Sunday, April 15, 2012

"The Turin Horse" by Béla Tarr

In the middle of Béla Tarr's "The Turin Horse," Ohlsdorfer's daughter snuffs out every gas lamp in the house and retires to an out-of-frame bedroom. The camera remains trained on the dim kitchen, thin flickers of light from the fire in the aga's grate providing scant illumination. Nothing moved and only the shrieking wind sounded unceasingly. Gradually, as my eyes strained to adjust, the figures of two devils seemed to become distinct. One, with a long pale face, stood legs apart, back hunched, long sickening spider-like arms hanging low by the ground. The other was a tall, shrouded figure against the back wall. I knew that the pale-faced devil's legs were the legs of a bench, and that his face was a small white cupboard. The hooded devil was a robe on a hook. Still, I couldn't avoid a creeping sense of horror and a deep fear for the sleeping father and daughter.

These moments of almost banal real-world horror are what made "The Turin Horse" a satisfying experience. For someone with ADD I've seen my fair share of endurance cinema, from the borderline-interesting "Andrei Rublev" to the profoundly tedious "Tie Xi Qu: West of the Tracks," and have developed a strategy of asking questions to confront frustration and tedium. (It helps to envision Werner Herzog asking the questions.) In "The Turin Horse" I found myself asking questions which all boiled down to the same concept: what was driving the inertia of these two people?

I struggled with how disconnected I felt from the characters. I compulsively mastermind solutions to imaginary problems, so it was difficult to watch two people submit to death without expending any energy to save themselves. There is, of course, a kind of natural horror endemic in witnessing a sentient creature disobeying its survival instincts. This is first evidenced in the titular horse, who begins a Bartlebian refusal to eat and drink at the beginning of the film, and then is continued (or contracted?) by the horse's owners.

At only one point do they make an effort to save themselves, packing up the necessities for basic survival and setting out on foot up the winding hillside road. The camera remains in the valley; just as soon as I could be sure that the horse's ears had disappeared over the lip of the hill, they reappeared and without any ceremony Ohlsdorfer and his daughter were back in the house.

What befell them in those thirty seconds off-camera that could cause them to return to certain death? Only two points in the film provide any sort of resolution and exposition. One has been kindly reproduced on youtube:

The other is when Ohlsdorfer's daughter reads aloud from a book she has been given by the gypsies (an "anti-bible" according to Tarr) which details a meeting in which a figurehead announces that, because the congregation has disobeyed, they will be punished with a series of natural disasters including sweeping winds and a blackout.

These expositions contradict one another--the first makes the case for a godless, meaningless paradigm of destruction and oppression while the latter creates a dichotomy of quasi-religious sin and punishment--but they are equally nihilistic in their conclusions. They hearken to the film's introductory monologue describing Nietzsche's mental breakdown and insanity in his final years. The sensation is of a sudden snuffing out followed by a prolonged horror--as in the kitchen scene I mentioned earlier.

I believe the reason that Ohlsdorfer and his daughter turn back to their house is that beyond the lip of that hill everything has been swept away by the howling wind. Where once perhaps some houses dotted another desolate plain, now there is nothing. Perhaps a great blackness rose on the horizon. Perhaps there was fire, or a flood.

Most of my questions were answered as I made a sincere effort to imagine the scope of these people's lives. Their world is so isolated, so cut off from any possible modernization that they have no recourse when the whatever force driving the universe conspires against them. Their stark, monosyllabic communication--Ohlsdorfer frequently lapses into guttural grunts--is all they have. They can't fabricate an escape because they don't have the words to do so. Late in the film the wind suddenly drops and the daughter asks "What was that?" "I don't know," Ohlsdorfer replies. In my world "I don't know" is the platform for imagination and discovery. In theirs it is the final statement in an empty conversation. For them, ignorance means sticking to a familiar ritual.

At the end of the film Ohlsdorfer's daughter sits before the window and stares at the hillside, which is obscured by huge clouds of dust and debris. I was so sure that I could see something careening down the hillside road towards the house, but I couldn't be positive. Not long after, the daylight cuts out. Not a gradual night, but a sudden one. Some of the lamps won't light in the house.

She and her father sit at the table, trying to face a plate of raw potatoes now that the last of the water has run out. The remaining lamp scutters out. Suddenly the film felt too short because it was time to leave. My mind was full of Mihâly Vig's disturbing music, and with a tangle of horrors as it conjured vile images of the fate of those peasants.

No comments:

Post a Comment