Béla Tarr, the wannabe philosopher who stumbled into film making by mistake, has always made his films about an experience, often a slowly creeping weighty experience not learned until long after his characteristically stark titles have faded and gone. Most notably it was the 7.5 hour Sántántangó (1994), to which The Turin Horse has many comparisons, which stood up tall and bold and seemed proud as punch in welding the ungodly power of being able to put an audience though a punishing story with all the pace and care of a snail in the desert. His latest and final tale, a story concerning a weathered, old and beaten horse, his owner (János Derzsi) and the daughter (Erika Bók) is as serious and slow as anything he has made before.
The opening voice over, morosely spoken over a black screen links the horse to a famed story marking the beginning of the downfall of Friedrich Nietzsche who never recovered from witnessing a horse beaten on the streets of Turin and died 9 years later, remarking to his mother “Mutter, ich bin dumm” (Mother, I am stupid). The film plays out in 6 parts, a kind of horrific wasteland set Groundhog Day, where dressing, going to the well and cooking potatoes are drawn out in all of Tarr’s trademark monocrome takes, some lasting 11 minutes. The dialogue is sparse and instead he relies on a relenting howling wind and an ominous repetitive score, once again, by Mihály Vig to pry onto screen a simplistic end of days story.
Perhaps somehow relating to his own self imposed retirement from film making, the movie focuses on a man at odd’s with the world, paralysed in one arm from a stroke, watching his horse die, his world turn barren, his well’s run dry and his lamps fail. Whether or not it’s a comment by Tarr on his thoughts of modern cinema is obviously irrelevant when placed in the shadow of Nietzsche’s tale; It hides behind a story laden with philosophical images and burdens far to great for any one person to hold and that may be The Turin Horse’s genius. Then again at 146 minutes what is it really saying?
As wonderfully shot and atmospheric as it all is, it drowns in it’s own repetitiveness, making each day mapped out in the film seem far longer and less full of wonder than Tarr’s past films; Especially with the meagre actions contained. Where as the Werckmester Harmonies had something of physical poetry pinning at all together, Sántántangó had it’s hypnotic length and even The Man from London felt almost noirish in its delivery, The Turin Horse feels lax on ideas.
How many times can you watch a old man eat a potato? 5, say’s Tarr. Well, that may well be but a film mulling over the degradation of something so barren and pointless while riding on the back of a story so profoundly repeated by historians seems much like supposing a story of the prostitute who received Van Gough’s ear.