EYE Filmmuseum, Amsterdam
January 21 – May 7, 2017
Is it possible to make a satisfactory museum exhibition comprised of not much more than film clips? This is what curator Jaap Guldemond has done in collaboration with the renowned Hungarian filmmaker Béla Tarr. Tarr’s career has spanned the momentous changes that swept eastern Europe since the late 1980s. His accounts of social dysfunction and moral gloom are unsparingly bleak. His mastery of the long take rivals that of the late Chantal Akerman.
Tarr’s is a black and white world in which depressed and deprived people perform rituals of seemingly unending self-abasement, often in driving rain. A pre-adolescent girl strides purposefully yet stumblingly towards the ever-retreating camera, staring uncompromisingly into the lens, marching through day and night, carrying the cat she has killed. This sequence from Tarr’s seven-and-a-half hour long 1994 movie, Sátántangó (Satantango), is projected in the same gallery as a sequence from Werckmeister harmóniák(Werckmeister Harmonies), 2000, in which two young boys refuse to go to bed and enact their own disruptive and obsessive ritual of clanging pan lids, jumping on the bed, and threatening their father with a stick.
Tarr’s socially deprived characters express homespun Nietzschean nostrums, as when a shaven-headed man braves a furious wind to come to a father and daughter’s cabin to ask them to refill his bottle with pálinka, a strong Hungarian brandy. Seated at their rough-hewn table—the same table in the gallery at which visitors sit to watch—he delivers a monolog on never-ending strife, the death of all gods, and the hopelessness of existence. This sequence is from A torinói ló (The Turin Horse), 2011, Tarr’s last completed feature film. Tarr’s inspiration was the famous incident when Friedrich Nietzsche witnessed the maltreatment of a horse, which is said to have triggered his final descent into insanity.
Tarr’s characters also model the universe, as when at closing time in a bleak village bar, a young man organizes his fellow drinkers to enact a solar eclipse, playing the roles of the sun, moon, and planets, as a swaying, dancing human orrery (Werckmeister Harmonies). These are “simple people,” as the protagonist in the eclipse scene describes his companions. They oscillate between states of impassivity and sheer awkwardness, with outbreaks of angry determination, as when a crowd of men, many armed with staves, marches down a nighttime street in a sequence from Werckmeister Harmonies. Yet for all their bewilderment, these are people with inner lives that Tarr seeks to capture through bathetic monologs, and monotonous actions.
To reach these screened cinematic extracts in which the fictional figures are all, in their various ways, waiting for the Hungarian equivalent of Godot, visitors must pass through two galleries each containing an installation specially contrived by Tarr for the exhibition. One contains a dead tree from which all the leaves have been blown to swirl around the darkened gallery, animated by large roaring fans. Immediately preceding this Beckettian scene is the opening installation, Fence. Flanking fences of frontier razor wire lead the visitor through a border zone to a screen showing horrifying news footage of fighting, bombardment, and rescue attempts from rubble shot recently by journalists in Syria. The desperate refugees to whom Hungary closed its borders are the real, contemporary counterparts of Tarr’s movie characters. In the final gallery, we see one such figure in a sequence made specially for the exhibition, titled Muhamed (2016). A young boy in a shopping mall mournfully plays Arab melodies on an accordion while staring at the camera—again in black and white. Muhamed occupies an ambiguous position between fact and fiction, his stare daring us to deny the actuality of his predicament.
The thirteen film sequences—twelve from Tarr’s movies made between 1988 and 2011, plus the specially shot Muhamed—and the two opening installations, certainly make a compelling exhibition, skillfully and variously installed so as not to appear monotonous. Much, of course, depends on Tarr’s directorial skill as a cinematic auteur, but others deserve credit, too. Not least among them are the various cinematographers with whom Tarr has worked, most consistently Gábor Medvigy, screenwriter László Krasznahorkai, and the composer, Mihály Víg.
One sequence stands out for its lucidity and delicacy, and its escape from the long cinematic shadows of Akira Kurosawa and Andrei Tarkovsky. This is a segment titled Prológus (Prologue) from an anthology film, Visions of Europe (2004). The camera tracks slowly along the heads and shoulders of men and women standing two or three deep in a line against a building. When the camera reaches a window, it opens, and from it a young woman dispenses a plastic cup of soup and a plastic bag containing two small rolls of bread to each person in the line as he or she shuffles past. She has an embarrassed smile and word for all. There follows a list of names: that of the young woman followed by those in the line, each an individual, each with an inner life, however downcast. The delicacy and pathos of these five minutes of film derive as much from the superlative cinematography of the great Dutch master, Robby Müller as they do from the quiet patience of the performers, under the direction of Béla Tarr. Yet this exhibition is truly one of Tarr’s own vision spanning the last thirty years of his career, and Jaap Guldemond and his colleagues at EYE Filmmuseum have been fully vindicated in their decision to present Tarr’s work in this form.
Ivan Gaskell is professor and head of the Focus Project at the Bard Graduate Center in New York City.