He’s one of a truly dying breed, doggedly continuing to make the kind of films that characters in Seinfeld episodes and Woody Allen movies are referring to when they use the term ”foreign film”: slow, depressing black and white stories about sad people in decrepit European villages.

It might sound surprising, the,n to hear that his 2007 film The Man from London, now making its long-overdue DVD debut in the US, was adapted from a thriller of the same name by crime writer Georges Simenon. Could this be his big attempt at a mainstream breakthrough with a gritty crime story? Fortunately no, but it’s still a magnificent masterpiece from one of the cinema’s most original and uncompromising masters.

Tarr’s films are in a class of their own. Although his characteristic style can be polarizing (and easily parodied), his films are like nothing else in cinema: austere, atmospheric allegories that explore man’s place in a chaotic universe and ooze a deeply unsettling sense of creeping dread that would make even David Lynch squirm in his seat. Each one is constructed almost entirely from extremely long, unbroken single-take shots that often last ten minutes or more. (Before the advent of digital video, Tarr once quipped that the 11-minute reel of Kodak film stock was the worst form of censorship.)

The Man from London is no different — its entire 140-minute running time features only 29 cuts. This means that you don’t ”watch” a Béla Tarr film so much as you let it slowly envelop you like some kind of cinematic fog. To say his films are slow is like saying Guernica is a picture of a horse. Even calling the pacing ”stately” might still overshoot the mark a bit. His films seem to progress at the speed of geology, like stalagmites forming drip by drip on a cave floor, frequently lingering on shots of silent landscapes, animals, or faces. It all has the effect of putting the viewer in a receptive, dreamlike fugue state, filling even the simplest tableau or banal situation with oceans of meaning.

Consider the opening shot of The Man from London, for example. Tarr has always had a knack for memorable opening scenes — his apocalyptic allegory Werckmeister Harmonies begins with a surreally poetic sequence wherein a group of geriatric barflies are made to re-create the orbits of the heavenly bodies via a slow, shuffling waltz in a dim bar. The Man from London nearly tops them all with a mesmerizing first shot that begins with nothing more than a close-up of waves lapping the hull of a docked ship. Half of it is enshrouded in darkness, and as ominous musical chords echo on the soundtrack like distant foghorns (composed by frequent Tarr collaborator Mihály Vig), the roman-numeral depth markings just above the ship’s waterline begin to look almost like cryptic occult symbols.

Slowly, in a move that takes almost five minutes, the camera pans upward, tracking up the prow of the ship like an immense metal landscape. By the time we reach the top of the ship it seems to be something out of a nightmare, with the malevolent air of an otherworldly visitation, as if it’s risen up out of the black water of its own accord. This is Tarr’s genius: he’s kept us glued to the screen and on the edge of our seats for five full minutes when all we’ve really done is look at a motionless ship. But just by asking us to look with fresh eyes, he reveals a whole hidden world. He certainly demands patience from his audiences, but anyone willing to enter into his strange world with an open mind will find that patience rewarded with a cinematic experience unlike any other.

The plot of The Man from London, such as it is, concerns two men who step off the ship in that first scene. Some mysterious words are spoken, a suitcase is exchanged, and minutes later, one of them is dead. The suitcase falls into the hands of Maloin (Miroslav Krobot), a lonely railyard signalman who had been silently observing them from his tower overlooking the docks. When Maloin opens the suitcase he finds it stuffed with money. It’s a discovery that throws his entire life off course. Where previously he had been silently trudging through a monotonous life of grinding poverty with the weary air of a pack animal, his secret windfall suddenly leaves him with toxic feelings of guilt and temptation that he seems unequipped to grapple with.

When an inspector (István Lénárt) arrives in search the missing funds, Maloin’s secret becomes almost unbearable. Following standard noir conventions, Maloin’s previously ordered life begins to fray as the inspector draws ever closer to the truth, while his long-suffering wife (Tilda Swinton) and daughter (Satantango‘s Erika Bók) each notice the strain on him in different ways. It has all the trappings of a tightly-wound thriller, but Tarr has very consciously stripped it of any remotely “thrilling” elements. Even in the finalé, what would in other films be a dramatic confrontation between the two main adversaries instead takes place unseen behind a locked door shown in a silent, static shot, leaving us to dwell on what we know is happening but can’t see.

Taken as a whole, The Man from London is a nightmarish existential exploration of fatalism, morality, and temptation, but nevertheless not without a few kernels of hope buried at key points throughout. Although as a director Tarr clearly comes from the Bresson and Hitchcock school of considering actors as simply living props, the performances of the international ensemble cast are nevertheless striking, particularly Krobot in the lead and Swinton as his wife, who is stunning in her brief scenes. And although the multilingual cast is victimized by some particularly poor dialogue dubbing, in a sense it can be thought of as adding to the surreal atmosphere of dislocation and alienation that permeates the film.

The immaculately-choreographed Steadicam work by genius cinematographer Fred Kelemen is visually entrancing as the camera languidly glides around rooms and down narrow streets, almost constantly in motion, if sometimes imperceptibly. Filmed in rich, vivid black and white, the entire film is a sumptuous visual experience, and virtually every shot is a painterly composition suitable for framing on a gallery wall. Although the DVD from Zeitgeist Films features no extras, it bears mentioning that the transfer looks absolutely stunning — the richness of the deep inky blacks and soft grays is beautiful, and cries out to be viewed on the biggest screen possible.

The Man from London may prove to be one of Tarr’s final statements — he claims to have retired after the release of his latest film The Turin Horse last year. And although it’s not quite on the level of his previous masterworks, not unlike Tree of Life its very existence in the face of such a hostile commercial and financial environment for truly demanding films such as these is a triumph in and of itself, and Zeitgeist is truly fighting the good fight by bringing it to a wider audience. And for those viewers unfamiliar with Tarr’s films, The Man from London is as good a place as any to begin exploring the work of one of cinema’s most unique and masterful auteurs.

RATING 8 / 10