Directed by Hungarian filmmaker Béla Tarr and co-directed by his wife, Ágnes Hranitzky, The Turin Horse stands triumphantly alongside Sátántangó (1994) and Werckmeister Harmonies (2000), two of his films widely regarded as cinematic masterpieces. Although Tarr and László Krasznahorkai (his long-time screenwriter) discussed the idea for The Turin Horse around 1990, its production was postponed due to other projects. Its 2011 premiere was a success, winning the Silver Bear and the FIPRESCI Prize at the Berlin Film Festival.
The Turin Horse begins with an impenetrable black screen. A voice-over monologue details events which occurred on 3 January 1889 in Turin, Italy, the fateful day when philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche encountered a cabman whipping his horse. We are told that Nietzsche interfered on behalf of the horse before returning to his home where he collapsed in a state of emotional exhaustion. Two days later, he uttered his last sane words: “Mutter, Ich bin dumm” (“Mother, I am silenced”). Nietzsche’s remaining ten years of life were spent in an anguished state of mental paralysis. Yet, nothing further is known of the horse. From this introduction, Tarr sets the scene for an austerely existential film about the said horse and cabman (János Derzsi), as well as the cabman’s daughter (Erika Bók), involving suffering, isolation, and the collapse of the will.
Tarr’s film is not like recent apocalyptic films, illustrating physical and spiritual decay through images of mass social rebellion, such as John Hillcoat’s adaptation of The Road (2009) or through natural chaos such as Lars von Trier’s Melancholia (2011). Rather, The Turin Horse portrays apocalypse in a world of order. Viewers are given an in-depth view into the everyday lives of the cabman and his daughter: the daughter must assist her father with his dress; water must be drawn from the well; and a daily meal of boiled potatoes must be prepared. Every action, pivotal for their survival, is repeated with acute attention to detail. Yet, like the woodworms which, after 58 years of activity, cease to eat the wood in the walls of the cottage, the actions of the couple eventually cease as the structure of their lives dissipates.
The entire film exudes utter hopelessness. It is composed with only 30 immaculate takes, strikingly shot in black and white. The haunting score is by Mihály Vig, whose sombre strings and dissonant chords weigh on the viewer long after the film has ended. The Turin Horse is, arguably, Tarr’s simplest and bleakest film. In addition, Tarr has declared this to be his final film, a fact which gives an added layer of austerity to the whole viewing experience of his apocalyptic vision.
Yet, despite such seemingly hopeless aspects of the film, it remains purely accessible to the viewer. The raw energy generated through the actors’ faces and the displayed repetition of their daily lives contained within the minimalist set (shot entirely within and around their cottage), instils both knowledge and feeling towards the mindset of the characters as they approach the end of their world. Undermining Nietzsche’s concept of the will to power, this end comes by means of the will and the loss of the will (e.g., the horse wills itself to die by refusing food and water; the life-supporting well wills itself dry; the light wills to darkness). In the end, the cabman and his daughter, who never question their declining existence, must either fight against such existential forces or willingly submit to cessation. Crowning Tarr’s work, The Turin Horse, makes an appropriate and ideal end to his opus.
Released by Artificial Eye, the DVD offers excellent sound and image. As an extra, it includes Tarr’s earliest film, Hotel Magnezit (1978, 10 minutes), which will be of interest to fans of this director.
Jeffrey W. Smith