Sunday, February 8, 2009

‘All that remains is time’: Béla Tarr’s simple truth

Yes, yes, it’s a film that’s (rather shockingly) a good nine years old now, but I treated myself to a second viewing of Werckmeister harmóniák (2000) last night and feel compelled to share the joy, as always.

Besides, there’s always a chance that there are people out there who, like me, have heard little of what I reckon must be Hungary’s – nay, Europe’s – best living filmmaker in our very midst. Part of the reason for this is because, quite simply, his work hasn’t been in a great hurry to get itself translated and exported over here and elsewhere; but now that is it available I urge anyone interested in ‘film’ (rather than ‘movies’) to put your life on hold until you are able to bask in Tarr’s style of filmic greatness.

Béla Tarr does not tell stories; he aims for something simpler, clearer. Ultimately, he wants to show humanity, to bring the audience closer to the people on screen. Verbal communication is secondary to the physical presence of his characters, which is why we are graced with long takes, slow, brooding camerawork, and bleak, beautiful landscapes in which these people can move and breathe. Tarr claims that this unhurried approach is an attempt to follow an underlying logic that lies in not in what is said, but in the smaller details within a scene – Tarr avoids the ‘usual’ style of editing (which he describes as being information – cut – information) as although that approach can follow the logic of a story, it doesn’t follow the ‘logic of life’.

Although often compared to Tarkovsky, Tarr has no interest in religious, political, or even philosophical matters. Werckmeister harmóniák is perplexing if you try to rationalise it – is it an allegory? A rumination on political opportunisim, collective anxiety, chaos? Existential terror? No. Apparently it is exactly how it appears on the screen: “this guy who is walking up and down the village and has seen this whale.”

He may use literature as his source material, but Tarr sees film as speaking a more primitive language. “We take a novel and ruin it. And then our work is to find the right locations and bring life to it. We have to rediscover everything – and that reality must be ours.” Tarr wants you to use your eyes: “Watch. That’s important. Don’t think about it too much. Everyone can understand it if they don’t complicate it.”

“If you get closer to the people you saw on the screen; touched by the beauty of the destitute, then we’ve achieved something.” So if you haven’t already, go find yourself a copy of Werckmeister harmóniák and simply watch it, and take pleasure in it’s stark and simple beauty.

*Any of the un-linked quotations came from the interview on my lovely DVD

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