Béla Tarr’s “Sátántangó”

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Irimiás, Petrina, and Sanyi trudge down the road

What can you do in eight hours? Work a full day’s work or log a solid night’s sleep. Run 60 eight-minute miles—that’s over two marathons—or microwave 240 Hot Pockets. Or watch Sátántangó.

I recently set aside a whole Sunday to watch the film critics consider to be Hungarian director Béla Tarr’s masterpiece. Filmed between 1990 and 1994—delayed in part because political antipathy toward his previous effort, Almanac of Fall, had put Tarr in “really deep shit”—Sátántangó actually runs 435 black and white minutes, closer to seven and a half than eight hours. Still, when you account for changing out the DVD set’s three discs, which for me involved shooing the cat off of the plastic case, not to mention stretching, bathroom, and eating breaks, you’re looking at an all day experience, a test, many viewers agree, of cinematic endurance.

I first came to Béla Tarr through the literary critic James Wood, whose New Yorker piece on the writer László Krasznahorkai, Tarr’s close and frequent collaborator, appealed to my interest in the extreme, the obscure, the difficult. Not long after I read Krasznahorkai’s Melancholy of Resistance, packed in dense type with sentences too long to quote, paragraphs too long to read in a sitting, I got a hold of Tarr’s beautiful film adaptation, called Werckmeister Harmonies after one of the novel’s central sections. But all the buzz on the online forums was about Sátántangó.

I decided to read Krasznahorkai’s Sátántangó before watching Tarr’s. Though the novel, the author’s first, was originally published in Hungary in 1985, it became available to English readers only last year via New Directions’ handsomely bound hardcover edition of George Szirtes’s translation. I finished the novel the night before my chosen viewing date; for what it’s worth, the film proved to be fairly loyal to the book, both in terms of mood—grim and darkly funny—and narrative shape. The “story,” an aspect of filmmaking secondary in Tarr’s estimation to image, sound, and emotion (“I don’t care about stories. I never did. Every story is the same…. The stories are just covering something.”), involves the return or “resurrection” of two men thought dead to a derelict farm estate. After the body of a local young girl (Erika Bók) turns up, the messiah-figure Irimiás (Mihály Vig) offers a frank but seemingly empathetic appraisal of the estate’s depleted and dejected community; then, with the help of his sidekick Petrina (Putyi Horváth), he convinces the hangers-on that if they give him their pooled savings, he will arrange a better future for them… Structurally, the film retains the novel’s organizing “tango”: six steps (chapters) forward, six steps back. Shifts in perspective create overlaps or folds in the chronology, so that, for example, in one scene we see the eponymous dance from the not-yet-dead little girl’s point of view, and then again in another from the point of view of carousers themselves.

This latter scene, which you can watch here, demonstrates a few of the characteristics typical of Tarr’s work. First, the long take. In “Talking About Tarr,” a symposium transcribed in the Sátántangó DVD booklet, moderator Susan Doll compares an average Hollywood film’s “1,100 shots per 100 minutes” to the 39 shots that make up Werckmeister Harmonies’ 145 minutes. That’s an average shot length of 5.5 seconds vs. almost four minutes! Over Sátántangó’s 435 minutes there are something like 172 shots, averaging 152 seconds or about two and a half minutes per shot. This stylistic habit is so common in Tarr’s films that one interviewer begins his question about it, “You’re probably sick of being asked about the long takes in your films…”—to which Tarr responds: “Yes, I’m getting mad about it. I’ve answered it a thousand times.”

The dance scene begins with a single five-minute take, cuts to show the girl watching at the window, then cuts back to the dancers for another five minutes. The power of the scene’s long takes, their tension, comes not so much from narrative suspense (“What will happen?”) as from suspense of another kind—“How long can this go on?” or even the more abstract “Why does Tarr want me to watch a room of wasted people dance for so long?” Of course the first question is more easily answered than the second. Tarr gets tension too from that looping, infectious accordion music, which I found myself humming the next day, or the way the distance and duration of the shot gives the scene space for both repetition and variation—the steps of the dancers, the stumbling of the drunks, the tireless tapping of the bartender and the man with the cane. Containing all this in one frame occasions a kind of elegant chaos.

