Bela Tarr’s ninth and reportedly final feature film The Turin Horse made many a film critic’s list of top ten films of 2011, won the Jury Grand Prix at the Berlin Film Festival in 2011 and was aptly number six in Sight & Sound’s review of the year poll.
Set over six long and surprisingly treacherous days, the film revolves around a father, Ohlsdorfer (János Derzsi) and daughter (Erika Bók) in an isolated and rundown farmhouse. Their daily lives are consumed with mundane tasks such as getting dressed, boiling potatoes and hand washing sheets and more importantly trying to get their old horse to eat and stop refusing to move. This reliance on the horse is at the heart of the intriguing story presented to us with little dialogue and powerful sound. A prologue to the film features a narrator, allegedly Tarr, telling the tale of the famous philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche, who in 1889 witnessed a horse being flogged in a street in Turin. The event supposedly instigated two days of stillness and silence, which then lead to ten years of mental illness, Nietzsche being cared for by his mother and sisters. Presented to us with a black screen we use our imagination for this part of the tale, which is rendered all the more striking because of this. The prologue ends with “Of the horse, we know nothing”.
If the horse at the centre of the main story is the same horse of the prologue we do not know and it is up to the viewer to interpret that and many other elements within this film. The Turin Horse is considered an example of ‘Slow Cinema’ and therefore the audience are required to remain very active throughout in order to decipher the meanings behind the long takes and symbolism. Whilst this might not be to everyone’s taste, I found The Turin Horse far more watchable than some other recent examples of Slow Cinema and the film is incredibly hypnotic. Sound is used to great effect and is a commanding indicator of the sense of foreboding that the film builds up to. The haunting music by Mihály Vig is recurrent throughout and is juxtaposed with diegetic sounds such as the howling winds which are also often rather musical. These sounds add an air of menace to the visions of two people performing quotidian acts, their bleak existence both poignant and captivating.
The film relies heavily on striking black and white imagery to draw the viewer in, with lingering shots of creased linen and close ups of cooking pots as well as beautiful compositions of the catalytic horse. With hardly any dialogue this is practically a silent film and the stunning cinematography certainly deserves your full attention. Wind becomes another character in the story, showing the power of the elements on these people whose daily routine is repeated to us but never in exactly the same way.
Considering The Turin Horse has very little dialogue throughout, it says a lot. The six days seem profoundly similar to God’s creation of Earth in the book of Genesis but of course we see this very much in reverse, as the protagonists’ resources run out and they are forced into trying to leave. Despite the almost singular location of the ramshackle house the story is full of journeys, both physical and emotional and the recurring motif of the window conjures up emotions of longing and waiting.
Whilst the film is a drama it is full of horror conventions which are masterfully integrated into the slow pace of the film. Atmospheric mist, ominous music and at one point the daughter sitting still looking out of the window all allude to the inevitable devastation these characters will encounter. A meeting with a group of gypsies and a visit from a neighbour are surprises we don’t expect within the repetition and routine of the film. Light also becomes an essence of the story, with the progression of dark to light visualised before us and at one point the lack of light becoming a disruption to the couple’s routine, reiterating the dependence they have on natural resources.
Although The Turin Horse may be considered by many to be a minimalist film, it is a poetically layered visual piece where sound is integral. Telling of the dependence of two people on each other, a horse and the Earth’s natural resources amongst many other things, we see the struggle, perseverance and acceptance of these human beings during this apocalyptic vision.
The Turin Horse is a vast visual accomplishment. The screen is often divided by the lines of the closed stable door or the frame of a window, initiating thoughts of separation and a detached existence, the mise-en-scene of the film carefully constructed to provoke the audience. A seemingly simple story becomes profound with the addition of time and consideration and the power of film is truly realised.
The extras on the DVD are meagre, featuring the trailer for the film and Tarr’s first short Hotel Magnezit (1978).
The Turin Horse is released on Blu-ray and DVD on 10th September 2012.
Directors: Béla Tarr, Ágnes Hranitzky
Writers: László Krasznahorkai, Béla Tarr
Stars: János Derzsi, Erika Bók and Mihály Kormos
Runtime: 146 mins
Country: Hungary, France, Germany, Switzerland, USA