“If something is boring after two minutes, try it for four. If still boring, then eight. Then sixteen. Then thirty-two. Eventually one discovers that it is not boring at all.”
— John Cage
Sátántangó’s first few minutes provide an unsubtle hint that we’re in for a slow and gloomy slog, though you would expect that from any film by Béla Tarr. The Hungarian master, currently retired (he insists), is an international star who never set out to make a crowd-pleaser, even if his primary characters are pleasure-seeking proles at large in the swampy ruins of the post-Communist Eastern European Bloc.
Sátántangó commences with a wide, stagnant shot over a muddy paddock, a congregation of cows rooted in puddles in the near distance. The cows are themselves pretty interesting to observe, especially as one or two appear aware of the camera. They saunter toward the edges of the frame, and the camera bestirs itself, slowly panning and tracking with the animals as they shuffle past brick walls and broken windows, a setting devoid of humans. There’s loud wind, too OTT-sounding to seem diegetic, combined with a muffled, oddly ominous bell from far away. The camera settles on chickens. Despite this evidence of a semi-functional farm, the atmosphere conveys dreary, rain-soaked neglect.
With no church in sight, the bell sounds grow more insistent, indeed dreamlike as the scene shifts to two humans, framed by a window, waking up in each other’s arms. We overhear a certain Futaki (Miklós Székely B.) announcing he’s been dreaming of the bells. Schmidtné (Éva Almási Albert) says she dreamt of a violent home invasion. These lovers are middle-aged, unglamorous, and joyless, and the question might occur to you: are they trading dreams or prophesies? Schmidtné crouches above a water basin on the floor, rinsing her vagina when her husband Schmidt (László feLugossy) arrives and Futaki slips out of sight. Eavesdropping, Futaki learns that the husband plans to make away with more than his fair share of the farm collective’s money while urging his disdainful wife to pack up and leave with him that night. Futaki then announces himself, insisting they cut him in on the larcenous escape.
Tarr organizes his narrative according to the movements of a tango, a dance progressing from forward cross to back cross to cross step––each cross defined by the orientation of the dancing partners to each other. So we experience a frequent sense of déjà vu as the plot plods back and forth, momentarily folding back on itself, replaying played-out scenes from different angles. Futaki exits the Schmidt house, then we see him exit again, watched by a lurking neighbor––an unhealthy blimp of a voyeur who smokes, drinks, and heaves himself around town. He happens to be the community doctor. Stationed at the window of his disheveled home, pencil in hand, he documents the detailed nothingness that transpires during his vigilant watch.
Need I remind you that this contemporary classic, now celebrating its 30th anniversary, is over seven hours long? Tarr seems intent on bruising his audience’s complacent idea of what a movie’s length and shape should be, challenging us to measure the inertia of characters’ lives through the assaultive density of this movie’s long takes, lengthy speeches, and absence of conventional plot points. Yet the black-and-white cinematography by Gábor Medvigy (who shot Tarr’s Damnation, a mere 116 minutes, in 1988) transforms banality into near-mythic darkness and light, a ready gloss for the forces of good and evil, with deep shadows keeping the story ambiguous and alive––everyone who lives in this shoddy village seems sour, cruel, deceitful, and morally defective.
None of the characters––transferred from the 1985 novel by László Krasznahorkai, the film’s co-writer with Tarr––can be trusted. None are virtuous or remotely “likable.” Not even Estike (Erika Bók), the elfish, wild-eyed little girl who thinks money grows from the ground and is robbed of what she stupidly buries in the dirt by her casually heartless brother. Chastised by her mother and told to sit outside the house like a punished dog, the girl doesn’t keep still for long; she sneaks off into a nearby barn to find her own victim––a defenseless kitten––to torture. She taunts the creature in a way we imagine she herself has been treated: with calm, scornful threats. She scuffles with the cat while restraining it before suspending it in a net, repeatedly slams its head into a bowl of poisoned milk, then watches as it gradually expires. She doesn’t even leave the carcass in peace, flinging its forlorn body over her shoulder while walking in trancelike silence down a twilit muddy road. It’s one of the most unbearable sequences to appear in a cinematic masterwork, and it left me just a little unsorry when the girl decides to kill herself. Did Tarr need to show the rollover effect of hapless, inherited abuse by illustrating this all-too-human condition in such excruciating detail?
