By Robert Koehler
The Turin Horse begins with a micro-fiction by Laszlo Krasznahorkai, reminiscent of both Donald Barthelme’s short fictions placing historical figures in fictitious situations and W.S. Merwin’s prose-poems which combine many different values, but frequently stress two: radical brevity and openness. Krasznahorkai wrote “The Turin Horse” micro-fiction in the early ’80s, and his friends Bela Tarr and Agnes Hranitsky first heard it in a public reading at that time. The story simply tells of a horse in 1888 being mercilessly beaten by its frustrated owner for not budging, and how Nietzsche, passing by on the street in Turin, leapt in to shield the horse from further abuse. The incident left Nietzsche fundamentally altered, ultimately mute and possibly mad, until he died about a decade later. “Of the horse,” the story as well as the third-person on the soundtrack concludes, “we know nothing.”
The Turin Horse, the film, subsequently provides an answer to this open question, and just as suitably, concludes with another open ending: Of the fate of the aging Hungarian farmer, Ohlsdorfer (Janos Derzsi) and his unnamed daughter (Erika Bok, reappearing on screen after her debut as an 11-year-old in Tarr’s Satantango), we know nothing. Knowledge is a difficult thing to ascertain in the world of Tarr/Krasznahorkai/Hranitsky, which is most vividly characterized and defined by movement and the ritualized behavior of everyday human life. This has been the dominant factor since Tarr’s Damnation, though more exactly it was with the director’s previous and crucial film, his adaptation of Macbeth, that he threw out a hyper-realist filmmaking approach influenced by John Cassavetes for a montage of extended plan-sequence takes—arguably the most elaborate camera schemes in cinema since Theo Angelopoulos and Tarr’s fellow Hungarian Miklos Jansco—which involved often nearly invisible choreography of the camera and the bodies in front of, behind and to the sides of it. It’s this choreography that begins to answer the unknown at the end of Krasznahorkai’s story: Fred Kelemen’s black-and-white camera, as important a factor in a film’s final effect as any recent work by any living cinematographer, gazes on….The Turin Horse, living on past 1888 somewhere in Hungary and trotting down a road and driven by Ohlsdorfer, a Beethovian dance of horsepower observed by Kelemen with a constantly moving, roving camera that tracks the horse with intense curiosity, passion, eroticism even—Beethoven, like we say. And with this, the immediate announcement of Mihaly Vig’s chamber score, a circular dirge for small chamber setting (with Vig, Tarr’s “permanent” composer, as are all his fellow partners, “permanent,” leading on organ, which he also plays in his rock band) that becomes one of the film’s two essential audio features. Kelemen’s camera (Kelemen operates himself, and is thus the key dancer in the film’s visual choreography) doesn’t simply move in reverse in front of the horse—though, classified technically as a reverse moving shot, it’s one of the greatest in film history—but around it, to its sides, roving, wandering around her body, considering her power, locomotion, pure movement for movement’s sake, exactly Degas’ obsession with the physique in (frozen) motion unfrozen. This is only one of two times in the film where the horse (played in the opening by a horse with no name, and played subsequently by a horse named Ricsi) works.
The rest of the time in The Turin Horse, the humans work. Unlike Damnation, Satantango, Werckmeister Harmonies or The Man from London, there are no larger stories, nor greater communities surrounding the characters. These are people directly from Samuel Beckett, but translated by Krasznahorkai into a fully grounded setting not too far from the world of Satantango, which is embedded in a fully captured Hungarian farming community and stresses, like The Turin Horse, a specific choreography of bodies through defined physical space, sometimes repeated many times, always daily, the days defining their lives. (The narrative of The Turin Horse is divided into six days, each identified by a place card in front of each section, like a thriller or horror movie.) Ohlsdorfer has a bum arm and hand, so he’s badly dependent on his daughter to help him with chores, and chores are all that fill their days, with rest periods in between of staring out their home’s main window—almost certainly what farm folks in the pre-electric age would do for entertainment, with the window as a screen.
Their ritualized day goes something like this. The daughter usually rises first, with the father shortly after, fully clothed in PJ’s with socks (and usually viewed at an angle echoing Mantegna’s “Dead Christ” which becomes quite amusing through repetition. The Turin Horse, contrary to everything you may have read up until now, can be a pretty funny film, especially when seen more than once.) He swings his legs around the side of the bed, and she helps him take off his bedclothes, which are as many garments as the daytime clothes she also puts on for him like a patient nurse. This establishes a certain complicated patriarchy, but made vulnerable, and the critical role the daughter plays in making everything in the house and the farm function.
