Sátántangó (1994) (courtesy of Arbelos Films)

Hungarian Drama ‘Sátántangó’ Wants To Make Viewers Uncomfortable

Is there an artwork that better evokes the grim feeling of the current state of the world than Hungarian drama, Sátántangó?

Béla Tarr
10 November 2020

Hungarian drama Sátántangó wants to slow viewers down. It sits us in disquiet, meditates us in unpalatable feelings we’d rather escape, and agitates our composure with the soft prickling of whatever guilt exists within. It’s a radical and abrasive film, but not at all in the way provocative cinema often is—in fact, the opposite: it’s sluggish, somnolent, even uneventful in ways that tend to make us restless and annoyed.

We typically want films to constantly engage viewers, to press us forward, and give us the comforting illusion of being acted (and reacted) upon. Sátántangó denies viewers this impulse through its merciless slow pace and sweeping ambiguity. If we’ve learned anything in our current states of lockdown, quarantine, and social distancing, it’s that many of us don’t know what to do when we’re forced to sit still.

Sátántangó, Hungarian director Béla Tarr‘s monumental near seven-and-a-half hour epic of cataclysmic isolation and hopelessness, is about a tiny village struggling, in the wake of the destruction of their communal agrarian life, to root themselves elsewhere as they’re jostled around by various authoritative forces that secretly seek to exploit them. Stylistically, the film confronts us with meandering long takes—such as the famous six-and-a-half-minute opening shot of a herd of cattle wandering through the deserted village—and bleak imagery, like another infamous scene of Estike (Erika Bók), a young girl, torturing and eventually poisoning a cat.

Thematically, the film examines loneliness, indifference, and collectivism versus individualism using the relentless treachery of several selfish and deplorable characters who are all aimlessly searching for purpose. No one could accuse Sátántangó of being an easy watch. But if we expect cinema to express the full scope of human emotion and experience, then Sátántangó is an essential extreme.

After all, is there an artwork that better evokes the grim feeling of the current state of the world than Sátántangó? Once they’ve all but severed ties to their stable community environment, its characters become pathologically resentful and distrustful of each other. Schmidt (László feLugossy) plots to rob the last of the farm’s money, while Futaki (Miklós Székely B.) and Schmidt’s wife (Éva Almássy Albert) have an illicit affair. Estike’s brother (András Bodnár) cons her out of what little money she has, and the drunk and belligerent village doctor (Peter Berling) treats her harshly when she later pleads for help. Thrust into esteem by the desperate villagers, Irimiás (Mihály Víg) slyly defrauds them.

Indeed, Sátántangó shows us a world rather like our own: a world without urgency, except when it concerns pursuits of self-gratification, and a world without contemplation, except where it can be utilized to exploit others. In Sátántangó, everything of meaning is stifled and everything of value is corrupted. Where we might expect significance, we instead receive nothing.

Sátántangó is recognized as one of the preeminent works of slow cinema, which is itself an innately subversive style. It reminds us that life is always happening, in and out of motion, even in brooding silence and boredom. It’s a shock to the normal speed of modern life; cinema demands an audience that exists at its pace, and general audiences are often uncomfortable with silence, inactivity, and meaninglessness.

Commercial cinema that drags its viewers through overcomplicated stories and setpieces has ingrained in filmgoers desperation for the sleek simplicity of meaning, in which every action and thought is precisely connected to another—motivations spelled out, intent neatly followed by movement in its direction. In contrast to today’s methods of cinematic curation through the use of data-driven algorithms, which aim to make the audience as comfortable as possible, as efficiently as possible, with familiar stars and filmmaking styles that tell us that there are infinite comforts and pleasures in the status quo, Sátántangó (and slow films like it) makes us uneasy in stasis.

Sátántangó communicates a brooding interiority rarely seen on-screen, but that doesn’t mean it totally abandons the straightforward appeal of external signifiers. Tarr, in fact, typically renders the spiritual and psychological deterioration of the human soul visually through characteristic bleak, deserted environments. In Werckmeister Harmonies (2000), it takes the shape of a giant dead whale in the middle of the town square; in The Turin Horse (2011), it’s imbued in a ceaseless windstorm impeding all attempts by the characters to just survive. Sátántangó, to similar effect, is battered by rain and wind, caked in mud, powdered with frost, and buffeted by debris.

