Over three years in the making, Bela Tarr’s The Turin Horse finally makes its premiere, in Competition at the Berlinale. It bears all the trademarks of Tarr’s oeuvre since his 450-minute masterpiece Satantango (1994), but carries much more substance than his last outing, The Man from London (2007), and presents the darkest and least hopeful world yet.
By Vladan Petkovic
The Turin Horse opens with an anecdote from Nietzsche’s life, read over a black screen. The story is that Nietzsche was walking the streets of Turin and encountered a driver of a hansom cab having trouble with his horse. The horse wouldn’t move and the driver started whipping it. Nietzsche intervened, hugged the horse and started crying. After the incident he went crazy and lived for another ten years, taken care of by his family.
In the film’s opening shot, we see an old man (Janos Derszi) pulling a horse and cart through what looks much more like Hungarian plains than Piedmont, in a howling wind that carries dust and dry leaves throughout the film. He arrives at his desolate, decrepit house where his daughter (Erika Bok) is waiting for him. A narrative title informs us it’s The First Day, and such titles will separate all six segments of the film.
For most of The Turin Horse we are watching their repetitive daily routine. The daughter wakes up, goes to the well for water, cooks potatoes they eat only with salt and with their hands, wakes father and dresses him (his right arm seems to be paralyzed). On the first day, he tries to take the horse out, but it won’t budge.
On the second day, a stranger (Mihaly Kormos) arrives and tells the story of higher, mysterious forces driving the world to its end – such ideas of incomprehensible, impending doom are behind the stories of Satantango, Werckmeister Harmonies and The Man from London as well. Now the horse won’t even eat.
On the third day, a bunch of gypsies arrive and head straight for the well. The old man chases them away but one of them shouts, “We’ll be back! The water is ours, the earth is ours...”. On the fourth day the well has gone dry. The fifth day ends with sudden darkness – a spectator actually thinks it’s a fade to black, but the world itself seems to have gone dark.
Perfect framing of the black-and-white photography, long takes, dramatic music covering even the most banal scenes and very little dialogue – all these characteristics of Tarr’s work are present in The Turin Horse. If the Hungarian auteur always shows us the world at its bleakest and most desperate, here he seems to have gone to the absolute extreme. There is not a glimpse of hope in The Turin Horse, and as Tarr said at the press conference, “Kundera wrote of the unbearable lightness of being. This film is about unbearable heaviness of life.”
The Turin Horse was co-produced by Hungary’s TT Filmmuhely, Switzerland’s Vega Film, Germany’s Zero Fiction Film, France’s MPM Film and US company Werc Werk Works. It is handled internationally by Films Boutique.