Looking back on it now, I am struck with the mildly disconcerting consideration that I was genuinely excited. I am not often ‘genuinely excited’ …not out of some mire of emotional lethargy (although, occasionally: guilty) but due to that common inability to match rational emotions to their situations…y’know, a supposedly big or exciting event is tap-dancing on the horizon and yet, somehow, you feel numb to its anticipation. Yes you might be able to rationalise or intellectualise the notion that ‘I will enjoy it’ – or – ‘of course, that will be fun’…but quite often, it’s hard to work up an earnest fervour of ‘looking forward to things’. I realise this might sound more tragic than I intended. I don’t mean it to be sad, I just think it’s a combination of getting a bit older and being partial to introspection. That, and a fairly high dose of anti-depressants constricting my emotional range...Anyway, there I was, Saturday morning…and, all things considered, I was pretty excited. I got up with enough time to make a ‘survival kit’ (pepparami, chocolate raisins, sandwiches, single can of red bull) and was, as I said, ‘genuinely excited’….why? Because I was about to experience a rare seven-hour screening of monumentally slow, black and white, deeply anguished Hungarian cinema: Sátántangó. That I should be so excited over this Everest of Cinephilia makes me feel as though I should reflect on life priorities: this spiralling enthusiasm for dark rooms and solitude, on my sparked emotional connection with that which is divorced from actual experience…but then, meh – who doesn’t love a slice of miserabilist slow cinema!? Am I right?
Doesn’t matter, don’t care, bought the ticket (that’s right, single ticket…hard to convince folk that a seven hour film about an impoverished community of farmers is a viable way to spend, nay, even enjoy, a Saturday). So, off I marched to Tyneside cinema, my intolerably ‘cool’ lunch for one, placed inside my equally ‘cool’ backpack, clutching that lone ticket to guaranteed existential torment. Having hopefully given a sufficient insight into my misaligned joys and questionable priorities in this, our strange and waking life, I shall cast off my wanky and preposterous tone…and try and talk a little bit about Béla Tarr’s 1994 epic film, Sátántangó.
If it is famous (or infamous) for anything, it is the extreme length of the film (450 minutes, the cinema showed it with two intermissions) and its deployment of long shots, often lasting up to just over ten minutes. It is based on the novel of the same name, by László Krasznahorkai, and follows the overlapping stories of a community led out out of their isolated village with the promise of new work and redemption on a communal farm. The film opens with an eight-minute shot, from complete stasis to tracking observation, which follows a herd of cows emerging from derelict and cavernous stables. Here we are introduced to some of the primary elements of the film’s crushingly bleak constitution: mud, silence, desolate landscapes, crumbling buildings, and the heavy presence, texture and inevitability of time. Uttering a phrase like ‘texture of time’ requires a certain amount of explanatory footwork to avoid (what would be justified) accusations of my own floundering, pseudo metaphysics.
So…the long takes vary between: studied close ups of weathered faces…lingering on the contours of each tired brow, until we feel as though we can begin to read character through the worn material of its flesh – staring at the face as a landscape; long shots of disintegrating architecture, empty rooms, cracked walls – the spaces that people have just left and yet seem expressivist in their battered collapse; shots that emphasise a tedium of banality, nothing of remarkable interest is happening – maybe rain on a window (although this often becomes hypnotic), maybe an empty room, or maybe a man eating, pissing or staring…this is the dull, unavoidable everything that is the film’s aching ‘nothing’ (at one point a character remarks ‘nothing comes to nothing’)…the heaviness of time, real time as it unfolds in and as its own event; walking shots, following men walking down a deserted city street, swirling leaves and torn debris gusting past their trudging path…an expressionless face, staring ahead, bobbing up and down with the stepping of uneven land, walking, stumbling, falling, walking, dragging, striding, walking, walking on and on and on; then there are the slow, barely perceptible - in their inching advance - zooms, that with glacial drift ,move in and out of whatever is, or is not, happening.
Unlike the slowness in Tarkovsky, where there is a sense of cumulative and transcendental meaning, these shots instead feel oppressively bare, human and alone. In Tarkovsky’s Mirror (1975), or the majestic journey of Stalker (1979) , boredom leans into a more profound attention; landscapes, light and movement become powerfully, if inexplicably, mysterious and spiritual. With Sátántangó however, the effect is one of mounting isolation and an unremittingly grim sense of abandonment: we are here alone, struggling in the mud; walking forward, always trying to get up, to move, to keep walking on…somewhere… I put down my chocolate raisins – this was not a chocolate raisins film. The excitable anticipation had appropriately dissolved into a kind of mesmeric doom and tedium, I was feeling exhausted.
SPOILERS : Due to its length and the intermissions taken, the film often felt like woven vignettes (that temporally followed the forward and back steps of the tango) and yet there were clearly scenes and particular strands that were more unforgettable or more arresting than the mire and space which surrounded them. Perhaps the most upsetting thread in the narrative was that of a young girl who tortures her own cat (“I am stronger than you, I can do what I want to you”) to death, and then is shown wandering listlessly through torrential rain, over hills and across endless mud, all the while holding the stiffened corpse of her cat…before finally SPOILER lying down beside a ruined chapel shrouded in fog, her dead cat beside her small form as she takes out the rat poison (with which the cat was killed) and takes it herself. Closing her eyes and holding the cold body of the cat she killed – this is her peace, her sleep and her end. By now, the Saturday excitement was somewhat waning and I was well and truly committed to the draining sadness of this trudging opus.
Thing is, depending on how you decide to view it, Bela Tarr’s bleak fascination and interrogation with human struggle can be both gut-wrenchingly serious, or, blackly, blackly comedic…in the vein of Beckett – but with more mud and realism…and silence.
As the girl tumbles on the ground, her cat choked by its scruff to be thrown this way and that – before being grotesquely hung up and abandoned in a tied rope bag, it becomes depressingly clear that this is a pivotal image. The girl, so hopelessly devoid of any real agency or control in shaping the hard life that awaits her, finds solace in the cruel exertion of a relative and cruel power: in torturing the cat. The villagers can only reach moments of joy or transcendence through lots and lots of alcohol…a great sequence, in which a suitably depressing bar is filled with the (sparse) village in its tiny population, reaches heights of repetitive bliss and hilarity…the music, combined with their drunken dancing and the camera’s looped and slow movement, create an immersive and uniquely mantric kind of cinema.
We begin with wandering cattle and end with a man boarding up his window, until, with laborious inevitability, the screen is hammered, nail-by-nail, into black. There is so much in this film and at seven hours you cannot but ‘live’ it; whether sinking into its gloomy treacle with an absurdist smile at the human condition, or weighed into its earth with an unflinching stare at the weight and wait of time… I wouldn’t recommend it with the same vigour that led Susan Sontag to see it 15 times, nor would I say I enjoyed it, but I would like to see it again…after seeing it, living through seven hours in the harsh rain and home-grown Hungarian emptiness, there is an irresistible (if somewhat crippling) ache of atmosphere in which its places and people live on, in an emphatically physical exasperation, long after the film has ended…it is not so much seeing a film, as I was used to, it is – as Béla Tarr wanted – an experience in which meaning and experience is constantly, physiologically and tiringly co-created. You cannot watch it without feeling involved as part of it, and for all the existential upset it harbours, that is a Saturday well spent.