Tuesday, December 6, 2011

Béla Tarr | Sátántangó

the spiders’ webs
by Douglas Messerli

Béla Tarr and László Krasznahorkai (writers), based on a novel by Krasnzhorkai, Béla Tarr (director)
Sátántangó / 1994

Many film critics have written about the endurance it takes to see Béla Tarr’s 7 1/2 hour cinematic masterwork, Sátántangó (Satan’s Tango), so I undertook my attendance at the Los Angeles County Museum’s premier of this work—which requires sitting through two hours before a ten minute break, sitting through another 2 ½ hours before a dinner break of one hour, before undergoing the final segment of about three hours in length—with some trepidation. Would my bladder hold out? Might I fall asleep staying up so late beyond my usual early bedtime?

       The first long take of the film, in which for over 10 minutes we watch the muddy yards of a farming cooperative as a herd of cows slowly meander from the barn to their outdoor positions, defines the near-maddeningly indolent rhythm of everyday life of the community of failed individuals this film depicts. Yet from this first scene on one quickly becomes astonished as the bleak emptiness of the landscape is transformed, through the slow and intent revelation of Tarr’s camera, into a world of startling beauty. A narrative voice describes the wondrous sound (and sound is particularly crucial to the experience of Sátátangó) of church bells which awaken Futaki, a man having just arisen from the bed of his neighbor’s wife. But where are the bells coming from, the narrator asks, when the nearest church was bombed out in World War II, and all other churches are too far away to be heard in this small village?

      The woman’s husband, Schmidt, has planned to abscond with the profits the cooperative have made from the year’s crops, but Futaki, who sneaks out the back door and reenters through the front, is on to him, and demands he immediately receive his share. Soon after they are told by a neighborhood gossip that Irimías and his sidekick Patrina (a mysterious pair reminding one of Laurel and Hardy or, in more literary terms, Flaubert’s Bouvard and Péchuchet) have been spotted nearby—and Schmidt’s plans suddenly change.

      Through the next several rain-sodden hours, the movie, broken down into 12 parts (as in the movement of a tango, six steps forward and six steps back), reveals the interrelationships of Futaki, Mr. and Mrs. Schmidt and the other members of this community (the Kráner’s, the Halics, the local Doctor, the nearby innkeeper, the village Principal, Mrs. Horgos and her two children Sanyi and Estike) as they slowly move about the small town—or in the Doctor’s case, as he voyeuristically observes them, writing down their dreams and failures in what appear to be school notebooks.

      By dinner time we have become so familiar with these individuals as we witness the events of the day in which they split up their farm profit—most of them preparing to leave their commune for the city—that they have been transformed from mere characters into life-like figures interacting with our own world.

     In one segment we watch the Doctor in a perpetual fog of alcohol and smoke while he eavesdrops on his neighbors until finally he is forced to leave his house on a journey for more brandy. On several occasions along his way, we encounter, through him, other characters tangentially connected to the story, including, outside the bar, a young girl who calls out, as he sends her away. The Doctor collapses before he can reach his destination, and is not rescued until the next morning by a passing farmer in a cart.

     Later, we follow the same young girl (Estike) through her day as her mother forces her to remain outdoors in the rain while she beds down with one of the farmers. The girl’s brother, Sanyi, has previously tricked her to give up some coins which he buries, promising her it will grow into a money-tree. Powerless, she tortures her cat before poisoning it; upon discovering the coins have been dug up by Sanyi, she wanders aimlessly, clutching the dead cat to her side, ultimately arriving at the inn where she witnesses through the window the strange and almost comic tango of the drunken villagers within, and calls out to the passing Doctor as we have seen her do in the earlier section. Near a local ruin, she swallows the same rat poison she had fed the cat, and stretches out peacefully to die, convinced that in her acts she is now linked to everything else.

      In another movement forward, we wait within the inn as the villagers gradually gather to reap their profits, and watch the tango from another vantage point, recognizing it, this time round, as a true devil’s dance, the haunting song played again and again upon the accordion as the locals weave—in a Brueghel-like dance of death—and wind around each before they collapse. The camera catches Estike this time at the window, looking in.

