Not With a Bang, But a Whimper, by Scott Nye
“In Turin on 3rd January, 1889, Friedrich Nietzsche steps out of the doorway of number six, Via Carlo Albert. Not far from him, the driver of a hansom cab is having trouble with a stubborn horse. Despite all his urging, the horse refuses to move, whereupon the driver loses his patience and takes his whip to it. Nietzsche comes up to the throng and puts an end to the brutal scene, throwing his arms around the horse’s neck, sobbing. His landlord takes him home, he lies motionless and silent for two days on a divan until he mutters the obligatory last words, and lives for another ten years, silent and demented, cared for by his mother and sisters. We do not know what happened to the horse.”
Following this prologue, which explains the unseen inciting incident of the film (I can hear my screenwriting teacher straining to make this film fit into Syd Field’s storytelling model), The Turin Horse co-writer/director Bela Tarr cuts to what might be the longest establishing shot ever – an unbroken take lasting some five-to-seven minutes of Ohlsdorfer (János Derzsi) driving his cart, led by what we take to be the titular horse. But Tarr’s film is only a guess at how the horse’s story might have turned out – it’s not a meditation on what the original tale suggests, much less an adaptation of it. It uses the horse’s fate, which takes on less and less importance as the film wears on, and Nietzsche’s subsequent collapse into insanity, as a way to watch the world end.
In the film’s second shot (beginning with the title card “The First Day”), Ohlsdorfer leads the horse up towards his farm, but there’s something else troubling about his quest than merely the agony of walking a horse uphill (which Tarr conveys with no reluctance) – the wind is tearing up the land. It’d be a standard issue storm, but there’s something more menacing about this wind, how it whips up Ohlsdorfer’s hair and jacket, blowing leaves and sticks in all directions. And then it doesn’t stop. For five days it continues, pounding away, unceasing, until what became an inescapable presence is no longer. And the water disappears. And then the gas lamps go out, and refuse to be lit again. And then the sun doesn’t rise.
Tarr’s vision is unceasingly grim beyond even the natural forces that bear down on Ohlsdorfer and his daughter (identified only as “Ohlsdorfer’s daughter,” played by Erika Bók). A recurring musical piece by composer Mihály Víg at first seems to distractingly foreshadow the impending misery, but it slowly becomes that misery all on its own (it’s a wonderful piece of music, but with each repetition things seem to sink lower and lower). We don’t know whether or not Ohlsdorfer, as terrifying a physical presence as he is a pitiable spiritual one, is the man Nietzsche met on the road, but he visits the same agony on the horse the classic tale related. His daughter doesn’t fair much better. He expects her to attend to the things which he believes he cannot due to his dead right arm. When his expectations are not met, he’ll command their completion. At dinner time, he mashes away at his daily meal of a single potato with his working arm, steadfastly shoving bits of the vegetable into his mouth at he glowers across the table at his daughter (even his locked-shut right eye seems to pierce us), assigning to her all of his life’s misfortune. After dinner, he’ll sit by the window and watch the wind blow across the land, as a more modern man may retire in front of the television.
In a scene as memorable for its content as for the fact that it contains by far the bulk of the film’s dialogue, Ohlsdorfer’s neighbor Bernard visits their farm, hoping to obtain some palinka, an alcoholic beverage the farmer and his daughter enjoy daily. Ohlsdorfer asks Bernard why he doesn’t simply go to town, and Bernard tells him the town has been blown away. There’s nothing left. He launches into a terrifying monologue several minutes in length that poetically tells of man’s destiny to be torn down, or tear itself down. After listening calmly to the whole speech, Ohlsdorfer simply replies, without hesitation, “That’s rubbish!”, as though the entirety of Bernard’s vision could be summarized with so few words, even if one did truly believe them. Bernard disappears slowly on the horizon, and with him the last promise in a dying world – that one can still think, reason, and question.
His daughter falls easily into the role of the long-suffering woman, who in opposition to her father has no great expectation for how the day will proceed, and is resultantly content with its outcome. For whatever length of time her mother may have been present, she’s long gone now, so the daughter is responsible for – daily – braving the winds, removing the plank of wood from atop the well, pulling up the bucket, filling half of the two buckets she has carried with her, dropping the bucket back down, and repeating the same task. Later she will boil two potatoes, and she and Ohlsdorfer will not wait for them to cool before consuming them. I could repeat her duties, both daily and irregular, without much hesitation, so often do we see them repeated (all the more terrifying when the well has run dry). Each time, Tarr finds a new point of entry into the scene, and a new way of shooting it. While his shots are long, they’re rarely static, yielding six or seven brilliant, unique compositions after some movement of camera and performers. The tasks and the environment may be the same, but each day presents a new challenge, an extra layer of determination.
Even if its subject matter – the ongoing will to survive against the cruelest elements (which, on top of everything else, includes a horse that refuses to pull its cart or eat, making definitive escape impossible), the inability to recognize the inevitable, and the slow, punishing nature of existence – weren’t so compelling, one cannot help but be enraptured by how easily Tarr glides from set-up to set-up, each masterfully situating his protagonists in a place both all their own and at the mercy of their surroundings. They would be fully engulfed in the elements but for their house. Strong though it may be (and the aural cues tell us they are firmly sealed from the ongoing apocalypse that is bearing down on them), will it last? Does it matter, if the water’s gone and the town’s been blown away? At what point do you stop looking over the hill, hoping anything will be different?
Although, or perhaps because, he’s often recognized (as an identifying characteristic if not an awarded practice) for his long takes and slow pace, time sort of slips away while watching The Turin Horse. We have a definitive idea of how the days will progress, and their relative length (each new day is marked by a title card), but we know not how many there will be, nor the precise challenges that will upset the miserable hole that claims itself the status quo. In this way, The Turin Horse is life as it is lived, when the options for living remain few. Tarr’s vision may be apocalyptic, but it feels more like the natural decaying of the earth as a physical unit than a God-sent disaster. Because, in the end, if it were God’s wrath, that would at least demonstrate that God even exists. Tarr’s vision gets you to think again about the void that you sometimes feel is out there; the great nothingness. That any effort to fight it is futile at best, fatal at worst, and any redemption is necessarily small.