“At the beginning of my career, I had a lot of social anger. I just wanted to tell you how fucked up the society is. This was the beginning. Afterwards, I began to understand that the problems were not only social; they are deeper. I thought they were only ontological and when I understood more and more, when I went closer to the people… afterward, I could understand that the problems were not only ontological. They were cosmic…That’s what I had to understand, and that’s why the style has moved.”
As a young man living in Southeastern Europe, in fact in a country which borders with Bela Tarr’s Hungary, I have had this social anger as well – directed toward corrupt institutions and social order. For Tarr, as he said, this was the beginning, and this beginning can be observed in its crystal-pure form in his 1984 film Almanac of Fall, a chamber drama which involves a rich landlady, her greedy, erratic son and the tenants who financially and sexually exploit each other. Landlady’s son shows mindless anger toward his mother and all the tenants in the apartment, while the others are either defeatists (the character of the Teacher) or passively uninterested in things, but prone to anger and violence.
This is a portrayal of a society falling apart, and each of the characters represents a particular mode of reaction, and rarely meaningful action, toward the state of moral ruin. The social ruin, on the other hand, is epitomized in the moral degradation of the main characters. The landlady is kind, compassionate and tries to preserve the order in the house, but the social forces which shaped the individuals work against that attempt. Each of the characters tries to assert his sovereignty over others, and a typical example of this tendency are the words “I am stronger.” The nurse which takes care of the landlady asserts her sovereignty by sexual means, and the question is opened whether she ends up on the losing side. The story of greed and exploitation is, one can assume, a portrayal of Tarr’s own country, reduced to a chamber setting.
Tarr’s Damnation, its screenplay being written by a Hungarian novelist Laszlo Kraszhnahorkai, the film I wrote about in one of my articles, seems to be a transitory film between the phase which portrayed social anger to the ontological themes, the place of man in a world devoid of any meaning – Cioran’s influence can vividly be seen here. The oracle who quotes the apocalyptic verses from the Bible is shown alongside drunken characters slowly dancing in a bar and drinking schnapps in deciliters. The eschatological understanding of love (in this case for a barfly) is cruelly negated, most vividly in the last scene, in which Karrer is reduced to the behaviour of a violent animal (a dog). It is a film devoid of all hope; Karrer is not shaped by the social order and its corruption, but more by a sense of futility of the struggle to obtain and maintain a place in that very social order. The question is not whether the position of man in the world can be solved by transforming a corrupt social order, but how can man live and maintain himself in the anchorless world, regardless of the specific social order he lives in.
In Sátántangó, this transition to the ontological is complete. Irimiás, an ex-convict and now a police informant, who returns to a small village inhabited by desperate men with his partner Petrina, promises to “to establish a small island for people with nothing left to lose, a small island free of exploitation, where people work for, not against each other”, as it is said in Krasznahorkai’s novel. Although his novel was written in the Soviet Hungary, Ben Ehrenreich writes that “the novel’s title seems to confirm the hunch that the estate and its environs are situated less in any historical or imagined Hungary than in some hell. If they are, though, this is the hell in which Satan is trapped and nearly powerless, and God just another bitter drunk.”
Irimiàs tells Petrina: “There’s no sense or meaning in anything…. It’s only our imaginations, not our senses, that continually confront us with failure and the false belief that we can raise ourselves by our own bootstraps from the miserable pulp of decay. There’s no escaping that, stupid.” The same understanding of life permeates Tarr’s film; the characters live in some kind of hell; social changes which might occur are irrelevant, the same state of affairs and the same condition would prevail. The “problem” is of ontological nature, and in Tarr’s universe, it is unsolvable by any social arrangements, to escape one Circle of Hell would mean to enter the other.
I wrote about Tarr’s last film, The Turin Horse, in one of my articles, and this film is an epitome of the “last phase” of Tarr’s understanding of life, and the position of cinema and art within it, the cosmic one. In The Turin Horse nothing much really occurs – we witness the extremely modest life of a young woman and her father who take care of a horse which is their only means for survival. It is a cosmological tale, a story of creation told in reverse. We can see a man who comes from the city, drinks schnapps and recounts the tale of man in a Nietzschean fashion, the tale of acquirement and debasement in the times of modernity – the destruction of everything noble. This acquirement and debasement occurs far from the confines of a house in which the young woman and her father live, since their struggle is the struggle for survival – boiled potato and water is all they have – the well they get the water from is poisoned by mad gypsies who spread the Gospel of destruction.
In this tale of degradation and undoing of the cosmic creation we can witness the disintegration of life itself. Now, the problem is no longer the position of man in his surroundings, the corrupt social system, or the ontological nature of man and the impossibility of living in a hell on Earth, now the very existence of man in the cosmos is put in question – the very possibility of man sustaining himself as a part of cosmic creation. If in one instance, there is misery and a struggle for pure survival, in the other there is utter debasement. This impossibility of validating and justifying one’s position in the cosmic scheme can only result in the passive abandonment of man’s role in the universe. He is no longer a liberator and a conqueror, as he was before, or a part of a rationally ordained universe, he is just a small fraction in it, which disintegrates into dust before he learns to walk properly. The one who debases is the one who disintegrates himself, and those around him – life is no longer put in question, it is a question mark itself.