IFI programmer Peter Walsh writes about The Turin Horse, this month’s ‘Programmer’s Choice’.
The great Hungarian filmmaker Béla Tarr’s dauntingly rigorous work, with its minimalist settings and incredibly elaborate long takes, is not to everyone’s taste. Yet he is a true visionary and one of the great stylists of post-war European art cinema. His towering masterwork is 1994’s Sátántangó, a seven-and-a-half hour allegory of social disintegration. The Turin Horse is not quite in that league, but it’s still one of Tarr’s finest and at a mere two-and-a-half hours, a relatively comfortable watch. It begins with an anecdote about the 19th century German philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche, who was appalled to witness the whipping of a horse whilst visiting Turin. He tried but failed to save the animal, after which the great man was diagnosed with a serious mental illness that made him speechless for the next eleven years of his life.
Tarr’s film is not exactly about Nietzsche or his trauma. It might be seen as a fictional account of the subsequent experiences of that abused horse, which in the film is owned by a farmer and his daughter who live in abject poverty on the Hungarian plains. This is another of Tarr’s allegories in which human existence is pared down to its barest essentials, with man’s battle against nature assuming apocalyptic dimensions. The weather is relentless, with constant wind and rain, and one wonders how Tarr achieved some of his truly spectacular effects without the use of digital technology, which he abhors.
In terms of narrative, the film simply recounts the gradual decline of the farmer and his daughter as it records their daily routines. Their fate is sealed almost from the start, or at least from the moment their horse refuses to take another single step forward. In dramatic terms, the basic set-up is reminiscent of a Samuel Beckett play, combining as it does elements of reality and abstraction, the serious and the absurd. The qualities that really distinguish a Béla Tarr film, however, are almost exclusively cinematic, and The Turin Horse is no exception. Shot in suitably austere black and white in a mere 30 or so sequence shots by his regular cameraman Fred Kelemen, the film is an extraordinary technical and aesthetic achievement that surpasses everything produced by other gifted contemporary filmmakers, American or European. In this respect, The Turin Horse will probably be best appreciated by other filmmakers, especially directors and cinematographers, who can recognise the artistry involved in mounting the film’s continuous flow of masterful sequences. In reality, though, Tarr’s film was never likely to find due acknowledgement for its amazing achievements. It was awarded a prize at the Berlin Film Festival last year, but frankly it deserved much more, especially since it’s said to be the director’s last work.
Another way of approaching Tarr’s film is to consider it as belonging to a tradition that harks way back to the glory days of silent cinema. The Turin Horse has much in common with some of the masterpieces of silent cinema. Indeed, I’d say it belongs to a privileged little collection of movies—one thinks of Eric von Stroheim’s Greed (1924), of Lev Kuleshov’s Dura Lex (1926), of Victor Sjöstöm’s The Wind (1928)—which capture, with absolute credibility and conviction, the gradual erosion of the human soul by a hostile environment.
This is a slightly expanded version of my coverage of The Turin Horse in an IFI blog piece on the 2011 Berlin’s Film Festival.
The Turin Horse continues exclusively at the IFI from June 1st - 14th. For more information and bookings, please contact our Box Office on 01 679 3477, or visit www.ifi.ie
Watch film trailer here: