Reviews

Satantango

Béla Tarr’s symphony to the possibilities of cinema, his answer to a cold, unfeeling cosmos by transforming the wretchedness of existence into a vision of wonder and beauty.


Satantango

Director: #233;la Tarr
Cast: Mihály Vig, Putyi Horváth, László Lugossy, Éva Almássy Albert, János Derzsi, Irén Szajki, Alfréd Járai, Miklós Székely B., Erzsébet Gaál, Erika Bók
Distributor: Facets
MPAA rating: Unrated
Display Artist: Béla Tarr
First date: 1994
US DVD Release Date: 2008-07-22
“We have some ontological problems and now I think a whole pile of shit is coming from the cosmo.,” -- Béla Tarr interviewed by Fergus Daly and Maximilian Le Cain.

Not surprisingly, most Western audiences are not very familiar with Béla Tarr since his aesthetic and ideological sensibilities strongly grate against the consumer friendly mandates of global capitalism to fashion film, television, and new media as “accessible” and “friendly” as possible for audiences. Unlike the convulsive editing of commercial media that bombards viewers with a host of false promises via installment plan, Tarr’s glacial filmmaking style and incessant focus upon the shit-storm that the cosmos constantly delivers upon us distinctly contradicts Business’s central axiom of always keeping the customer happy. Satantango, a seven-hour film that chronicles through the use of long-take the destruction of a community of peasants, is Tarr’s most explicit rejection of the clichés of commercial cinema.

Of course, the long-take is nothing new to cinema. Its practice can be categorized in one of two camps: the immanent and the transcendental. Its immanent version strips down the image into its most rudimentary and fundamental elements where it confronts the viewer with the harsh practices of daily life. Its practitioners range from Kenji Mizoguchi, Yasujiro Ozu, Jean Renoir to more recently the Dardenee Brothers, Cristian Mungiu, Cristi Puiu, and Michael Haneke. Such filmmaking often rejects the use of non-diegetic music, voice-over, and non-linear narrative as superficial devices that insulate audiences from the brute ambiguities that define all of our actions and appearances. (This style had a strong influence upon the Cohen Brothers’ No Country for Old Men (2007) that also eschews a musical soundtrack and voice-over that would have made Llewelyn Moss’s (Josh Brolin) actions more decipherable).

The transcendental, on the other hand, seizes the image so strongly that it plunges through its literalness straight to the other side into a more abstract vision. The world’s familiarity dissolves under the frame’s pressure to reveal what Werner Herzog once referred to as “the ecstatic truth”, an ineffable moment that lies on the other side of reason and logic. Its practitioners range from Michelangelo Antonioni, Werner Herzog, Carlos Reygadas to, most notably, Andrei Tarkovsky. Such filmmaking often rejects character and narrative development in order to emphasize music, movement, and mise-en-scene, the supposedly more visceral elements of cinema. Tarr fits firmly into this mode of filmmaking.

During interviews, Tarr has emphasized how his films largely reject psychology and story. He states, “We have a story, but I think the story is only a little part of the whole movie. I have to tell you I absolutely hate movies that I can watch at the theatres. They are like comics. They always tell the same story.” Much more important than character and story are music, location, and time, all of which are a distinct nod to Tarkovsky’s definition of cinema as “sculpting in time”.

Tarr’s films tend to sculpt through movement. Either the camera remains still as we watch characters and objects coast through different planes or the lens tracks horizontally over stationary object, buildings, and landscapes, constantly re-sculpting their figures under an ever shifting perspective. One must think of Tarr’s films more along the lines of music than of narrative since a simple plot summary shucks away the countless details that radiate from his filmmaking.

On a superficial level, Satantango (1994) concerns two conmen, Irimias (Mihály Vig) and Petrina (Putyi Horváth), who displace an entire village with the false promises of a utopian farming community in order to steal their money and report their petty thefts and corrupt morals to local authorities. The film has been interpreted allegorically by Peter Hames, viewing “the breakup of the collective farm as the end of Communism and the promises of the false Messiah as the introduction of capitalism,” (“The Melancholy of Resistance”). Although this reading is plausible, it skims over the significance of the film’s post-apocalyptic texture.

In order to properly grasp Satantango, one must first see how it fits into Tarr’s oeuvre. His earliest films, Family Nest (1977), The Outsider (1981), and Prefab People (1982), adhere to a cinema vérité approach, focusing on the downtrodden and poor who are forced to live in substandard conditions due to a ruthlessly indifferent Communist bureaucracy. Frames are cramped with people, buildings, drinking, and sweat as Tarr traverses the nightmare existence that has fallen like spoiled fruit from the Socialist dreams of yesteryear.

Almanac of Fall (1984), as many reviewers have noted, is a transitional film, not only in terms of style where vérité gives way to longer takes and more formal uses of color, but also in its escape from the streets of contemporary Hungary into the more abstract space of the claustrophobic home. Shot entirely indoors, Almanac begins to mark Tarr’s translation of social problems into more existential and ontological terms. No longer do an indifferent government and a lack of housing and money plague the film’s characters but a universal, existential malaise haunts their lives. In place of everyday reality, the cosmos comes into focus.