Despite Tarr’s reluctance to answer the same old question, he does offer a useful observation about his long takes: they provide “a special tension between the actors and the camera. That’s why I like it.” I’ve heard the Steadicam work in The Shining described as “prowling,” and though Tarr is up to something different from Kubrick, we do get the sense in Tarr’s films that the camera has a consciousness of its own. The meditative tracking, panning, and zooming in this scene contrasts with the frenzied action in the bar; this action doesn’t necessarily dictate the attention of the camera. We might even think of the consciousness of the camera as the primary or controlling consciousness of the scene. (For another look at this technique, watch for the way in this scene, around the 0:50 mark, the camera lingers a few extra seconds, not ready to relinquish its station, after the subject has left the frame.)

A final trait of Tarr’s work that’s well represented in the dance scene is the same complex mixing of gravity and comedy that we find in the film’s title: both Satan and tango. “All my movies are comedies!” Tarr has said (“Except The Turin Horse,” his latest and supposedly final film). The incongruity is obvious, for instance, when we put the quarrelsome man in the leather jacket next to the gentle one who paces with a breadstick balanced on his forehead. (Later we see a man and a woman laboriously chewing toward each other’s lips from opposite ends of a breadstick.) But in another way, for me the actions of just about every character in the bar vacillate between lightness and darkness, from cheer to desperation; the long take accommodates this kind of range, too.

Béla Tarr

Béla Tarr

What’s it like watching an eight-hour movie on the couch in your apartment? It doesn’t “feel” as long as you might expect, I think, because something happens to your sense of time and scale. Of his 1988 film Damnation, Tarr says: “…if you’re a Hollywood studio professional, you could tell this story in 20 minutes.” The same thing, relatively, could be said about Sátántangó. Another director might cut the minutes-long opening tracking shot, starring a slow gang of lowing cows, to a more commercial 5.5 seconds. After all, what does it add to the “story”? But “[w]hy did I take so long?” Tarr muses. “Because I didn’t want to show you the story.” He’s interested, rather, in showing lives—of people, of places. Which may be why he paces his films closer to “real time.” What happens, I think, if we make ourselves available to this rejection of our usual moviegoing expectations, is that we become invested in the lives we’re witnessing. The more urgent they become, the faster time seems to move, and before you know it, you’re changing discs.

Not to say that my mind didn’t wander while I watched Sátántangó, that I didn’t undergo occasional fits of frustration or bouts of shame-inducing boredom (though what’s wrong with a little boredom if it expands the range of emotions you encounter in a single artistic experience?). Tarr is a difficult, challenging artist, and the question of accessibility is crucial in thinking about his work. Even on the most basic level, catching the opportunity simply to see Sátántangó can be a feat. Not long ago, copies of the film were hard to come by, and even now, after the 2008 Facets Multi-Media release of the DVD box, purchasing the film will run you at least $50. Good luck catching a screening outside of New York or other big-city centers of culture (online forums are filled with hopeful but often unanswered inquiries as to local screenings). Doubtless there’s a financial issue involved: to watch these films about penniless Hungarian villagers, it helps to have money. Without my subscription to The New Yorker, I might never have heard of Béla Tarr; the only reason Sátántangó was so easy for me to decide to watch and get a hold of was because I have access to an incredible university media library just a mile from my apartment.

But when you think about it, that’s something you can’t say about most movies—you really have to decide to watch Sátántangó. You won’t find it on TV; you wouldn’t be likely to stream it on a whim, even if it were available on Netflix instant. You have to sniff it out, find a copy, and make time, lots of it. Then tackle the intellectual demands Tarr makes on his viewers. The running-time of Sátántangó is an obvious turn-off—who wants to spend eight hours of their day watching a movie? Who can? Not to mention a black and white one, one with spare, subtitled dialogue, and a deliberate eschewal of plot. Some viewers suspect that the main draw of the film actually is the running-time—watch it to join the elite club—and blame it for helping give foreign films the reputation of being esoteric and boring. Others congratulate it for flipping the “friendly foreign film” the bird. Tarr himself takes something of an anti-intellectual approach: “Don’t be too sophisticated. Just listen to your heart and trust your eyes.” Whether you can find a screening (which Tarr insists is the appropriate way to view his films) or borrow a copy, I suspect if you watch Sátántangó, you’ll walk away eight hours later at the least admiring the director’s complete and unflinching commitment, whatever anyone else says or does, to his singular vision. Just don’t watch it on your cell phone, which apparently Tarr has heard of someone doing. “That hurt me,” he says.

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