Incessant wind… a dirge of clawing violins on repeat… ’Doom’ on his hands and knees, crawling ever closer with each sunset, along his impending trail of inevitable cataclysm, until finally he reaches the desolate cottage on the Hungarian plains.
Bela Tarr’s finale to his epic film-making career ‘Turin Horse’ is a triumph of Apocalyptic cinema. In the beginning: a black screen and Tarr’s voice narrating a vigil of white text informs us that on 3rd January 1889 in Turin, Friedrich Nietzsche reached out to protect a horse being beaten by its owner, experienced a terminal breakdown and lived a further ‘silent and demented’ 10 years until his death… “We do not know what happened to the horse.”
The Wind Blows Where it Wishes: an elderly man driving his horse and cart, battle through an abrasive gale along a country road, escorted by Mihály Víg’s vulturous score, reminiscent of Philip Glass’s composition for ‘Candyman’, until they finally reach an isolated cottage. A woman steps from the shadows of a barn to help the old man unbridle the horse and lead it to stable and rest. The bait is eaten as we are reeled in by our temptation to find out what happens next…not much and yet so much. No names, no histoire and a minimalist script, Béla Tarr leaves us virtually at the mercy of the mesmerising, monochrome cinematography of Fred Kelemen.
From the unbuttoning and buttoning of tattered clothes, folding of linen and the skinning by hand of hot boiled potatoes to reach the piping flesh; the daughter’s gruelling daily walk to the well in the prophetic wind to fetch water, we watch almost as if in real time 6 days of peasant hardship, grind and repetitive misery, that are the lives of an old man and his daughter in their dark, aged cottage whilst Abaddon rages outside. Tarr’s appreciation of such adversity brings us perhaps as close as we can come to watching how our 19th century peasant forebears lived, and is almost the triumph of the film. In parallel, Tarr’s vision gives us what Van Gogh gave us with ‘The Potato Eaters’ a wish to spare us nothing,
“You see, I really have wanted to make it so that people get the idea that these folk, who are eating their potatoes by the light of their little lamp, have tilled the earth themselves with these hands they are putting in the dish, and so it speaks of manual labor and — that they have thus honestly earned their food. I wanted it to give the idea of a wholly different way of life from ours — civilized people. So I certainly don’t want everyone just to admire it or approve of it without knowing why.”, Vincent Van Gogh, “Letter 497”, The Letters, Van Gogh Museum, Amsterdam.
Almost the triumph of the film, but not quite.
Whilst the camera focuses on a black blizzard of bird-like leaves wheeling through the foreground, the father and daughter leading their horse, their well now empty of water, attempt to escape the world counting down to oblivion. As their tragic out of focus figures wrestle along the distant horizon of a ridge with a single tree, I can feel the gentle breath from Lily’s canine nose on my hand as she lies beside me on the sofa. Like the quiet grace of the ‘horse’, Lily’s reassuring, measured breaths during that bleak scene reinforce the innocence humanity literally holds in its hands, a ‘key point’ of Tarr’s film.
And Darkness was on the Face of the Deep: The triumph of the film is the horse. Her dignity, the majesty with which her whole being seems to say ‘humanity you led us all to this, and now there is not even water to drink’. The horse is our prophet, her intelligence far surpasses ours as she warns us life as we know it is over, that we have lost light and we are now plunging back into the darkness before creation, by man’s hand and Nature’s.
“The key point is that the humanity, all of us, including me, are responsible for destruction of the world. But there is also a force above human at work – the gale blowing throughout the film – that is also destroying the world. So both humanity and a higher force are destroying the world.” Bela Tarr, 2011
Watching ‘Turin Horse’ reminded me of a drawing I did in 2008 after a trip to Kraków, ‘Sindy and the Troika’, which visited a theme I have often explored; fear and transpiration from the approach of a warring army. We were staying in Kazimierz, which was once the heart of Jewish Kraków until the Nazis mercilessly ‘cleared’ the ghetto in WWII, depicted in Steven Spielberg’s film ‘Schindler’s List’, sending most of its Jewish inhabitants to their demise in nearby death camps like Auschwitz.
Kazimierz is now a vibrant art and cafe culture district and it was whilst in one of the many beautiful bars, which include bars like ‘Singer’ furnished with Singer sewing machine tables, that I found inspiration for the drawing. I often contemplate the hellish fear that must overtake people when they are awaiting the onslaught of an enemy army. Documentaries are an audio visual record of this, but sitting in a room, that was originally a ghetto room where probably too many inhabited too few square feet, was sobering even with several Żubrówka‘s sunk accompanied by Polish cigarettes.
The room seemed to have been left just as if its inhabitants had walked out the door to find food, although perhaps they weren’t searching for food, perhaps they had fled from what must almost feel like the invasion of an alien army of super-humans from another planet as their wrath seems beyond that of civilised members of our own species.
The bar owners had decorated the bar with a kitsch vintage tapestry of wolves hunting a man driving a troika. I wondered where the tapestry had come from, I imagined it as the type of possession left by fleeing civilians not just across Poland but Europe – a cottage perhaps where the inhabitants left their favourite tapestry and their children’s toys for the hellfire of the oncoming German army or from fear of retaliation from the Allied Armies.
In the drawing the dishevelled, handless Sindy doll represents the brutality often waged upon civilian populations during war as well as the memories of children at play before fate’s hand led them to their destiny. The tapestry symbolises life preceding war, of a beautiful forest and traditions and landscapes lost forever to war. And like the father and daughter in ‘Turin Horse’, many families met their uncertain fates together.