Saturday, September 13, 2008


Dir: Béla Tarr
From the novel by László Krasznahorkai
Viewed From: Long Story

Note: The following review was composed by Sean and me after a synchronized international viewing of Satantango last Saturday, September 6th. Why we chose to do this is a mystery. And though what follows may in length appear to be the screenplay to the film itself, alas, it is simply the attempt of two people to get their minds around one film. I'll start.

It is hard, to say the least, to know where to begin to talk about Satantango, Bela Tarr's epic film on the lives of a handful of poor Hungarian villagers. It is hard, really, to even describe what takes place, after realizing how poorly the phrase "lives of a handful of Hungarian villagers" lives up to what is depicted on screen. How do you capture scenes of devastating power by saying "there is a protracted close-up of an owl" or "the Doctor walked to get more fruit brandy" or "the bad guys walked through a trash-strewn alley?" You cannot. And so I won't spend much time here trying to describe the actual contents of many scenes, but rather my reactions to particular scenes, the movie as a whole, some shallow artistic analysis, and, finally, some thoughts on Tarr.

First though, a few hopelessly inadequate descriptions are required to explain the basic outline of the movie. The entire thing, seven hours worth, takes place during the course of two days in a rain-soaked Hungarian village. It begins, after a great establishing tracking shot of a heard of cows (see what I mean?), with the rough outlines of a criminal plot. From the discussion between Futaki (Miklós Székely B., star of Tarr's Damnation) and Schmidt (szló Lugossy, the 'earth' from Werkmeister Harmonies' unforgettable opening sequence), we learn that quite a few villagers have planned a large left, but that Schmidt and his friend Kraner (János Derzsi) are going to abscond with the money before the planners meet that night. Futaki, though, after sleeping with Schmidt's wife (Éva Almássy Albert), overhears the plan and demands to be cut in.

For those hoping for a long unpacking of a criminal enterprise gone awry, with backstabbing, double dealing, and a final shot of all the participants shooting each other...sorry. Though it has the making of the genre where the dumb rubes get caught up in a world they do not understand, the proposed theft never truly takes place. As it turns out the money had been gathered by villagers to invest in a new communal farm, and believing the head of the plan has died- the poet criminal Irimias (Mihály Vig) - the villagers agree to split the investment money.

Rumors of the death of Irimias and his henchman Petrina (Putyi Horváth, in possibly the only comic performance in Tarr's filmography) are premature however, and in the second chapter the two return to the village after an important chat with the local authorities. Whatever Irimias's plans truly are - is he an anarchist, a true communist, a prophet, a savior? - they are big, and involve explosives. As Futaki claims of Irimias, he "can build a castle out of horseshit." It may be unclear what the castle is in this metaphor, but after two hours of watching the villagers slop around in the mud, it's pretty obvious what the horseshit is.

Okay, that's the set up. So how does Tarr transform such a simple outline into a extended allegory on communism, human frailty, suffering, faith, hope, and all other sorts of grand things? Well, first it is good to remember that like in all Tarr films, the Hungarian experience of communism - pretty bad even on that sliding scale - is always present. After all, it was the constant promise of communism that peasants and laborers could achieve redemption through hard work. (For a look at the human experience of eastern block countries, rather than the political Cold War narrative that's most often invoked, see Arthur Koestler's The God that Failed) But to view the movie as a simple human portrayal of political and ideological failures misses the care and dedication to character that is Satantango's greatest strength.

One thing that sets the story - based on the novel of the same name by the Hungarian writer szló Krasznahorkai - apart from the cheap allegories of someone like Orwell is that the characters come first, and the larger thematic elements are based upon how these characters live and act - not the other way around. I don't know the universal reaction to the film, but I didn't begin thinking about many of the symbolic elements until long after the film; the characters, on the other hand, are immediately brilliant.

The three primary characters of the film are Irimias, the doctor (Peter Berling), and the seriously disturbed child of one of the villagers, Estike (Erika Bók). The latter two, or more precisely, the introductory chapters on these two characters, were the biggest source of discussion between Sean and I. I have a hard time criticizing anything in this movie, but I can give a descriptive account of these scenes, and there is no question that the two times I felt least engaged in the movie were during the doctor's walk and the introduction to Estike. However, unlike the villagers themselves, I think the audience is rewarded for enduring these scenes.