In fact, she does most everything: She preps all of the food—largely potatoes, boiled, served in a wooden bowl with no utensils—tends to the oven, the gas lamps, the laundry, refreshing the hay in the horse barn, retrieving water from the well that looks about 50 yards from the house’s front door. Dad, on the other hand, can’t get the day going without two swigs of his preferred booze, palinka, a type of Hungarian schnapps that looks as strong or stronger than vodka. (You know things are going bad on the farm when he doesn’t stop at two swigs, but chases it with a bigger swig straight from the bottle—with Kelemen and Tarr holding on the bottle as he sets it down for an extended still life shot, a vision of possible doom, and one of the moments in The Turin Horse that truly takes the viewer directly back to Satantango, and its extraordinary fascination with drinking and bottles.)
But the father does work, in the stable with the horse, which has decided to stop working. This is the beginning of the film’s Beckett effect, where characters (there are three, with a fourth who enters dramatically at the film’s unforgettable midpoint) are at the beginning of the end point. In Beckett, as in both the fiction and film versions of The Turin Horse, things never actually end, though an end, perhaps The End, seems as though it may be on the horizon—or not, and what may follow is a repetition of what happened before, suggesting an ending that never comes. This is why it’s wrong to label the film or anything in it as “apocalyptic,” a term that we’re getting too used to. (The 2012 effect, maybe.) The horse refuses to budge, again, and Ohlsdorfer, sitting on his rickety buggy and unleashing his whip on the stubborn, tired creature, is repeating history, or Krasznahorkai’s history within the fictional world he’s made up. The horse is re-living her past life all over again, and now, the father and daughter are going to be living five days that repeat themselves with strange constancy, broken up by only two key intruders/incidents. The daughter, playing Nietzsche, steps in and stops Ohlsdorfer from beating the horse, which then exacts her revenge by refusing to eat for the following days.
This ushers in the film’s most overwhelming effect—a raging wind, so ferocious that it makes a kind of strange musical sound (the audio track of the wind is steadily looped for extended sections) and creates a new environment. The wind is already there in the opening shot, but soon, it’s a malevolent force that some will be tempted to interpret as either God or the Devil. (Which it would be if this were a Bergman film; fortunately, The Turin Horse is as far from Bergman as an Adam Sandler movie.) Griffith’s desire of a cinema for the feeling of wind through the trees is amplified here to operatic lengths, and provides the film with a sense of tremendous enormity, paradoxically co-existing with its deliberately claustrophobic sense of a small farmhouse in which two people are barely ekeing out an existence, and frequently can’t step outside. Rituals get reduced: Tending to the stove, sewing, picking through the potatoes, staring out the window, sleeping. Only outside runs to the well are possible in the increasingly horrific weather, which becomes worse when the well runs mysteriously dry. The world, so huge and sweeping in the opening bravura dance and in Kelemen’s giant landscape views of the nearby hills and a lonely tree, feels like it’s caving in.
Then, he arrives. We never know who he is, a neighbor most likely, somebody Ohlsdorfer feels comfortable inviting past his threshold. He’s here, of course, for some palinka; Ohlsdorfer, clearly, is the local go-to guy for palinka. But he soon is clearly here for another reason: In the film’s only monologue, and its only notable chunk of dialogue (the father and daughter talk in the short, clipped language of people who’ve worked back-breaking labor their entire lives), he delivers a warning to them, that any chance for a life of “excellence” and “good” is over, chased out by nameless barbarians who’ve ruined everything. He’s not Nietzsche, but rather a Nietzschean character, like the horse herself, as if Krasznahorkai had returned to his original story, snared a possible character from a possible fiction shadowed by the presence of Nietzsche and deposited him down in the midpoint of the film. He’s a pivot point, a man facing defeat, certainly a foreshadowing of the European disasters to come, but also a universal warning of the collapse of culture. This scene will surely be examined exhaustively by critics and writers, since its one of the rare scenes since Satantango in which Tarr and Krasznahorkai place their thematic cards on the table in something other than purely cinematic terms; it’s an aria in an otherwise nearly wordless opera. But it’s also undermined in an instant by Ohlsdorfer, who’s been patiently listening to his verbose friend, stops him, calls it all “rubbish” and orders him out the front door. Open readings and possibilities characterize The Turin Horse from start to finish, and this scene is no exception: The man, plopping his hulking body down at the dinner, could be a parody of every movie drunk opining about the world (or Beckett character who whips enough energy to muster a speech), seeing nothing but darker and darker prospects with every progressive swig, or he could be the kind of visionary who circulate through the worlds of Tarr’s films, phony or not, with some perception of the way the world actually is. Beyond his conclusions that any chance is dashed for the forces of good and excellence to triumph over the forces of rottenness (an interesting argument to hear on the week that certain forces of good in Egypt triumphed over medievalists and autocrats), he’s here to deliver the word: God is dead.