By the time we get to Damnation (1987), Satantango (1994), and Werckmeister Harmonies (2000), contemporary references have long since been eclipsed by a post-apocalyptic vision where a ravaged earth with rain-rutted mud roads, cloudy skies, and interminable winds dominate over the peasants and scavenging dogs that populate these marginally inhabitable terrains. The end, the films seem to imply, has already happened. What we see before us are the vestiges of a humanity that largely didn’t deserve to exist in the first place. What had begun as an investigation into the causes of misery for the poor has transmogrified into a Kafkaesque parable regarding a dejected “human condition” where hope has long since been supplanted by sadism, self-flagellation, and bitterness.

Tarr’s development as a filmmaker closely parallels that of another famous Eastern European director, Krzystof Kieslowski. During the '70s and '80s, Kieslowski created deeply political films like The Scar (1976), Amateur (1979), and No End (1985), documenting the ways in which human lives were sacrificed by the machinations of Socialism. Although these films were more conventional than Tarr’s early works, they were also more political in the way that they investigated various levels of Communist bureaucracy without dehumanizing those involved in the process; this political concern might have been heightened in part due Kieslowski’s background as a documentary filmmaker.

But by the early ‘90s, Kieslowski had moved away from the brute political realities of Poland to more existential concerns of loss and mourning in France in his Three Colors Trilogy, where a spectacular use of colors, camera movement, and music dominates. But while Kieslowski was making his films more palatable to international audiences and the festival circuit, Tarr has moved in the opposite direction. Despite select critics like Jonathan Rosenbaum and Susan Sontag and filmmakers like Gus Van Sant celebrating Tarr’s works, they remain largely unknown to mainstream audiences due to lack of access to commercial screens and the insufficient training of cinemagoers to understand films that grapple with the visual and musical over narrative.

Despite the misery that populates Satantango’s storyline, the film reveals a certain humanity that nonetheless lurks behind the shadows. In Damnation a character comments upon how “movement speaks, glances that leave the dancer above his daily worries.” Dance is central in Tarr’s films, offering characters a temporary respite from their daily misery, where desire becomes unmoored from habit and briefly connects with its obscure object. Satantango holds a lengthy dance sequence in a bar where the villagers lose themselves in movement whether it be dancing with, fondling, or pushing one another, playing an instrument, harassing a musician, or simply walking back and forth across the room. We also see this in lengthy tracking shots of people walking down streets and across planes. As long as they keep moving, the peasants can ignore who and where they are. This is most dramatically represented by their exodus to found a utopian farming community, in their desperate belief that somewhere beyond the hills, out of sight, lies a better future. Underneath their miserable existence dimly glows the embers of hope that reluctantly acknowledge there must be a better way.

Yet Tarr also employs movement on a stylistic level to expose its alchemy of transforming the literal into the abstract, the ephemeral, the transcendental. During one scene, the camera tracks down a muddy path. Heavy rains spatter, remolding the earth. Winds blow and grey skies swirl. The camera then tracks horizontally. A crooked tree yawns from the jagged landscape. Bleak skies curdle in the distance. Light and dark clash against one another as the earth dissolve into a shimmering mist of movement and light. Through sheer duration, we begin to see the world anew. Somewhere beyond meaning, beyond language, it seizes us. The land transforms into a cipher of another world.

A similar moment occurs when the Doctor (Peter Berling) drunkenly falls down in his study. His obese body lies prostrate, immobile. We hear the sound of rain as the camera slowly tracks in close-up from his face and neck to the ridges in his jacket, their frayed threads, slowly moving until we forget that we are viewing a body at all. A landscape of flesh and cloth lies before us. His heavy breaths punctuating through the rain being the only trace of the human. Another world has opened up in the most claustrophobic of places.

Tarr rejects psychology for a more phenomenological approach. Instead of interpreting characters by conjuring some bogus psychological background to hang upon them, his films insist that we must simply observe their actions and learn, accepting ambiguity over certainty. For example, in one lengthy sequence we observe the Doctor. While sitting at his desk and staring out his window at his neighbors’ houses, he pours out brandy in a glass. He then pours water into another glass. Into a third glass he mixes them and drinks.

When Futaki (Miklós Székely B.) runs from Mrs. Schmidt’s house (Éva Almássy Albert), he shuffles through his pile of notebooks, opening one and writing what he sees. He remains sitting, breathing heavily, every movement underlined by grunts. He repeats his drinking process until Mrs. Kraner (Irén Szajki) enters his house and informs him that she can no longer work for him. After she leaves, he shuffles through more notebooks and then writes down what transpired as well as his belief that something shifty is going on in the town. He repeats his drinking process.

Without any background information, we nonetheless learn that the Doctor parcels out his life through distinct routines. Nothing is left to chance. Even the unexpected moments must be reworked into habit by capturing them within his notebooks. It is a sad life that his drinking attempts to soften but only becomes yet another routine further burying him within his house, in his chair, underneath his belabored breaths.

Watching Satantango is rather like experiencing the reinvention of cinema before your very eyes. Nothing has prepared viewers for the transformative experience that Tarr’s later films provide. Facets provides a remarkable print of the film. Satantango should be viewed on the largest screen possible in order to immerse oneself in the experience.

The DVD offers extras of Tarr’s two-shot television version of MacBeth, often considered another transitional work between his early and later works. Also included is Journey on the Plain, a visit in color to the locations of Satantango, which implicitly reveals the marvelous job Tarr did in transforming the banal countryside into a black-and-white post-apocalyptic world. Satantango is Tarr’s symphony to the possibilities of cinema, his answer to a cold, unfeeling cosmos by transforming the wretchedness of existence into a vision of wonder and beauty.

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