As the Clock Ticks: Béla Tarr’s “Sátántangó”

As the Clock Ticks: Béla Tarr’s “Sátántangó”

10:00 

It’s the last morning of the Karlovy Vary International Film Festival. The cinema Kino Čas is about half-full. It’s a good turnout, given the heat (it’s high summer in the Czech spa town) — and given the film we’re about to see, Béla Tarr’s restored 1994 Hungarian classic Sátántangó, is more than seven hours long. Then again, it’s widely held to be one of the greatest works in cinematic history. Not only that, it’s a film known to be full of relentless weather, alcohol, and the weight of time — so shouldn’t a ten-day festival hangover just add to the mood? 

The guy who takes the mike to introduce the screening, decked out in one of those Béla Tarr t-shirts with anarchist bars that Amsterdam’s Eye Filmmuseum sold as merch at their exhibition of the filmmaker, certainly thinks anyone not there is missing out. “I congratulate you,” he enthuses of our privilege to be here to witness greatness. It’s more worshipful than the self-ironizing auteur is of his own work (in Berlin, Tarr jokingly introduced the film as a “black-and-white piece of shit”), but it’s a reverence he often inspires. The film means “life is hopeless and that’s something I can identify with,” our Czech presenter muses. Will only obsessive fanboys, attached to nihilism, go the distance? 

The lights go down.

10:10

The wind whistles. It’s raining. In the mud stand some cows. 

We watch for some time.

Here we are, in Tarr’s universe, with its indifferent, elemental forces.

10:14

Bells ring from a mysterious source, like a portent. “I’m sure something is going to happen today,” a villager says, as if reading our minds. The incessant waiting of characters sets up an ironic mirror. The director has brought us all here, after all, for what is or isn’t to come — is this his cosmic joke?

It’s raining harder now. And with it, the conversation:

“It’s raining.” 

“I can hear it.” 

Materiality, concreteness, over and over repeated. How unlike Tarkovsky, that other lauded existential philosopher of Eastern European cinema, with his cinema of birds, levitating women, and belief in a spirituality that elevates. Tarr’s films set one in the mud and the physical world; here, action is a drudgery that perpetuates existence while mortality hangs heavy. Life doesn’t mean, because it just is — but why it is as it is, is no more comfortable for that.

“I’ll be a watchman in a chocolate factory, or a porter in a girl’s dorm. Just watching fuckin’ life go by,” comes the line. What we’re all waiting for is death, it seems, like toiling servants, with sensuality at hand for distraction, but a sensuality that is banal and fruitless in limited imagination or options.

10:53

It’s still raining heavily, relentlessly. 

We watch Futaki and Schmidt, village co-conspirators in a scheme to steal neighbors’ money, from behind as they trudge along. Wind blows trash around them, paper and leaves. It’s a real godforsaken place. But there’s a visual and aural beauty in this desolation — is this the catharsis of art, coming to us through this black but empathetic parody on the human predicament?

10:57

It shows 8:10 on the clock in the tiled hallway outside a police captain’s office, where Irimiás, a man the rest of the town thought dead, is waiting with his cohort, Petrina. “The clocks show two different times both wrong, of course. One too slow, the other shows the perpetuity of defenselessness,” says the narrator. 

Again, we feel the great, ironic meta-joke that the film is, and perhaps our life by extension. What would correct time be, within the falsified, illusory world of cinema, and are our own watches any more relevant, when immersed in its slowed-down rhythms? Maybe an idea rather than a number is the only genuine marker, as we recognize we’re always just twigs in a storm, anyway.

“Do you think there’s a snack bar in here?” 

“I don’t think so.” 

In case we’re getting too abstract or highfalutin, never fear — our base, cyclical appetites return, echoing the characters’ in our own minute-by-minute experience. Told there’ll be an intermission, we remember to sneak a look at our watches, wondering when we can sneak out for a bite ourselves.

11:16

The rain is torrential by now.

“Sátántangó” (Béla Tarr)

11:28

A man they call the doctor, engaged in surveillance, watches Futaki through his window, all the while drinking pálinka (fruit brandy) at his desk.

Waiting as the characters wait, we also watch as they watch — more than just identifying with their experience, living it materially as its layering of repeated elements draw us deeper into some essence.

“It’s started raining. It won’t stop ‘til Spring,” he writes. Oh, so this is just the beginning. 

And: “Today I ran out of the last drop of pálinka. I guess I have to leave the house.” In this outpost of the greatest inertia, still everything runs out, and runs down.

12:30 

The first intermission! 

Having drifted into the film’s hypnotic rhythms, I congratulate myself that energy is not lagging. I dash out into the sweltering heat, grabbing a hotdog from the stand opposite. And you would think out of the downpour — but as I hunker over a table to wolf it down, the stand’s umbrella, fitted with a sprinkler-type system to keep customers cool, lets off a light water-spray over me, the universe itself a seeming conspirator in Tarr’s endless rain.

12:45

Back inside, lights down. 

A clock ticks loudly, insistently.

“It’s raining. Awful weather,” says a pub regular. Here we are, still.

12:52

Inside a pub.

A regular is talking about the wind and rain (surprise, surprise) — and how it destroys his coat. Then, something more: the “inside rains” that he is “soaking wet” with are worse, he says. He keeps his coat on, or “I don’t know what would happen.”

