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The Turin Horse

The Turin Horse

By Ben Nicholson • July 29th, 2013
Static Mass Rating: 5/5
Artificial Eye

Release date: September 10th, 2012
Certificate (UK): 15
Running time: 146 minutes

Country of origin: Hungary
Original language: Hungarian with English subtitles

Director: Béla Tarr
Writers: László Krasznahorkai, Béla Tarr

Cast: János Derzsi, Erika Bók, Mihály Kormos

The Turin Horse

“God is dead” is a statement that occurs numerous times throughout the work of German philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche, most notably in The Gay Science. There is naturally much that could be inferred from this theory – and much is – but one such facet is a natural de-scent into nihilism after the death of God. Nietzsche believed that without the idea of a God then life would descend into meaninglessness as people would have nothing to cling to.

It is this very idea of Nietzsche’s which sits as a central element of Béla Tarr’s ‘final’ film, The Turin Horse. The piece opens with a narration over a black screen which tells the true tale of the philosopher leaving his house in Turin and having a breakdown (which ended in his death in 1900) after he saw a horse being flogged in the street. Tarr decides to ask ‘what happened to the horse?’

Though the events of the film are clearly not set in or around Turin, and in fact are located in Tarr’s homeland of Hungary, we imagine that the horse and farmer we watch trudging through a storm for the four-and-a-half-minute opening shot of the film are those from the tale.

We see the haggard farmer and the mangy, tired horse arrive back at a small isolated farmhouse where he is helped in sequestering the horse and cart it into the outbuildings by his daughter.

The rest of the film sees the two rustic peasants living in the farmhouse over the course of six days in near silence except for the escalating storm outside. The plot, or what there is of one, can essentially be described as the man and his daughter having dinner – always a potato, each with a pinch of salt – every day and little else happening in between.

The Turin Horse

As we move through the six days, we see a number of cursory things about the very sim-plistic lives of the two characters but little real insight into their characters. Ohlsdorfer (János Derzsi), does not have the use of one of his arms – perhaps due to a stroke as Nietzsche also suffered – and it’s up to his daughter (Erika Bók) to help him do things such as getting dressed or bridling the horse. We watch these events several times over the course of the six days.

What Tarr does during this period is essentially show the apocalypse approaching. In one of the few scenes with some sort of action they are visited by a friend Bernhard (Mihály Kormos) who claims that the local community is crumbling. We wonder if this will spark the film into a more conventional plot but Ohlsdorfer dismisses his claims as rubbish. Similarly some gypsies steal water from their well and this also seems like it may shift the story into more familiar territory. Despite the decision to leave, they do not.

Having dinner is what really embodies the nihilistic aspect of the film most typically, and this is foreshadowed by the eponymous horse. The animal stops eating anything after the arrival back at the farm, and when they try to bridle it up to take Ohlsdorfer to town it re-fuses to budge. This lack of motivation and slow fall into not even being able to muster the strength to bother moving is a wonderful omen of things to come.

Each time we see the characters eating their potato dinner, it’s shot slightly differently to the previous time but it is also played out slightly differently. Ohlsdorfer wolfs down his whole potato on the first occasion, so fast he continually burns his fingers and mouth but soon he is eating more slowly and by the end of the film, his daughter does not eat a single bite.

Of course this all sounds incredibly bleak and in its overarching themes it does feel that way. When the two of them decide to escape the farm as the well runs dry, they manage to get just over the ridge before turning back. We are not given any explanation as to why but it would be in keeping with the tone if they just gave up. The Turin HorseWhether, as the film closes, we should assume the end has come is for the audience to decide for itself.

What always gives Tarr’s work another level though is the unrivalled beauty of his images. Though nothing here quite equals the balletic exquisiteness of the opening of his previous masterpiece Werckmeister Harmonies, there are some astounding pieces of photography throughout the 30 shots that make up The Turin Horse. As the opening scene’s single take shows the mounting storm and the effort required to get through it, we are treated to some scenes in which it is hard to believe there has not been a single cut.

This aesthetic beauty gives the film a sense of wonder and hope that is perhaps not there in the scene being played out, but it also gives the film a mesmeric quality. There is not a second that does not feel wholly necessary even when what we are seeing does not seem to enhance the story; it is always of course enhancing the mood along with the performances and Mihály Vig’s doom-laden score.

This film has to be seen to be believed. It’s not for those who despair and slow art-house cinema, but otherwise it’s an utterly stupendous attempt to explore nihilism and apocalypse through the majesty of film. And to find out whatever did become of that horse.

Ben Nicholson

Ben Nicholson

Ben has had a keen love of moving images since his childhood but after leaving school he fell truly in love with films. His passion manifests itself in his consumption of movies (watching films from all around the globe and from any period of the medium’s history with equal gusto), the enjoyment he derives from reading, talking and writing about cinema and being behind the camera himself having completed his first co-directed short film in mid-2011.

His favourite films include things as diverse as The Third Man, In The Mood For Love, Badlands, 3 Iron, Casablanca, Ran and Grizzly Man to name but a few.

Ben has his own film site, ACHILLES AND THE TORTOISE, and you can follow him on Twitter @BRNicholson.

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