The title of this film refers to the detail of philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche's biography that has him collapsing into pity at the sight of a maltreated horse and embracing the animal in tears. When Bela Tarr heard that story his response was: what happened to the horse?
By implication, it went to serve a father/daughter team on a farm in the literally windswept plains of Hungary whose life is difficult, stretching from one boiled potato to the next and going on, getting tougher. This description might make draw a chuckle if you are in any way used to the tradition of cinema that insists on the grind of life, especially in a rural environment. A single instance might suffice to leave the experience with a hearty disdain. But when I say now, that the difference here is that it's Bela Tarr doing it, I mean that if you are tempted to see it you will see something of its own kind in the best possible sense of the phrase.
What's the same as those other films is the casting of plain or gnarled rustic faces, sparse and grunting dialogue and stretches of grinding inertia. What's different is the most decisive item in Bela Tarr's amoury: the long take. Perhaps I should amend that to: use of the long take with the expertise of the specialist. This is not as plain as it sounds.
Tarkovsky spoke of the long takes he used as tools for a very direct audience involvement. Without dialogue or even characters, think of a shot of a wall. For the first few seconds you wait for something to happen. When it doesn't after a long screen thirty seconds you start to look at the details of the wall, the unevenness of the paint job or the texture of the material and ask yourself if this is tells us about the people who live here, how they touch up the weathered patches or leave stucco or wood grain bare against the elements. You might wonder how well you'd do at maintaining it. Even if you wander off and go through your shopping list you've still engaged with the image and it has been instrumental in your present experience.
Uncle Boonmee Who Can Remember His Past Lives is such a case. There is a scene in which a character takes a shower. You see the entire five minute shower. Nothing extraordinary happens. A man washes himself and then dries off. But if you aren't thinking of what a shower is by the halfway mark in this scene you are sitting in front of the wrong movie.
Bela Tarr's long takes frequently strive for this heightened involvement but in more signature mode go somewhere else entirely. He's not the only one to do this but he's one of the best. Through use of extraordinarily painstaking planning his long takes keep to their centre of gravity, following characters or points of focus around the scene, Tarr creates scenes that are both smoothly narrative and wildly virtuous. The opening of Werckmeister Harmonies, where Valoushka is explaining the eclipse using the drunken villagers to create the dance of the earth moon and sun, is a tour de force; not only do you get the breathless feeling of seeing every moment that might have been wasted with a lot of cutting, seing it fresh as performed, but at least the first time, you don't even notice you have been watching one shot. This is a cinematographer's nightmare to light and very difficult to choreograph but there it is on screen with one of the performers playing the role of choreographer himself. At another point we track along beside to characters as they walk for about three minutes in silence. We are looking at Valoushka thinking of what he has just been told. What in a lesser filmmaker's hands might be an indulgence with Bela Tarr is a modus operandi. His films would be boring without this and, even at their most gruelling, they are never boring.
I decided against being clever and noticing the course of the long takes in The Turin Horse and didn't notice a single scene that felt too long or overdrawn. That's only 30 cuts in a two and a half hour film. For reference the shower scene from Psycho has ninety cuts in three minutes.
So, after all that, is it worth it? Yes. Six days in the shared life of a father and daughter on a farm that is between fecund seasons or beyond them. The life is hard, water comes from a well and must be hauled out in buckets and poured into others and then carried back to the house. This takes obvious effort and is a daily task. The father's right arm is paralysed and he needs assistance dressing and undressing. Dressing is important as the gale that blows endlessly outside seems lethal. Dinner, any meal, consists of a single boiled potato for each which is eaten with the fingers (which get scorched by the force of hunger behind them). The horse of the title (if it is) no longer obeys commands or the bit and bridle and must, after great effort, be returned to the stable where it stands and stands and stands.
At one point a Gypsy wagon clops up to the well. The father commands his daughter to remove them as they poach some (obviously scarce water). She is handed a book in exchange for the water. We see her reading it word by word, tracing the letters on the page by the light of the hurricane lamp. It is a bizzarre religious text.
A man from the plains comes knocking, after some of the local moonshine. He reports that the nearby town has blown away and then sets into a monologue about the powerful acquiring and debasing the good and the noble until all is rendered into property. This could apply to the GFC, to the pervasion of social media and its constant and compliant invasion of privacy, or just to the archetypes in the book of Revelation where the bad guys stage false miracles and sew up commerce and social interaction. Keeping it to the principles allows it a necessary timelessness.
The horse's failing life, the depletion of their foodstock and the general drying and weathering of the land by the neverending wind blowing outside force the pair into the brief hope of escape and in one of the most powerful shots we see the failure of even this. At first the sight of the silouhuetted horse vanish over the horizon and then return minutes later seems funny, a replay of a thousand movie jokes but because we have to keep looking and waiting for this action to progress we are left feeling nothing but pity. We return to the farm house with them and wait with them until the last fade out.
Why the Nietschean angle? Couldn't they have just made the movie and called it Life's a Bitch? According to the more mythologised biographies of the philosopher, the incident left the great harranguer and celebrator literally speechless for the rest of his life which he spent drooling away in sanitoriums, staring into light and silence. The first images of the film which emerge as a fade in from the black of the opening titles are of the horse drawing the cart. It's in slow motion and expertly shot, showing the magnificence of the animal, the control of the farmer driving it and the power of the mission to grow food and live by its sale. When this stops so stops the world.
This is Bela Tarr's avowed final film. If he's as good as his word he might well leave the same legacy as Ellem Klimov whose force majere Come and See really was his last flim as he promised and he continues to be celebrated for it. Disliking most of his mooted masterwork Satantango, I considered him to be among the lucky few to create at least one work of genius in Werckmeister Harmonies. Now I think he's made two.