Why Béla Tarr Is Cinema’s Great Doomsayer

Apr 27, 2023

It’s easy to place Béla Tarr as a pessimist. The now-retired Hungarian filmmaker is famous for films that have been described as having bleak, defeatist, and cynical views on humanity, characterized by very long shots, black-and-white cinematography, and apocalyptic undertones. His film language is as radical as it is daunting and demands a different approach from both audiences and critics than with conventionally made films.

The seven-hour once-in-a-lifetime film for which Tarr is mostly known, Satántangó, requires the larger part of the day to be experienced from start to finish. His last one before retirement, The Turin Horse, though shorter (two hours and twenty-six minutes) averages 300 seconds per frame. One might ask why would someone ever go to such an extent to portray the perishing of human life and hope. Why is everything damned? And beyond these complex emotions, there is something even more valuable and hard to grasp, which is what makes Tarr’s films something beyond death and doom.

His Films Depict the Collapse of Life

T. T. Filmműhely

The main focus of his films has been worlds deteriorating to a point of no return, and those trapped helplessly in them. These are usually old or rural spaces that seem closer to falling apart than standing up. From the barely stable houses and farm house in Sátantángó and The Turin Horse, respectively, to the broken down and neglected spaces in Werckmeister Harmonies and Damnation, they all share the same existentially enclosing condition.

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Despite the anger and attempts at scheming a better life for those inside them, these efforts are rendered useless by life’s motion and changes, taking them to a point of extreme vulnerability towards life. The deterioration is not only present in the characters but in every aspect of the world. Tarr employs visual queues and metaphors to make one feel in the midst of it all. The brilliant and patient camera work takes audiences into the physical and emotional reality of a world falling apart.

The Themes in His Movies

Béla Tarr

Those who inhabit these worlds share a sort of unspoken frustration and potential rage toward the situations they face. This disappointment is not presented in the traditional existential way a lot of filmmakers fall upon. Long takes and complex human dilemmas are usually part of filmmakers dealing with transcendental and esoteric themes, such as Terrence Malick, Robert Bresson, or Ingmar Bergman.

Tarr should not be confused with this group, as in his films the existence of God is nowhere to be seen. His characters do not suffer a crisis of faith and seem to be longing for hope but can’t quite get to have it. These lost hopes are the fuel of their despair, as they are the reflection of their disconnection from any sort of optimism toward their future and their isolation within a physical world that will soon tear them apart.

He Poses Questions Without Answers

György Fehér

Films that present spiritual crisis as the core of a human crisis pose questions, which are at times unanswered or answered ambiguously. Tarr’s films offer none. They are not seeking a major meaning out of existence, as their stance is to present the lives of those vulnerable to the world’s cruelty in a way so their confusion and sadness towards the brutality of life are shared by the audience. The filmmaker is inviting the viewer to understand the pain of not knowing, of finding no meaning in everyday events, but he doesn’t pose it as a masochistic event. Here it is presented as a call to see the most important aspect of his work.

He Takes His Time

T. T. Filmműhely

By this point, it’s clear that Béla Tarr takes his time, but why? By creating these prolonged takes he forces us to see how lives develop. This entire decaying process his characters experience leads to an end-point where humanity is absolutely naked in the face of complexity. At that moment of absolute vulnerability, the most important aspect of his work appears. Human dignity is the stem of human existence, the last thing that remains in the face of annihilation, and the one thing we as humans have a grasp on.

Related: Best Béla Tarr Films, Ranked

To reach this endpoint, one must count on patience and time, which are precisely what his films are about. For Tarr, time is the transcendental factor that allows for the moments that exist between the plot to have a weight of their own, and show a part of the human experience that exists beyond words, only in feelings. These moments in between move the plot forward and are heightened by the amount of time spent on them. The heavy emphasis that is put on them differentiates a Béla Tarr film from any other. It’s this kind of emotional depth, one that is needed, to properly understand and feel empathy for the dignity and essence of others.

His Interpretations of Doom and Hope

György Fehér

Tarr may be the top filmmaker when it comes to interpreting decay, but he is also the greatest champion of human self-respect, which he understands as the basic component of our existence. In recent years he has lamented the state of the world and has felt saddened by it. He also dislikes people and critics categorizing his films as “prophetic,” as he never intended to prophesize anything or preach any particular view on life. He also has hit back at those calling him “cynical” or “mystic.” His work might seem like that to those who won’t look past the grim outlook and unhurried pacing, but for those willing to immerse themselves into the worlds of Béla Tarr, there is a great reward.

In the face of a meaningless existence, and a society on the brink of destruction, there are human beings who deserve time, respect, and dignity. By spending time with them, it is only then that one can truly feel the impending doom and horror of those living on the outskirts of society, but also feel an intense empathy leading to the ability to understand and heal a small part of the world’s disconnection.

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