It’s one of the film’s most beautifully poetic images, this idea of a coat as the only thin, material object holding a man together against inner and outer forces of ruination. It  escalates the driving rain’s ubiquity even more, as we realize it as an existential state, a deluge that erodes one’s very being, much like time itself; an ennui or foreboding drenched also through the gallons of pálinka swilled at the bar to fill the void.

Lightning strikes. What a storm!

The humans onscreen freeze like time has stopped, yet the camera retreats, and still the clock ticks. Not timeless, but a premonition that their materiality can become unmoored from time; that they are mortal.

13:57

There’s been wanton cruelty to a cat that was hard to watch — neglect, bred by neglect — and now it’s the film’s most famous scene. Young girl Estike, played by Erika Bók, trudges with the ill-fated feline, stiff under her arm, in one of those mesmerizing long walks.

14:09

Back in a pub.

“I’m plodding, plodding, plodding,” rambles a drunkard over and over. The more he says it, the more a woman in our audience erupts into hysterical laughter, the Chinese-box vision of life’s repetitive absurdity having reached her very bones, it seems. 

14:30 

Through the window of the pub, looking in, is Estike — and as we loop back on events from earlier, the shock of non-chronology complicates our sense of unavoidable and weighty mortality further. In a film that grounds us so arduously for various journeys from A to B, such breaks and re-visitations convey a kind of mysticism or magic.

14:35 

It’s a blitz of pálinka inside by now, and everyone is trolleyed — later, passed out.

Getting out of the weight of trudging time is more a matter of boozing than imagination or memory for these townspeople. 

14:50 

Second intermission. 

Concentration still going strong, or rather contemplation mode at Tarr’s pace. Slow cinema is really a blissful form, then, and not just an endurance test.

I rush out for an espresso, which might be against the spirit of the thing, but it’s too early in the day for pálinka, and I’m determined not to flag.

15:17

Mortality’s more than an omen: A villager has died (and let’s not forget, too, the cat). But the tragedy brings no great epiphany or reconciliation the film just plods on. There is a lot of speechifying, but the conclusion is: “All we know for certain is that life is hard on us.” Very Tarr.

15:47

A man is snoring in the audience. As if directed by Tarr himself. 

16:04 

A majestic owl sits in the night. We watch it for some time. What does it mean? We realize somehow that’s the wrong question, given nature’s indifference. Like everything else in the film, it’s not after our questions.

16:16

“Don’t you think we’re partisans in this persistent and hopeless fight for human dignity?”

It’s a line of dialogue that sums up Tarr’s life work. And through joining the audience, we’re willingly roped into the cause.

16:35

In a pub. 

To a waiter: “Don’t ask me what I’d like, they won’t have it. But get me a plum brandy.”

This might well be existential. In a world of reduced options and dead ends, why bother desiring, and what is there to do beyond watering the “rain inside”?

17:07

On the road, the rain is really pelting down.

“Is there a pub here? We could have a drink.” 

“No.”

17:19

Inside the captain’s office, it’s a retro fetishist’s dream: an old-school typewriter, dial phones, and a cut-glass ashtray. I know the film’s nearly over, and I congratulate myself on my stamina, but the old-world charm of this room, and Tarr’s grainy, black-and-white universe of long takes, makes me reluctant to head back out into the gaudy colors and flashy advertising of Standardized Europa Year 2019.

17:30

“Is it still raining?” 

“Yes.” 

The lights go out.

17:35

“The circle closes,” comes the intertitle. 

The doctor at home with pálinka, the bells… And yes, that rain.

The doctor boards his window up from the inside.

Darkness.

17:50 

The film ends. 

I wander out. It’s not a film you’re left “thinking about” intellectually, but rather, carrying inside. 

If we need to ascribe it a meaning, it might just be the following. It’s a story I heard Tarr tell in 2011, in Wrocław. I’ve quoted it before, but if you can’t repeat yourself when talking about Tarr, the great master of essence through attrition, then maybe we didn’t absorb anything from him:

“A man wakes up at 4:00 AM, dresses, goes out into the darkness to the location of shooting at 6:00 AM. It’s dark, fucking cold, the wind is blowing. It’s raining, and an actor appears, with a hangover too, and with one thousand problems. An actress comes. Her baby was crying all night. A production manager appears. And says what was said at the meteorological institute, the weather forecast. And a man is standing there waiting for the light to go slightly up so one button can be pressed so the scene can be recorded. And if I did not believe you were all going to see it then for what fucking reason would I be doing all this? I am not a masochist. I did it all for you. There is no greater proof of optimism.”

“Sátántangó” (Béla Tarr)

A restored and digitalized 4K version of Béla Tarr’s Sátántangó screened at the 55th Karlovy Vary International Film Festival.  

About The Author

Carmen Gray

Carmen Gray is a freelance film critic, journalist, and programmer who grew up in New Zealand and is now based in Berlin. She has written for publications including The Guardian, The Observer, Sight & Sound and The Village Voice. She previously lived in London, where she was the Film Editor of Dazed & Confused magazine. She is currently on the selection committee for the International Short Film Festival Winterthur in Switzerland.

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