This may be why, even subconsciously, some rejected The Turin Horse in Berlin, and will do so as it trots through one festival after another toward a deservedly legendary position as a key film of our time. (And not just because Tarr claimed to my face that it’s his last film, which I also don’t believe for a second.) The notion, even within a design of open filmic narrative architecture, that a film would present a case for the non-existence of God is unpleasant to many people, even people at film festivals, where you’re more likely than in many other walks of life to run into atheists. There are the obvious reasons why some (many?) even hate the film: Its repetitions, the almost never-changing music (I spotted on two watching/listenings not just one music track by Vig, but a pair), the elongated pace, the sustained depiction in black-and-white of a mercilessly bleak existence, the rejection of “drama,” maybe even just the sight of people eating boiled potatoes again and again with their hands, the sheer “pointlessness” of it (an emotion that seeped out of several reviews by frustrated critics). But the fundamental Nietzschean concept of life with a God is as frequently despised now (perhaps now more than ever before) as it was in the author’s time.
I’ve mentioned two specific reference points to Nietzsche in The Turin Horse. Sight and Sound critic/editor Nick James helpfully mentioned another one to me: The man at the beginning of Nietzsche’s “The Gay Science” who observes a candle going out as proof that God is dead. The critical turning points in the film begin with the horse refusing to work; the wind; the man and his monologue; the unwelcome visit of Gypsies who urge the father and daughter to join them on their way to America (not, under the circumstances, a bad idea; in fact, the entire film can be prosaically read as a demonstration of why people fled Europe for North America in the late 19th and early 20th centuries) and leave the daughter with a strange book; the attempted departure of the farm, only to make a U-turn just over the ridge of the nearby hill (the film’s biggest mystery—what makes them turn back?); and, on the fifth day, and into the sixth, the gas-lit lamps in the house failing to work anymore, like the Turin Horse. Inside of this are more slices of Nietzsche: The candle/lamp going out, and the large tome from the Gypsies read out loud by the daughter (in what amounts to her only monologue, of sorts), with the passage she reads describing how the churches are being closed by the priests because too much sin has been committed. Tarr refers to the book, a pure invention of Krasznahorkai’s, as an “anti-Bible.” The fascination with this scene, both in the kind of reverential way that Kelemen lights it and frames the daughter and the book, is that the slightly inattentive viewer might actually think that she’s reading from the Bible, but just perhaps an obscure chapter that only Biblical scholars know well. It is, in fact, the third fiction which Krasznahorkai has implanted in the film, the first being the micro-fiction, the second being the film narrative meant to answer the story’s open question, and suddenly, this unexpected kind of meta-fiction masquerading as scripture that’s actually a repudiation of religion.
Tarr’s cinematic design begins with elaborate camera dances, the pure celebration of cinematic movement through space, and ends with absolute stasis and darkness. By the arrival of day six, the storm has ended, the apocalypse hasn’t happened. But this meticulously observed choreography of human beings at work and in everyday life, absolutely materialist and fixed by the clock and the course of the sun rising and setting and rising again the next day, gives way to a disturbing metaphysic without God, a darkness (Kelemen’s images manage as close to pure blackness as I’ve seen in a film since the final scene in Kiarostami’s The Taste of Cherry, perhaps more so since we are watching black-and-white 35mm film) that forces the father and daughter into a Beckett space of motionlessness and the elimination of language. (“What is this?” the daughter says as the light goes out. There can be no real answer.) It’s an extension of the dread at the heart of Van Gogh’s “The Potato Eaters,” only drained of light. What we’re watching at the end of The Turin Horse is the beginning of the end of lives as they are, though not possibly death. The storm is over; maybe, as Ohlsdorfer urges his daughter at an especially dire point, they’ll try again tomorrow. The potatoes can’t be boiled now, but we’ll go on. We can’t go on. We’ll go on.