Turin Horse - Béla Tarr interview
Hungarian director's final film takes Nietzsche's madness as starting point
This article is from 2011.
Iconic Hungarian director Béla Tarr was in Edinburgh to present his latest and reportedly final film, Turin Horse. The film is inspired by an event often reported as the beginning of Friedrich Nietzsche’s mental breakdown. The philosopher is said to have witnessed the whipping of a horse in Turin, thrown himself upon it in order to protect it and then collapsed in the street, never to fully recover. Tarr’s film relates this story in an epigraph at the beginning of his two-and-a-half hour film, but then concentrates on the ebbing life of the ailing horse over the next six days. As the horse declines, so to do its owner and his daughter as they follow their strict daily routine, interrupted only by the occasional philosopher/neighbour, intrusive gypsies and the constant pummeling of an unremitting wind.
I spoke with the director, aware both that this film was rumoured to be his last and that some early (though perhaps wrong-headed) reviews had not been favourable. There’s no doubt his newest film is a challenge to anyone used to 90-minute narrative films, but Turin Horse is an exceptional creation, even for those used to his trademark style. His English is not as perfect as my lack of Hungarian, but Tarr was thoughtful, patient and expressive, frequently gesturing with his hands and miming to illustrate his already carefully conceived answers. He was not at all as imposing as could be expected - he has Robin Williams’ twinkling eyes when he smiles - although clearly he takes his work very seriously.
The concept for Turin Horse – at least the Nietzsche aspect to the story - has existed for Tarr and his main collaborator, the novellist László Krasznahorkai, since the 1980s. However, they made Sátántangó (Satan’s Tango), Werckmeister Harmonies and The Man From London together before getting round to it. I asked why this had been the right time for Turin Horse and Tarr explained, ‘Because that was the next step. If you watch my movies, during the 34 years, one film has generated the next one, film by film.’ Although they had the concept and would periodically return to it, asking themselves, ‘What happened to the horse?’ it has taken until now for them to have an answer.
Perhaps unsurprisingly, it was not good news for the horse, or its owners. As Tarr explained, ‘When somebody’s horse is not capable [of] work any more, when you lose your horse, at the same time, together with the horse, you will lose your life, you will lose your job, you will lose your money, you will lose your life. And as the horse is getting weaker and weaker, your life is getting weaker.’
He continued, ‘And this is not a real apocalypse, because an apocalypse for me is a big TV show, it’s a big attraction. But in life, when life is getting older, it’s getting silent and it’s a terrible, terrible process. That’s what I want to say, to show.’ Relating this, Tarr didn’t display the detached manner of a celebrity guest on Jonathan Ross’s sofa – the sentiment is clearly deeply felt. ‘We have just one life and, day-by-day, our life is getting shorter and shorter. It’s incredible and unacceptable, of course, but it’s coming and that’s what I wanted to say. I don’t want to say any big things, I just wanted to tell this. We have to protect the rest of our life. I don’t know what we have to do, I really don’t know. I just wanted to talk about this.’
I hazarded a potentially naïve question - why focus on depicting this aspect of life, rather than transcendent moments? ‘Because that is what is interesting to me’, he chuckled, ‘I’m sorry!’ But, pausing for a moment’s reflection, he continued, ‘When you lose somebody, and I’ve lost some friends of mine and, in my life, I’ve lost two dogs, my father. When you’ve lost something, it is the same terrible feeling and, I don’t know why, I want to talk about this.’
Tarr rarely says ‘I’ when discussing the making of his films, Rather, it’s generally ‘we’ or ‘us’, and he talks of the ‘familial atmosphere’ of his productions. ‘It is a very established company,’ he explained, citing the dolly operator and composer he has been working with since 1983, and the fact that he frequently uses the same actors again and again. Turin Horse sees Tarr-favourite János Derzsi as Ohlsdorfer, the owner of the horse and Erika Bók, who appeared in Sátántangó and The Man From London, as Ohlsdorfer’s daughter. ‘When we [were] thinking about the movie,’ Tarr explained, ‘We knew already the casting’.
Tarr continued, ‘All of my collaborators and actors trust me. [They say] "OK, tell me what I have to do". Of course, their personality is in the movie, but they trust me… I never humiliate these people, I never hurt them, I do not do anything against them. And everybody knows we are doing something together.’ The real problem, according to the director, was casting the horse. ‘We had to find a horse that didn’t want to work’. For those who are concerned with the fate of the titular equine actor, Tarr was happy to impart that the horse in question has thrived in contrast to its fictional counterpart. ‘The horse is absolutely OK, I have to tell you. She’s pregnant now and now she’s safe. We took her to a nice, quiet place. Nobody knows where it is, just a very few people. Now she’s totally OK.’