There are many minutes-long shots of characters trudging through their bleak environs: the Doctor slipping and Estike writhing in the black mud, Irimiás and others strolling dead streets lined with loose trash tossed by the wind, the villagers’ nomadic passage during an angry rainstorm. Sátántangó‘s lived-in chaos is always preventing progress, undermining safety, and eradicating peace. Humanity is a poison in Tarr’s films—human avarice explodes at an apocalyptic scale, bleeding from the soil and rotting the air—and their toxic wastelands reflect the tortured ghosts who haunt them.

But for Tarr, despair must not always be portrayed as an active and volatile force vibrating in some perpetual inertia when it is so often sedate, sober, and quiet, more depressive than propulsive, and hidden from view. The sins and vices of Sátántangó‘s world are wordless, nameless conditions of angst. There’s no clear explanation for why Tarr lingers on shots of the drunk villagers brooding in the local pub, or of characters in anxious states of indifference to each other, except that life itself looks that way sometimes. 

Tarr has said, “I despise stories. They mislead people into believing something has happened. In fact, nothing really happens as we flee from one condition to another.” Never before have we had to consider the rate at which nothing happens more than now, inundated as we are with vast social crises, political upheavals, and scientific catastrophes that no one seems particularly willing to do anything about.

Sátántangó’s political perspective is enigmatic and amorphous. Still, in this time, in this place, it feels like an antidote to the neoliberal doctrine of hope, of blind faith in capitalist republicanism to save us from capitalist authoritarianism, of the irrational optimism that the investment of money and power in the right hands will bring prosperity and security to us all eventually—if we wait. Sátántangó quite literally forces us to wait. It shows us exactly what’s at the end of all that waiting.

The latter half of the film follows the charismatic Irimiás’s schemes to lead the villagers into his trap: propositioning them into a fresh start within a new farming community that Irimiás will use to siphon away their money. This is history on a small scale, in which entire swaths of society are swept into deadly games by authoritarians, despots, and oligarchs senselessly herded to some unknown oblivion like the cattle at the beginning of the film. For Sátántangó‘s characters, there can be no salvation in other people when they are exploited like this (and still so willing to be). Theirs is a world forever without change, without revolution—and it’s a very familiar one indeed.

Arbelos Films’ long-awaited Blu-ray edition of Sátántangó is the film’s first appearance on a home video format in HD in the US, and its clean presentation (including a new and improved subtitle translation) is now easily the best way to see the film outside of the theater. The release comes with only a few (honestly fairly middling) special features, but the newly restored film alone is more than worth the price of admission.

Fans will likely be interested in the 20-minute on-stage interview with Tarr from 2007, in which the director discusses working in collaboration with novelist László Krasznahorkai, the films’s themes and structure, and the importance of its rural locations. It’s by no means a comprehensive look into the film’s conception or production—and it’s probably the weakest program on the release—but it’s worth watching.

“Orders of Time and Motion”, a new video essay by director Kevin B. Lee, delves into how the film’s use of long takes, repetition, and perspective facilitates its messaging using famous scenes like the walk of the cows and the pub dance as examples of how Tarr explores ritual, power, and perception. It’s a smart and slickly produced examination of many of the film’s ideas.

Finally, the Blu-ray set includes an exhaustive new interview with Mihály Víg, in which the actor/composer talks about his life and career in detail, including his history with rock, classical, and folk music, his connections to cinema and theater, and his unique working relationship with Tarr. This is a surprisingly rich discussion that anyone interested in the filmmaking and music culture of Víg and Tarr’s generation in Hungary will find informative.

Although the new and original material is greatly appreciated, the supplemental material won’t be enough to prompt anyone to grab this release who wasn’t already planning on it. Still, with Sátántangó finally getting a technical upgrade of this scale and quality, it really doesn’t need to. This is an iconic but underseen (and previously somewhat difficult to access) masterpiece. With a home video release like this, there are fewer barriers than ever for those who want to watch it as it was meant to be seen.