Three Films by Béla Tarr: ‘Almanac of Fall’, ‘Damnation’ and ‘Satantago’

Here we have another very good work by Facets. I have been praising this publisher a lot, and the reason for this lies in the fact that the DVDs they publish serve educational purposes as well, in the sense that they always include rare extras and booklets that can give new insights both to the non-experts, as well as to the most informed film-buffs.

In this DVD collection, Facets presents three films by the Hungarian filmmaker Béla Tarr, one of the most important contemporary cinematographers. Tarr started working in Hungary during the Communist years and his first films were semi-documentaries elaborating on social problems of the time. Eventually, he developed a quite distinctive style of cinematography, which relies on visual compositions, long-takes and uninterrupted visual sequences. After the end of Communism, Tarr’s reputation expanded beyond the borders of Hungary. His uncompromising personality and his commitment to liberal values have made him a persona no-grata for the current regressive, conservative, nationalist and homophobic government of Viktor Orbán.

Introducing the ‘plot’ of his films to the readers is one of the major challenges one has to face, since Tarr’s films go beyond the conventional story-telling structure. As he says himself, the story in his films is only a small part of the filmmaking process. Unlike mainstream cinema, Tarr’s films do not reduce cinematography to the reproduction of a dramatic story. In many respects, Tarr’s cinema follows the European post-war art-cinema tradition which privileges formal compositions, so as to complicate representation and maximise ambiguity.

“No, we never use the script….we have a story but I think the story is only part of the whole movie. I have to tell you I absolutely hate the movies that I can watch at the theatres. They are like comics. They always tell the same stories. We don’t like these stories because for us every story is always the same old story from the Old Testament. After the Old Testament we have no new stories. We have no news. If you want some news you can watch it on tv or read it in the newspaper.

But movie stories are not new and that’s the reason why we think. ‘Okay the story’s only a part of the movie because the other things, time, rhythm, noises and… music, of course. And we are just trying to find something like a complex or total movie which isn’t only the story. And that’s the reason why we look for the locations, and why we spend so much time location hunting because we have some main characters but the location must be the other main character, as must Time.”

The first film of this collection is Almanac of Fall, a very rare piece which is slightly different compared to Tarr’s recent films. Set exclusively in an apartment, this film has many references to the films of Rainer Werner Fassbinder and to the theatre practice of August Strindberg.

The story takes place in an old woman’s flat living with her son. Due to her illness, she has hired a young nurse who starts a sexual relationship with one of the tenants. The fifth resident of the flat is a teacher. In the course of the narrative, the nurse will end up sleeping with all the men residing in the house. Her sexual relationships will cause a number of events which will change the power dynamics within the apartment.

This is one of the few films by Tarr which is shot in colour. Excessive mise-en-scène prevails over story-development and the director manages brilliantly to politicise the narrative without bringing a political subject matter tout court. Instead, he brings to the surface the politics of spatiality, putting forward the conjuncture that human relationships are spatial relationships. Jeremy Heilman suggests that ‘the familial espionage that ensues contains an intrinsic social critique, since it looks at society’s most fundamental building block, the family unit. Throughout, Tarr seems exasperated by the capacity of each to believe that they are justified in their machinations, and in his inability to accept their individual actions, he seems to express disgust and outrage for all society’.

Almanac of Fall (1983)

Then again, Tarr respects his characters despite their weaknesses. The second film, Damnation, is again a story which involves characters who seek ways to get out of despair. The main character, Karrer lives on the margins of society spending most of his evenings at a cheap bar. When he is offered a smuggling job by the bar owner he passes it to Sebestyen, the husband of the singer at the bar he frequents. He ends up sleeping with the singer and falling in love with her.

Unlike him, the woman is not in love and on her husband’s return a quarrel between the two men ensues. Again, sex is presented as an act which heightens oppression, rather than a liberating one. Tarr debunks western clichés that love is the key to liberation and here he follows Fassbinder, showing sex and love to be means of social oppression. Long takes and emphasis on humdrum details that are normally eliminated in conventional narratives predominate.

Damnation (1987)

Tarr is very much concerned with getting closer to people and society by focusing on aspects of life that might have no dramatic intensity. His realism is a very distinctive type of realism, since he seems to be interested in the dialectic between concrete reality and fiction, something which has no connection with the clichés of dramatic realism.

The last film, Satantango, has perhaps the most complex narrative, simply because the basic story can be summarised in three sentences, despite the fact that the film lasts seven hours! It’s one of the boldest cinematic experiments in the history of cinema. Satantango is about a collective farm in a village which is taken by Irimias and Petrina, who appear as the contemporary Messiahs, only to cheat people out of their money and their hopes. Again, formal experimentation, such as uninterrupted time images predominate over cause and effect narration.

The film also includes a dance-scene in the village’s bar, which is one of the most fascinating scenes in the history of cinema. What merits our attention when discussing Tarr’s films is the fact that he returns to the origins of the European art cinema tradition and this return is an act of resistance. In a period that cinema accelerates editing and prioritises pointless visual effects that oversimplify the narrative, Tarr downplays story-development in favour of a formal abstraction, which forces the audience to respond and reflect on the material on screen, rather than consuming it.

The DVDs are accompanied by three booklets which introduce Tarr’s cinema. The extras include interviews with Tarr, and a very rare DVD of Tarr’s version of Macbeth which was produced by Hungarian television. This set is certainly a must purchase for all the fans of European art cinema, as well as for film scholars.

RATING 9 / 10