Of the look of the movie, he explained, ‘Before I start the movie, I know the movie frame by frame, from the first to the last frame. And I know what I want. And I know the set and the landscape has a face. It's one of the main characters - it has the same importance as the face of the actor. The music is also terribly important and I have to know before the shooting, because I have to know my main characters. Because I know, OK, when the camera is looking out, we'll be hearing the music here and not there. You have to know.’
He likened filmmaking to cooking, tracing with his hands imaginary bowls and plates on a kitchen surface, ‘When you are cooking, you have to put everything around you. Film, I think, is the same [as] cooking. And everybody [cooks] differently. And everybody [uses] different portions of herbs or sauce and other things. Everybody has a different taste, everybody has a different vision about the food. And it’s the same with film. This is how I am doing, I like to have everything around me and I just pick them up... ’ And he demonstrated cooking up his film from the vital, imaginary ingredients in front of him. Later, he mimed cutting cookie shapes out of dough to illustrate his feelings on generic Hollywood movies.
I asked if he would ever consider working from someone else’s script (perhaps one of Fassbinder’s unproduced works) but Tarr was adamant that he would never, because, ‘I don’t like scripts’. He digressed, because he doesn’t even like scripts for his own films - ‘Film is pictures, situations and something which is real, moving. If you are working with a good writer, like me, a script is OK. He’s writing the script, it’s nice, it’s good for the foundations, good for the financiers, but not for us. Because when we are directing, we cannot do anything with the script. We have to create real life, we have to create real, human situations. We are dealing with human conditions, and relations. And that’s why I really don’t like the script and I never use it, no reason to use, because I know the film.’ In fact, Tarr explained, smiling, the script girl on his productions is a hastle. ‘She is always telling me, “I don’t know which scene.” I say, “I don’t know, please don’t disturb me, it’s such a stupid question. Call it what you want, I know where it is in the movie.”’
Of course, Turin Horse is to be his final movie, his concluding statement. Tarr feels he has said all that he wishes to say in his work. ‘Because the circle is closed. I [could] do 10 or 15 more movies, because on one hand, I am absolutely not a filmmaker, but on the other hand, of course, I have learnt the profession. I could, but I really don’t want to do that. This is not my life, this is not my vision of life.’
Refreshingly, Tarr’s intended retirement (from directing, mind you) is because he feels that to continue unnecessarily might compromise the integrity of his life’s work. ‘I respect the films, I like what I have done. I really want to protect them. I want to protect [them] from me too!’ he said, chuckling. Tarr intends to focus also on protecting other filmmakers in Hungary, ‘who have no space in the film industry. Maybe they are too brave, or maybe they are too weak. I’ll try to help them, find some money for them to do something and that’s all.’
He won’t be drawn on the ‘controversy’ surrounding Turin Horse’s release in Hungary, reportedly cancelled because of comments Tarr made about the government’s treatment of artists. He doesn’t like to speak of such small dramas because ‘one month later, nobody will remember’ and regardless, the film will be shown in many other countries. ‘I know the film is there and this film will work in 30 or 40 years and who cares about some stupid bureaucrats?’
I asked if it bothered him that his film was reviewed or assessed according to standard Hollywood criteria (one early review from EIFF was particularly hostile in this regard). Tarr really doesn’t care. ‘Film is not part of show business. Film is the seventh art. OK, they could say, “No, it’s not,” They can do what they want. I don’t care. I’ve learned this [in] 34 years. Time is the judge, not you or me - time. If you are able to watch 15 or 20 or 25 years later, this movie is something.’
Warming to the theme, he continued, ‘It’s only Hollywood that believes [all] films are the same. They want to be always the same. So it looks uniform, you know? Every movie has to be the same, the same kind of dramaturgy, the same kind of actors and the same kind of photography. Everything the same, same, same.’ He talks of an experiment he has always wanted to perform: ‘I will take five Hollywood movies and I will mix the reels. That’s what I want to do … For example, Sean Penn leaving from the building and Robert De Niro arriving to the street.’ This will demonstrate, he believes, how easily interchangeable the elements of formulaic Hollywood product are. Of his own films, Tarr says his work is ‘ready’ for the audience, and with his oeuvre complete, ‘You just cross your fingers, you can’t do more. Everybody will use it how they want.’
Our allotted time over, he beseeched his handler for time for ‘half a cigarette’ and headed with me to the door. On the way, I asked him how the Turin Horse Q&A went and he said he got the impression the audience did not want it. I suggested they were maybe just shy, but he was adamant and mimed hugging himself, ‘After my film they just wanted to be alone!’