Movies don’t get as minimalist as this. But then this is a movie by Bela Tarr – the legendary Hungarian auteur.
This is a focused work of evocative black and white artistry that patiently unfolds over a two-and-half-hour run time in a primitive land, probably just before the turn of the 20thcentury.
The movie begins with a baritone voice in Hungarian (the film’s native language) of a famous story regarding Friedrich Nietzsche (the philosopher). During a walk in Turin, Nietzsche comes across a coachman beating his horse, which has halted in its tracks. Despite the horseman’s angry, incessant lashings – the horse refuses to move. Distraught at the sight Nietzsche hugs the horse, and then Nietzsche fell into a decade-long depression that ended only with his own death. “Of the horse we know nothing,” the enigmatic narrator adds to this legendary tale. A beat later, the image of a gray horse pulling a cart against a punishing wind fills the frame, as a plaintive string section backed by a noodling organ churns out a driving, tragic melody indulging in repetitive minimalism.
The cart’s driver, Ohlsdorfer, is an old but hard-looking man whose black and white beard flows and undulates against the whipping wind. The naked branches of the stripped trees look like cracks against a dusty, broken, gray sky with not a cloud in sight.
As dynamic as the camera behaves, its subjects are sullen creatures who seem to go through the motions of life simply because they are alive. The old man lives with his daughter in a little cottage on a wind-swept grey landscape with bare trees. And his daughter barely converse besides noticing how the world is slowly coming to a stop around them. The most powerful scene is dinner time. If you can call it that. They dine on a single boiled potato each. They strip the skin off the potato with their fingers and rub in salt for flavour with their bare hands. Life reduced to ritual.
And they do this boiled potato eating scene several times over the course of the film, without edits, but from different camera angles, and then they go their separate ways to sit in front of windows as if to watch television. They look out at the churning, dry waste, quiet and seemingly stupefied at what appears to be the never-ending disintegration of the world. After they go to bed one night, early in the film, the father notices something. “Can’t you hear them either?” he asks her, as they lie in bed off camera.
“The woodworms, they’re not doing it. I’ve heard them for 58 years. But I don’t hear them now.”
“They really have stopped. What’s it all about, papa?”
“I don’t know.”
But the active viewer has lots of space to fill in the subtext. The Turin Horse is existentialism represented as cinema. The color palette of black and white and varying shades of gray compliments the wasteland this man lives off with only his horse and daughter. They dwell in a decaying cottage on dry land with vegetation reduced to skeletal branches by the windstorm that never relents for the duration of the movie. In fact, the occasions when the musical score stops, which is the same piece that appeared with horse at the film’s opening, the ebb and flow of the wind, which only varies from harsh howls to harsher howls, provides and even more stark musical accompaniment. Everything around this man and his daughter appears weather-beaten. Any color that may have once existed has been blown away by this merciless wind.
The music complements the film elegantly. It’s churning cello offers a mournful, minor key melody, backed by the sustained hum of higher-pitched violins. Over the course of the film the music fades in and out, only varying in volume and not much else. It might as well be covering the entire soundtrack, as it never seems to have a beginning and end, existing somewhere beyond the mortal lives of people.
Because the film is such a subjective experience, it would spoil the experience to describe more dramatic moments in the film. Suffice it to say that visitors do pass by the cottage to break up the monotony, including a drinking neighbor with a certain opinion on life that could resonate in today’s time. There are also lively gypsies that invite the daughter to life in America. But, in the end, the film does not cop out with any form of release or purpose for these characters.
As the music drones, so do the days, and the wind never relents, before what seems like a complete black out arrives, or could it be death itself? These people will never know because who knows if they were living to begin with?
They eat their boiled potato. The daughter struggles to eat hers and sits their quietly opposite her father, head low. Expressionless.
“Eat” say’s the father.
And then there is silence.
And then the movie ends.
I have never seen anything like it. It’s been a while since I watched it, but its scenes and music, still haunt my waking and sleeping dreams. A movie that seeps into your conscience.
And stays there. Refusing to move.
Like the Turin horse itself.