Before her death, Estike spies on her fellow residents through the window of this town’s center of gravity: the bar. Her staring face appears almost demonic as the drunk villagers, unaware of her gaze, stumble, tilt, and bump up against each other, slow-dancing to a wonky, repetitive accordion dirge. There’s grim humor in the idea that any of these people can build a utopian future through the encouragement and aid of their self-appointed leader, Irimiás (Mihály Vig), a nerveless, poker-faced faux-savior. We initially encounter this dingy Jesus figure walking alongside his lackey-comrade Petrina (Putyi Horváth) as the two are lectured about the dignity of work, a notion neither takes seriously.
When Irimiás learns of Estike’s grim suicide, he takes advantage of the villager’s guilt, persuading them to hand over their collective savings, talking past their reluctance and suspicion to reassure them he will use the funds to establish a glorious new commune. Irimiás’s long, shameless speeches supply the film’s biggest dose of tragicomedy––every time he opens his mouth simultaneously declares and nullifies the dream of a bright shared future.
“Don’t take me for a liberator,” Irimiás eventually confides to an arms dealer in a rare moment of truth-telling. “Think of me as a tragic researcher investigating why everything is as terrible as it is.”
Still, Irimiás does appear to possess a few Christ-like capabilities. He can freeze time, commanding sudden silence from the café crowd’s frozen tableau of patrons and bar staff. And he can deliver persuasive, if bitter, inspirational speeches. But this is not a loving Jesus; he is cold, resentful, and merciless, an anarchist scheming to blow up the joint. He’s also a cunning capitalist, supremely self-interested, pocketing the communal cash for himself and possibly to procure explosives. In a final act of betrayal, he submits a written report on all the villagers, mocking them in the crudest terms. Government officials fielding the report dutifully rewrite it, tapping on a manual typewriter in real-time and making the insults only slightly more palatable. It’s not clear what purpose the informant’s report serves, except to emphasize the blunt bureaucratic conditioning that shapes the world of the film, a repository of collapsed Communist habits.
The most time we spend with Irimiás involves Tarr’s signature dialogue-free walking shots traversing windswept streets and roads. The man is usually filmed from behind, paired with the loyal Petrina and occasionally a younger lackey, Estike’s brother, with urban debris and black leaves relentlessly flying into the frame courtesy of supernatural gusts (generated, most likely, by industrial-strength fans). The durational power of these shots––their sense of mystery and dread––has been candidly imitated by Gus Van Sant in a series of elegantly patient, cryptic films made in the early aughts: Gerry (2002), Elephant (2003), and Last Days (2005). But of course such seen-from-behind tracking shots predate Tarr and Van Sant. A quick history would include the bold beginning of Kurosawa’s Yojimbo (1961) and the sustained shots gliding across seething puddled landscapes in Tarkovsky’s Stalker (1979), to say nothing of Alan Clarke’s bravura long-striding camera movements in his Elephant (1989, whose title was brazenly/respectfully lifted by Van Sant. In Clarke’s case, each scene’s hectic walking is capped by a violent shooting, executions performed for political causes that blur as corpses accumulate. Tarr, scoring a different point, is more interested in tracking socio-economic violence observed in ruined rural streets and the delusions of luckless people who can’t seem to get out of the rain.
While Sátántangó adheres to elements of Krasznahorkai’s novel with great faithfulness, you sometimes feel the film could have evolved from a stage play, given its verbosity and how presentational the action––particularly the protracted drunk dance scenes in the box-like bar––often is. But it’s the lingering close-ups, the spectacle of the characters’ stark faces, that bring you up against the story’s hard-boiled heart and soul. The despair that has battered these faces constitutes a display of universal suffering that seems heightened, 30 years after the film was made, as we continue to watch desperate, displaced lives caught up in cycles of impoverishment, betrayal, abandonment, and exile.
Whether or not he’s truly made his last film, Tarr is suitably described as a researcher of tragedy, asking precisely how terrible can damaged humans and their destiny be.