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Reviews

The Turin Horse

The Turin Horse

A torinói ló

Béla Tarr

Hungary, 2011

Credits

Review by Michael Nordine

Posted on 27 November 2011

Source Cinema Guild 35mm print

What’s this darkness?

Béla Tarr would be a lot like Samuel Beckett if he had a more overt sense of humor. Like Beckett, Tarr treats both the brevity and banality of our miserable existence as incontrovertible fact, a point he often reinforces for the duration of an entire film—or, indeed, several in a row. The Turin Horse, which Tarr says is to be his final work, serves as a comprehensive (and, for Tarr, relatively brief at two-and-a-half hours) summation of this career-long predilection. What is curious about the film is that, though it has much in common with its predecessors and can readily be compared to certain literary forebears (Beckett in particular, absurdism in general), it also stands completely on its own. One could walk into it without having seen a single of its maker’s previous efforts and emerge with a rather accurate – if clipped – sense of the concerns that have been rattling around Tarr’s head for at least the last three decades. In this way, it’s as much a primer for the uninitiated as it is a grand finale for the devotees.

The opening sequence is most funereal: no less than five minutes of the eponymous beast of burden trotting along under the direction of its master, driven forward not only by the whip but, it seems, an urgency which colors the mundanity of not only its own life but that of its owner as well. (In the following scene, man pulls horse—no one escapes work.) The nameless horse itself is of tremendous size, dark with light patches on its coat, and, for the time being, entirely unheard: the only sound in these opening minutes is the dirge of a theme, a recurring piece of music so melancholic as to perhaps be the single most recognizable artifact of the entire film. Tarr always exhibits a master’s control over his work, but here especially and in large part due to the music there’s a certain rhythmic, even mesmerizing quality to the proceedings that makes them far more buoyant than one would expect. The Turin Horse is long, repetitive, and slow, but so much is contained within its sheen of tedium that it never bores. The purgatorial homestead the man and his horse are headed toward is no less windswept or coated in dust and fog as the path they are presently on. The monotony that awaits them there seems somehow worse, however, if only for the fact that the very act of moving appears to hold some promise. The interminable days are broken into smaller bits and pieces, and the only way to move from one to the next is to complete the task at hand. What promise that holds will almost certainly go unfulfilled, but for the moment it doesn’t matter.

Aside from the contextual title card that precedes the first scene, there is no overt mention of the fact that this horse is meant to be the one whose public whipping on the streets of Turin is said to have precipitated Nietzsche’s nervous breakdown. Though absent for much of the film, the horse nevertheless carries a symbolic weight that makes it loom large even in the background. Its existence is every bit as joyless as its owners’, and the fact that it works for them without even being treated well (the man does indeed whip the creature) makes a Balthazar comparison tempting as shorthand if not as the final statement on its stature. On this barren land which doesn’t even qualify as a farm, everything from fetching water out of the well to shutting the door is a tiresome chore. The wind literally never stops howling and nothing but potatoes grow anywhere. Leisure doesn’t exist. It’s almost as though Tarr isn’t merely shooting this crushing environment in black and white but that the world itself is sapped of all color and warmth. Unlike its masters, the horse isn’t cognizant of any of this. There’s a quietude to its stillness, which Tarr likens to a kind of gift.

Tarr’s fixation on the peasantry seems to me not entirely unlike David Lynch’s explorations of small-town America1. There’s much banality to the goings on, but dark eccentricity shines through in occasionally humorous ways—as when, halfway through the film, a band of Romani rides into view and are met with the following reaction from the man: “What the fuck do they want?” For much of the film the man isn’t so much laconic as he is simply mute; both he and his daughter seem to regard speaking as a waste of energy. But here, when something has threatened his routine, he has no qualms with raising his voice. Before his daughter can raise her voice to answer, the man orders her to shoo them away so as not to disturb them. It’s one of two moments in which the man is presented (or, depending on one’s view of things, confronted) with an opportunity to disturb the monotony of daily life, and in both instances he balks. The devil he knows is apparently preferable to the one he doesn’t, and the man is complicit in how endlessly dreary his life is. Here every day is exactly the same as the one before, and, considering how laboriously each and every detail is depicted, there’s one daily happening that goes by rather quickly: their daily meal of a single potato2. Without fail, the man grabs his piping-hot tuber, tears away its skin, and devours it ravenously—all with his hands. It seems to be the only thing he enjoys, and yet there’s a ferocity to the act that makes even it seem born of desperation and far from the respite it should be.

The end result of Tarr’s immersions in the drudgeries of existence tends to be neither conquest nor defeat, a curious trait that further removes him from most of his peers. This is how it is, and people can either adapt or suffer more than they already are by struggling against it in vain. There’s never any question in The Turin Horse as to whether this punishing drudgery can in any way be bested, and the one attempt to in any way better the situation is almost immediately aborted—none of Camus’ rebels here. If, to simplify things a great deal, the answer for Camus was to rebel and for Beckett it was to laugh, then Tarr seems finally to suggest compliance as the most pragmatic response. It is with resigned acceptance that man and daughter, who by the end of the film are cloaked in an inexplicable darkness from which there will likely be no reprieve, continue to go about their business. This is Tarr at his most Sisyphean: the light flickers out, the man rekindles it; the light goes out again, the man rekindles it again. Even though he eventually gives up, it isn’t all doom and gloom. When the world is drained of light, they choose to live in darkness. Tarr himself has called the film ugly and, while I take his point, I must ultimately disagree: The Turin Horse is shot with such morose beauty that its unspoken sadness serves as its own small catharsis. There’s a sort of humble transcendence in continuing to wake up and meet the day regardless of how droll, repetitive, and unlikely to ever improve it is; if nothing else, it beats the alternative. The last line of Beckett’s The Unnamable – “I can’t go on, I’ll go on” – is strangely apropos here.


  1. Even The Man from London, which amounts to Tarr’s take on noir and is relatively plot-driven, concerns itself with the poorest circles of a small port town.
  2. Between the extremely in-depth depiction of mundane events and how prominently potatoes feature, it’s difficult not to think of the film as being of a piece with Jeanne Dielman.

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