I'll explain. As the only two characters that are outside of the plot (they have nothing to do with Irimias or the theft) they provide the twin poles through which which the audience experiences the movie. The doctor, as it turns out, is an almost omnipotent watcher on the town, and though we are supposed to care about him, his character functions more as a way to care through him about the village. If there is one fault with the doctor, it is that he is humanized too much, as we see his history with the prostitutes of the town (the only scene I can say really wasn't necessary) and with his needles. In a sense, he really does not belong as a well-rounded three dimensional character. He barely leaves his house, and the town seems to not care about him at all.

The other important character, Estike, is the most enigmatic in the film. The doctor, though an abstraction, is still recognizable, but what to make of a near mute and retarded child who tortures a cat for nearly 20 minutes? At this point, I don't know. As a dramatic device, Estike is necessary to realize the depth and depravity to which the town has fallen, and her fate becomes the moment when the town must really confront its horrors. So this justifies the girl inclusion, but how to tell her story so that she isn't simply a cheap device to advance the plot? Again, I don't know, but the way Tarr and Krasznahorkai chose to do it caused equal parts of boredom, repulsion, and fascination. It may not be the perfect sequence or device, but it is the part of the movie that I think most people will remember the longest.

One problem that Sean and I discussed was that the two scenes of the doctor and Estike are consecutive, meaning we spend a long time away from the most engaging character, Irimias. Irimias, unlike the doctor and Estike, is not only profound, meaningful, and essential to the thematic arc of the story, but is also a captivating speaker. In a novel, a good writer can create characters without dialogue using description, but a twenty page description of a character is always going to be more immediately interesting than a twenty minute shot of a mute actor, no matter how well shot. I imagine that in the novel, these three characters form a narrational triad, where your interest moves between the perspectives of all three. But in the film version, Irimias becomes the dominant voice; in part, simply because he speaks.

In a theater, the experience might be different. I saw both Werkmeister Harmonies and Damnation -the other two collaborations between Tarr and Krasznahorkai - on screen, and Tarr is a director that above all else demands consistent attention. In comments with Sean, I mentioned that I liked seeing it at home, but in retrospect, there wasn't one scene with the emotional power of the hospital sequence in Werkmeister or the dancing scene from Damnation. Tarr is a master hypnotist, and I often forget where I am watching his films, but it's a hard spell to cast without the giant screen and the blackened theater.

There is, of course, also the question of length when it comes to Satantango and I think an argument can be made that of the three collaborative efforts, Satantango represents the one where the concerns of the novel overwhelm the concerns of film. Sean will laugh at this, but when I watch movies based on novels, I always translate scenes back into how they would be described, and the movie makes a stunning case for Krasznahorkai's talents. Yet in doing so, in the care and dedication it takes to realize all of the connections between the villagers, the doctor, Estike, and Irimias, it also stretches Tarr's capacity for visual storytelling to its limit.

Prior to Satantango, I was convinced that Krasznahorkai's use of symbolism and image got Tarr out of the technically marvelous but emotionally flat realism where he began his career. Films like Family Nest and The Prefab People were jarring, but Tarr had 'only' a visceral anger and a perfect eye to work with; his early films, put simply, were not art. But the brilliant collaborations that surrounded Satantango allowed Tarr to focus his camera on characters and images beyond concrete housing slabs, drunken families, and violent men. These things still remained, of course, but they transcended the actual characters and objects they were based on. The extended dancing scene in Satantago prior to Krasznahorkai would have been devoid of music, disgusting, and violent, but instead it achieves a kind of beauty even after the audience learns the horrors that accompanied it.

But over the course of seven hours, I think Tarr may have sacrificed too much to the novelist by refusing to reign in several scenes. It's not that it is too long or too methodical, but that that there are so many powerful moments that, for the first time in a Tarr film I've seen, the art overtakes the artist. Really, the trouble is that Krasznahorkai's novel may have been too good. It probably helps novels like Werkmeister to bring Tarr's talents to bear on the visual enactment of a giant whale entering town, or a mob destroying a hospital, but Satantango lacks those fantastical elements. I found myself instead of being hypnotized by the scene, hypnotized by the idea of the scene.

