Written by: László Krasznahorkai & Béla Tarr.
Starring: János Derzsi (Ohlsdorfer), Erika Bók (Ohlsdorfer's daughter), Mihály Kormos (Bernhard).
One of the gaps in my cinematic knowledge has always been Bela Tarr. Despite having made some highly acclaimed films – including Damnation, Sanantango, Werckmeister Harmonies and The Man from London (featuring on my favorite actress – Tilda Swinton), I have somehow managed never to see one of his films. I have always meant to, but for whatever reason, just never have. Apparently his most recent film, The Turin Horse, will be his last – even though he’s not yet 60, he has decided to walk away. We’ll see if that happens or not – but on the basis of this film, I hope it’s not true. I am now more convinced than ever that I need to see some of his earlier films – The Turin Horse is a masterfully made film, entrancing, fascinating, almost impenetrable. I am sure that many – perhaps even most – audience members would hate the film. It is slow, not deliberately paced which is a critical euphemism for slow, but really slow. Not a whole lot happens in the film. There is little to no dialogue, and the one time someone opens their mouth and delivers a long speech, it is promptly dismissed as bullshit by the main character. It is about the long, slow march to death – to nothingness. Perhaps it’s just the characters in this movie that are doomed, but perhaps it’s the world at large. For this movie, they amount to the same thing.
The movie opens with a narrator telling us a story of Frederic Nietzsche, who one day walked outside his Turin apartment, saw a cab driver abusing his horse, and this was the last straw for him before he retreated into syphilitic madness to live out the rest of his days. Of the horse, the narrator informs us, we know nothing. That this movie is about a man and his horse doesn’t necessarily mean that it meant to be the same horse Nietzsche saw – there is nothing in the movie that even suggests that we are in Italy – it looks much more like Tarr’s own Hungary – but the story is still relevant to the movie. Because what we see may just be the last straw before madness – or nothingness – as well.
The movie opens with a long shot showing Ohlsdorfer, the main character, driving his horse back from town. The camera keeps the horse, and the work he is doing to pull Ohlsdorfer and his cart. The shot goes on for minutes on end, working, straining. When they finally reach home, Ohlsdorfer puts the horse in the barn – at which point, the horse will completely give up. He will refuse to work, refuse to eat or drink, for the rest of the movie. Meanwhile Ohlsdorfer and his daughter subsist on a paltry diet of one potato, and a kind of brandy. Tarr repeats the routines of these two – the preparation of the meals, the daughter trying to feed to horse, or going to the well to get water – which one morning, she discovers has run completely dry – and one or both of them just staring out the window at the nothingness around them. They are visited twice – first by a neighbor, who informs them the nearby town has just “blown away”, and he is the one who goes on the long rant about the world, that the father dismisses as bullshit. And once by a group of gypsys, who leave behind a religious pamphlet that the daughter reads aloud from when they leave.
What does The Turin Horse mean? The movie resists easy interpretations because there is not much dialogue, and when there is, it is quickly dismissed. Is this the end of the world? It may well be. Why else does the well run dry? Why else does the horse refuse to the move? Why else do the father and daughter turn around and return to their farm after they determined they had to leave. The camera in that scene shows father, daughter and horse walk over a hill, and then a few minutes later return. What made them turn back? Tarr never says.
I found myself transfixed by the movie, despite the slow pace and despite the lack of dialogue. I tried, for two and a half hours, to figure out what it was all about, and never quite did. Although their styles are very different, I was reminded of the work of Andrei Tarkovsky while watching this film – because of the slow pace and the way their work resists those easy interpretations. Neither director does all the work for the audience – you have to do a lot of it yourself. And yet, Tarr also warned in interviews not to try and read some profound statement in The Turin Horse – keep it simple was his advice.
I was reminded of Tarkovsky in another way to – in that I admired the film more than I actually loved it. Tarr is a master filmmaker – and the black and white cinematography of the movie is brilliant, as is his control, his lack of editing. It is a brilliant movie in many ways, and yet I never quite loved it. To a certain audience, The Turin Horse will be the best film of the year. To some, it will be the worst. To me, I admired the film so much, that even if I didn’t quite love the film, I have to admit, you will not see many films more challenging this year.