End of Days
by Nathan Dunne
Béla Tarr at the EYE Museum in Amsterdam
After the release of The Turin Horse in 2011, a Nietzsche-inspired drama about the end of days, Béla Tarr vowed to make no more films. While the exhibition at Amsterdam’s EYE Museum doesn’t contain a new feature-length work, it does include a new short film. As a whole, the installation is a stirring theatrical environment which acts as an addendum to Tarr’s oeuvre. Titled Till the End of the World, it is a kind of loose retrospective, where scenes from his films are interspersed throughout an austere gallery setting.
Entering the exhibition, there is the squeal of a horse-drawn cart mixed with the low howl of a gale, where fans blow leaves across the floor below a tree that casts a forbidding shadow. In the second room the tree gives way to barbed wire and Hungary’s border sign, a symbol of the European conservatism so abhorred by the director: “I am one of the most radical filmmakers. I am a very strong leftist.” Carnage in the Middle East and hostile encounters with border guards play out on several screens, and there is a wooden table adorned with a bowl of potatoes that featured in The Turin Horse; above this is a scene from the film where a character rants about the failure of civilization.
The explicit reason that has brought Tarr out of retirement is anger at how the West has reacted to Europe’s refugee crisis. He has been critical of Viktor Orbán’s government for building a fence to keep migrants out of Hungary and has said that it is shameful of the country to be the first in Europe to do so, leading other countries via callous example. At the entrance of the exhibition a 2016 speech given by Tarr has been reproduced as wall-text; it was previously read out by theater director Árpád Schilling at a pro-migrant demonstration in front of the Hungarian Parliament. The speech is a blistering attack on nationalist policies and the lack of human dignity afforded to refugees by the state: “We have brought the planet to the brink of catastrophe with our greediness and our unlimited ignorance.”
Born in Hungary, Tarr came to filmmaking during the 1970s when he attended the Béla Balázs studios in Budapest, joining a group of directors who were committed to stripping away artifice and showing working-class life in raw detail. The group’s principles included the use of non-professional actors and a pre-planned storyboard combined with improvised dialogue and the use of handheld cameras. After several early films, he grew enamored with the kind of European cinema developed by Jean-Luc Godard and Rainer Werner Fassbinder, with its interest in metaphysics and form. A key moment in his career came in 1984 when he began collaborating with the writer László Krasznahorkai, with whom he made all his subsequent features, including Damnation (1988), the seven-hour epic Sátántango (1994), and Werckmeister Harmonies (2000). The formal innovation of Tarr’s long takes was informed by the long, winding sentences of Krasznahorkai’s novels, which have peculiar chapter breaks and punctuation. The subject matter of Krasznahorkai’s novels, with their close attention to the life of working people, also had a significant impact on how Tarr envisioned his characters on screen.
Although he has been a cult figure since the 1970s, it was only in the 2000s that he began to reach a wider audience, with the U.K.’s Artificial Eye releasing his films on DVD and Susan Sontag declaring of Sátántango: “Devastating, enthralling for every minute of its seven hours. I’d be glad to see it every year for the rest of my life.”
The Turin Horse has the most in common with the exhibition, which borrows not only the table used in the film but also its pre-apocalyptic worldview. The first and last scenes of the film end in darkness, causing James Quandt to declare on its release: “Of all contemporary filmmakers, Tarr is the one most acquainted with the night, the cosmic desolation he infers from the vileness of humanity.” One of the ways Tarr achieved this intimacy with the night was through the film’s interior lighting scheme, which included dimmer boards and dozens of fixed tiny lights, a practice used in theatrical stage lighting.
As reproduced in the exhibition, the film features a fierce gale that blows across the lonely steppe, beating on the barn and house where a hardworking daughter and her disabled father live in Spartan exile. Out of the darkness a voiceover rises, narrating how in 1889 Nietzsche saw a driver whipping his horse and was so internally broken by the scene that he succumbed to madness. Although the film never casts Nietzsche as a character himself, the philosopher’s notion of a senseless and illogical world pervades the characters’ isolated predicament. The structure of the film takes place over six days during which the daughter and her father carry out an austere set of tasks, fetching water, dressing slowly, and eating boiled potatoes. (Tarr has said that the film’s emphasis on potatoes was inspired by the bruised colors of Van Gogh’s The Potato Eaters .) The horse of the title carries the pair over the steppe as they perform their daily routine, and acts in much the same way as the donkey in Robert Bresson’s Au hasard Balthazar (1966), which stands in for the characters’ suffering. The rough conditions on the steppe underscore the visceral simplicity of how the father and daughter live and interact: as in many of Tarr’s films there is a deep connection between the natural world and the psychology of his characters. Furthermore, in the context of the exhibition, the film takes on a new political edge where the austerity of the characters lives are seen not of their own choosing, but the result of larger forces of capital and state corruption.
Perhaps the most stirring part of Till the End of the World is its finale: the room that shows the short film Tarr made especially for the exhibition. It was shot in Sarajevo, where the director lives for part of the year, and features the close-up of a young boy named Muhamed, who was discovered playing accordion in the street by Tarr’s cameraman Fred Kelemen. Muhamed’s youthful face, with his large eyes and wide brow, has a timeless quality and could easily have featured in The Turin Horse itself. As the camera recedes from Muhamed’s face it is revealed that he is sitting in a shopping mall. The contrast between the sounds of the antiquated accordion and the modern mall show the boy as an in-betweener, trapped among the forces of capitalism and greed. The film is a damning critique of a world gone wrong, and although Tarr has consistently denied that his work conveys any symbolic meaning—“Film is always something definite; it can only record real things”—it is impossible not to read Muhamed’s plight as a symbol of the West’s attitude to the refugee crisis. Till the End of the World reveals just how vital Tarr’s voice has been to contemporary filmmaking and the incredible loss felt in his retirement. Perhaps in the response to this exhibition, he can be convinced to start working again.
Béla Tarr – Till the End of the World is on view at the EYE Museum, Amsterdam through May 7.
NATHAN DUNNE is the author of Lichtenstein and the editor of the essay collection Tarkovsky. He has written for The Atlantic, Times Literary Supplement, Aeon and Artforum.