It's funny to look back at the top and see that I was questioning how one would describe these scenes. Funny because of course Krasznahorkai did just that, and likely in language better than "the bad guys walked down a trash-strewn street." Whether he is a great novelist who helped Tarr, or whether Tarr is a great director who helped him, the resulting product - the best trilogy of films I can think of - is unquestionably great. Even if Satantango doesn't reach the perfect amalgam of story, actors, and camera of Werkmeister, it's visual brilliance, honest devotion to character, and sheer emotional weight make it an incomparable film, one I don't think will ever be equalled.

To ying your yang, whenever I read a book I envision how it would be shot as a movie.
I can't fault Satantango of much either. But my praise mostly revolves around the technical aspects of the film and its method of storytelling. It's one of the most stunningly composed movies I've seen. What I was most surprised with was his use of sound. It's something that I did not pick up on in Werkmeister. From the incidental sounds of people walking, the rain or any of their actions, to the actual dialog -- it is all sparse and repetitive. The kind of sound that is used to hypnotise people. A clock ticking, money being counted, footsteps on leaves, a glass rocking on a counter, a broom sweeping, a girl rolling back and forth, a drunk man telling the same story over and over again, footsteps, footsteps... And it's all a crucial part of the story. Each sound gives you a window into this world and into the heads of the characters. It can be a bit demanding on the viewer but if you care you can come to a realization why every shot is the way it is and every sound is where is in the grand design. Not only is the movie constructed like the steps of the tango, but you have to do a little dance with it yourself to stay attuned and in step to what Tarr is presenting.

One of my problems was the lack of a Janos in the film. A charismatic character to help guide you into this world. I don't have much of an interest in the Hungarian experience of communism, just as I don't with the Serbian experience from When Father Was Away on Business. I don't mean to belittle the importance of the suffering these people went through and are still going through or the rich history of these countries but there is so much complexity to the world that I wouldn't hold it against anyone in Europe or Asia if they didn't have much of an interest in the civil war of the states. And this is not to say that I didn't connect with Satantango, I did, but I didn't connect with any of these characters the same way I did with Janos. The evil little girl and the drunk doctor are the two most memorable characters for me, and like you pointed out they are the ones that have the least to do with the plot machinations of the film and neither of them are particularly characters I enjoy looking back on as they're both quite sad. Irimias for me was more entertaining and interesting as an idea than when he was when he was on film. Like the notorious friend of a friend that you continually hear stories about for years and then when you finally meet them they can only let down your expectations. He is certainly a captivating speaker, which his part and role in the story requires, but I didn't always understand what the other characters saw in him besides his youth and sophistication, both somewhat superficial features.

My favorite character in the movie is Hungary. "Can you smell it? The earth." I felt like I could smell it. And it doesn't smell good -- but lord does it look amazing; the images are so tactile. All the people in this farming community look like they sprouted up out of the ground themselves. As do the homes and buildings -- everything organic. The cracks in the land match the cracks in their faces. In a lot of scenes we are watching as they either walk away into the horizon/into the ground, or coming from the horizon/out of the ground, or like the nasty little girl, disappearing into a hole in the barn that appears like it could dissolve back into the earth at any moment. The framing of these shots has the picture filled primarily with the earth, very little sky and the camera never tilting upward, achieving that special Tarr feeling of claustrophobia even when we're outside. I think these locations, this land was the most tenderly tended to character; at any rate it was the character that kept my attention while the other ones went through their motions.