     Through Tarr’s intricate interweaving of time and space, we gradually learn to both love and loath each of these characters for their unfathomable fears and hopes, their sexual and spiritual greed and pettiness. Mrs. Schmidt’s easy virtue, Halics’ closeted sexuality, the Principal’s inflated sense of superiority, the Innkeepers’ passive hatred, Schmidt’s coarse stupidity, Futaki’s clever schemes—all reveal these men and women as being so locked into the patterns of each other’s lives that we know they will never escape. All they can do is wait for the inevitable, the return of Irimiás. As if bound to one another with spiders’ webs these people have no other choice.

      Indeed, when Irimiás arrives he uses the discovery of the dead girl to his advantage, stunningly preaching a sermon over her dead body, convincing these poor peasant folk to turn over their new-found wealth to him for safe-keeping. He will meet them the next day at a nearby ruined manor, where, after he has arranged everything with the government, they will begin a new morally-grounded life. Like outcasts from their own land (ironically, these folk vengefully destroy everything they cannot take with them so as to make them unusable to the gypsies—people even more outcast than themselves) they trek the pot-holed roads on their way to new possibilities. The Manor, they discover, is in complete ruins, gutted, and they are forced to huddle together in open rooms through the cold night.

     The next day, as Irimiás does not arrive, it begins to dawn on them that they have been tricked (we already know the mysterious charmer is planning to use their money for some vaguely revolutionary purpose—in the city he has ordered up vast quantities of explosives); yet surprisingly he does return, lamely reporting that the government has decided against their use of the Manor House, and incredibly convincing them again to move on, this time scattering to separate locations where they will bide their time until they can move back to the Manor House.

     One by one, the charming conniver calls out each couple’s new destinations, providing them with enough money only until they are established in their new positions. All blindly accept his definition of their new lives except for Futaki, who insists we will work as a watchmaker, as a man, perhaps, unlike the others, who will “fix” time.

      The time Tarr (and the novelist on whose work this film based, the wonderful Hungarian novelist László Krasznahorkai [see My Year 2007] portrays is indeed in need of fixing. In the next step backward we discover two government bureaucrats rewriting a devastating report of these very people—a rhetorical attack on every figure with whom we have now become so acquainted—by Irimías! He may have radical aspirations, but he works, clearly, as an informer. Only Futaki is described as having any intelligence, but dangerous for that very fact.

     To be fair, we have witnessed an earlier scene wherein Irimías and Petrina—having been called into headquarters—are chastised by a government official for slacking. Clearly he has been ordered to provide information on the commune workers, so we are uncertain whether the reports have been readily offered up or whether Irimías has been forced or bribed to report on his former “friends.” Given the virulence of his report, however, it hardly matters; the informer has exceeded even the Doctor’s brutal observations of his neighbors. And by substantiating their unworthiness he further prevents them from taking action for his robbery of their money. 

      In the last section of this film, the Doctor, after weeks in a hospital, returns home, filled cask in hand. The rain hides from him the very fact that his subjects have all disappeared, as he dismisses them for remaining inside all day, probably, he projects, sleeping in.

     Suddenly, the church bells we have heard in the first scene eerily begin to ring again, as the narrator’s voice—which we now recognize as being the Doctor’s—repeats the first sentences of the film. Where are these bells coming from? A visit by the Doctor to the local bombed out church only reveals a madman banging upon a metal bar, shouting “The Turks are coming! The Turks are coming!” But the bells we and the Doctor hear, the bells Futaki heard, are oddly melodious, haunting in the tune they seem to play. The Doctor imagines that he may be losing his mind, and slowly and patiently closes himself within his room, boarding up his windows, retreating at the very moment when news from some unknown source is traveling through the air.

      What is coming their way? A change? Are the “turks,” a young, new force truly on their way?  Will the weak, the foolish, the poor, be able to rise up against the fumblingly arrogant men like Irimiás, or is the future Irimiás himself, a world in which such charlatans will continue to cheat the everyday men and women from their just rewards?

       All but my eyes remained dry. I was wide awake.

Los Angeles, March 25, 2008
Reprinted from Green Integer Blog (January 2009).

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