Tim Cawkwell's Cinema

Intelligible writing on intelligent film

Bela Tarr's Turin Horse

Béla Tarr’s The Turin Horse was released in 2011 – see the helpful entry in Wikipedia for an account of the tortuousness of its production history. Since the film comprises thirty shots, here are my thirty soundbites – but be warned: spoilers abound.


1 The film is 155 minutes long, which means that each shot is 5 1/4 min. on average. Although I did not sense that this length was rigorously adhered to, each shot does not deviate far from this norm.


2 As a result, it is a formalist film with a pronounced rhythm.


3 I tried counting the thirty takes but found it harder than I expected. You have to be alert to each cut, and then retain the numbers in your head.


4 Within each shot, the camera pans and tracks to shift the spectator’s focus of vision. The most pronounced movement was when the camera approached the well then dived over the lip to see that it had run dry, then pulled back and away.


5 Tarr has had an unbending adherence to black-and-white cinema, at least in the last twenty years of his career. This is contrarianism of a high order.


6 There is a gale blowing for virtually the whole film. It is winter too. A metaphor for a God-forsaken world.


7 Spare a thought for the horse. It may look moth-eaten, but this is deceptive since it has the intelligence to pose the question, 'What is the point of eating?'


8 This is the way apocalypse comes, in stages, not all at once:

  • the horse refuses to pull the cart
  • the well goes dry
  • father and daughter disappear over the hill then reappear and come back to the house
  • blackness descends, so they light lamps
  • in due course the lamps refuse to light
  • daughter and then father give up eating their potatoes
  • end.


9 The action covers six days, divided by inter-titles. In effect it is an unmaking of the six days of creation in Genesis. That began with 'Let there be light'; this ends with 'Let there be dark'.


10 There is not even a scintilla of redemption. This is the mother of all unhappy endings.


11 Paratactic narrative (i.e. ‘and then . . . and then . . . and then . . .’) in a very pure form. This is the first Bressonian element.


12 The repeated actions of father and daughter show their lives as a sequence of habitual actions. They perform out of habit, like automata. This is the second Bressonian element, producing a twisted example of Bresson’s 'involuntary expressive'.


13 There is no explanation, no psychology observable in their actions. We are shown everything and told nothing. This is the third Bressonian element.


14 The father has grey hair, bushy and uncombed, which gives him a biblical air. His daughter has fine, bony, underfed features. The mother is only visible (just) in a sepia photograph. Humanity on the edge of death.


15 This is an entropic universe tending to an equilibrium of disordered creation. Free will to halt this process would be ‘neg-entropic’ but it is denied.


16 When they take their cart over the hill, and you think you are going to see some other place beside this wind-blown spot, they reappear, dashing all such hopes. This is the first denial of free will.


17 Gypsies arrive on a cart to take some of their water, and are driven away. They shout, they are life, they exercise a will. Driving them away is an act of habit. This is the second denial of free will.


18 I did laugh – once. When a man appears (from nowhere) to borrow some palinka, i.e. alcohol, he makes a speech about nobility being overwhelmed by debasement, to which the father replies, 'That's rubbish.'


19 One of the gypsies gives the daughter a book as payment for the water from the well. It is like a treasure. She reads it haltingly. The text seems to be a rubric from a prayer book, which her stumbling speech mocks so that the meaning drains from it.


20 The film feels as if it might have a biblical quality, but it is resolutely unbiblical in its absence of purpose, of meaning, let alone of God. Yet is it arguing for the necessity of God by showing how His complete removal creates an entropic world?


21 What is the point of the Nietzsche story recited in voice-over at the beginning? I thought this was a red herring, but afterwards I concluded that it was a way of introducing the story, which is to be understood as immediately following the incident of Nietzsche’s public display of compassion for the whipped horse. In which case, is it a story of punishment?


22 If this narrative sequence is right, then the film is set in 1889, although as I watched I felt it had a dateless quality.


23 László Krasznahorkai helped Tarr write the script. This continues a collaboration that began with Damnation and continued with Satantango and the Werckmeister Harmonies. Perhaps the film should be considered as belonging to both of them, not to mention the director of photography, Fred Kelemen.


24 Another Hungarian, Miklós Jancsó, the godfather of long-take cinema, is also somewhere in the background.


25 The film has barely 300 words in it (I didn’t count), but it does have a lot of music, minimalist in its repetitiveness (by Mihály Vig), wistful but grinding. It comes as a relief from the sound of the wind, only then for the wind to come back as a relief from the music.


26 The film generates its own powerful sense of suspense. How it will end? When it comes, this reduction to nothing means the suspense has been drained away to nothing. The most unresolved chromatic chord you could imagine.


27 I concluded that the film's moral is: "All is for the worst in the worst of all possible worlds."


28 Tarr has announced that it is his last film, which gives it a privileged position in his career in some way, his definitive statement on despair.


29 Indeed it is a quintessence of miserablism.


30 What do you think? You can email me on [email protected]


© Tim Cawkwell 2012


addendum (Feb 2016): Eamon Byrne in Australia emailed some thoughts on the above, and stressed the contribution of László Krasznahorkai:


"If one were to write a detailed thesis or book on Tarr, one would have to have read Krasznahorkai. The two are inextricably linked philosophically and stylistically, not to mention acting as co-authors of the main body of work. Tarr's "long takes" have their analogue in Krasznahorkai's "long sentences". K's sentences are by far the longest in all of literature, period.


He also links Tarr/Krasznahorkai with Beckett, very suggestively:

"The lone tree which is repeatedly framed in the window lends a kind of universal gravitas. It immediately reminded me of a Beckett  stage  set (Godot), as also did the line towards the end "We'll try again tomorrow."   Thus, the film doesn't actually end: an infinite series is implied."


and:


"A formal element of the film is the variations of the same event. For example, we first focus on the father alone eating the potato. In the next eating scene, we see only the daughter eating. Following this we see both eating. Similarly we see the father sitting on the chair, and in a separate scene we see the daughter sitting on the chair. In other words, there is only one chair: the two take turns. This is a very Beckettian idea, or rather probably an idea Krasznahorkai borrowed from Beckett."