As I've said before regarding Tarr, there's a majesty in his pacing, a deliberateness that is transcendental. In the Werkmeister Harmonies review I mentioned how the length of some shots may seem superfluous or indulgent until the realization kicks in and that usually happens right as the particular moment in the film is ending and then we're on to the next shot, rinse and repeat. For this is what Tarr captures best: moments. It's the same thing that Harmony Korine said after Mister Lonely when people asked him how he works, he isn't so much interested in telling a story as he is in giving the viewer a series of moments that when taken as a whole represent the story he wants to tell. In Satantango, there are some realizations that don't reveal themselves until later on in the film but (almost) every single time they are there to be found and finding, or having them be revealed to you, is a wonderful, beautiful thing. Except for the scene that in some ways serves as the false ending to the story. From what I gathered, two government employees are translating Irimias' reports on the townspeople and turning his lurid descriptions into blunt data entry. It's briefly funny but the scene goes on and on with no real payoff, no real reward that all the other moments in the film have. The scene is so straightforward, which may the point but it felt out of place in the movie. A bit like the scene that it relates to when Irimias is being released -- they both feel more like scenes than the moments he normally deals with. If this were the true ending of the movie rather than the poetic piece with the doctor that follows, it would have been a real disappointment.

These problems are very minor in their impact of the movie, I only point them out since Paddy pointed out most of what's great about it. It does raise an interesting question for me though. How much of a literary experience do I want from a movie? I can understand, to a certain point, when people get angry at a movie for changing parts of a book they hold dear when it inevitably gets adapted. I never complain too much about this because I understand the cinematic experience is uniquely different from the literary experience. And I like that. Of course, because I am a wholly obsessed movie nerd I like my books to have a certain cinematic, kinetic nature to them and I love comics because they are extremely cinematic by design. Now Satantango is about as close as you can get to having a literary experience with a film. But what Tarr is able to do, for the majority of the time, is to never let the cinematic ball drop. It's a remarkable balancing (or juggling, to keep my metaphors straight) act and is what I think about when you say you wonder if Satantango will ever be equalled. For this reason, not to knock Fassbinder, I shudder at the thought of sitting through half of Berlin Alexanderplatz but would happily sit through another 7 hour Tarr epic if he were to make another one. But the next time I would make sure I got more than 6 hours sleep and didn't have a crippling hangover.


Yes, we certainly have different approaches. I know you see films in books, which is why I thought it was funny that I was thinking of words on a page while watching this. And of course I was enjoying some fine Belgian beer while you were suffering; we all know everyone experiences a film differently, but this was really pushing it. I do want to talk about a lot of what you said, but I think this might be approaching it's own seven hour mark, so I'll keep it short.

First, I like what you said about the organic nature of the town and the streets. Not only are the inside and outside the same, but the lonely walk on the dirt road feels the same as the lonely walk on the street, and the emotion - though for the life of me I can't pin it down - is constant regardless of circumstance. And I agree on the penultimate scene. The only justification really is that every scene is long, so it would break up the flow to cut this short. I think it's justifiable to include it, not just as a way of tying up some lose ends, but it also gives you a glimpse (well, a Tarrian glimpse anyway) at the fat and alcoholic bureaucrats who control so much of the destiny of the villagers. But it did feel out of place, and that would have been one sour apple without the final act with the doctor.

One small disagreement, but nothing major. I think Tarr is going for more than moments or images here; I think they are all in the service of telling stories of individual lives, and a bigger story about human existence. If you watch early Tarr, it's pretty clear that he as interested in narrative as in image (a big difference, incidentally, from his imitator Van Sant). I haven't seen Korine, but from the quotes you gave and your review of Mister Lonely, he doesn't appear as interested in story. I think the interest in individuals is what makes Tarr such an amazing director. What sets him apart from other visual-artist types is that even if you strip away the technique, there is an interest, a passion really, in filming everyday lived experience as strong as that of realist filmmakers like the Dardenne brothers.

Finally, I completely agree that the lack of a Janos makes the film less accessible. Not to kill this point, but it is a big difference between cinema and literature. In a novel, you can get away with mostly silent observers as the primary source of identification for the audience, but in film the lack of dialogue is lot more difficult to handle. It's like what would happen if you put Faulkner's characters on screen; they are just too withdrawn to really grab the audience though they shine on the page. And I don't mean identification in the sense that you think the character is like yourself, just that there is a co-witness to the events with a basic sense of human morality. The gradual breakdown in order in Werkmeister, for example, is powerful because you know there is someone in the film experiencing the same emotions you are. In a sense, the lack of a Janos makes Satantango an even more ambitious film, in that it forces you to observe these lives without the filter of the nice protagonist. You're really on your own here. The doctor and the girl may know what's going on, but they aren't telling anyone.

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