Sátántangó (1994)

Bela Tarr | 7hr 20min

We open on a farm. The first thing we notice is the bleak, monochrome colour palette filled with shades of greys and blacks, but no whites. The purity of white just doesn’t belong in this film. A barn stands a fair way away, and at first everything is completely still. But then we see a small bit of movement in one of the doors, and a moment later some cows emerge, followed by even more. They trudge out across the churned up field that dominates the frame, and the camera slowly moves with them. This shot lasts about eight minutes. Right from the start Tarr is setting a dreary tone, warning us – if you can’t get through this, then you won’t survive all gruelling seven and a half hours of it.

When human characters do finally enter, Tarr keeps framing his horizon in the upper half of the frame with slightly raised angles. He keeps our focus on the cold, harsh elements of the earth, pulling the characters downwards as they slog along seemingly endless roads. Tarr’s moving camera doesn’t exactly float or glide, but it always appears to be pushing against another force holding it back. It is slow and methodical. It will move in a singular direction for minutes at a time, pausing when it arrives at something of interest, and then changing course along a new path. His camera isn’t a neutral observer, but a character with its own mind, constantly wandering, directing our attention to the lives inside this small, impoverished Hungarian village.

Long tracking shots down these grayscale, muddy roads from slightly high angles – Tarr’s place in the history of moving cameras can’t be understated.

The moving camera is especially suited to this specific kind of non-linear narrative as well, which is invested in following separate perspectives that converge upon common events. Usually there is some sort of failure to communicate or understand that takes place at these meeting points, hitting home the utter futility of any interaction in this village.

The first time we see the girl, Estike, run to the Doctor for help, it is through his drunken, confused perspective. Tarr keeps us distant from the encounter, so we’re not fully sure what is taking place before she runs off. The second time we see this, we follow Estike in a mid-shot. Within the context of her own narrative, it hits differently. This is a girl who has suffered immensely, perhaps even more than any of the adults of the town. While they can drown their misery with dancing and drinking, she is left alone to watch their party from the outside. When we see this through her eyes, it seems like she goes unnoticed. But later when we watch this scene from inside the party, Tarr cuts away from an extra long shot to show her peering in from the outside. If this scene is coming from the adults’ perspective, then maybe they did actually see her at the window, and simply pretended they didn’t. In this case, Estike isn’t invisible to the adults of her town – they just don’t care.

Tarr holds on both these shots for several minutes, heavily underscoring the tragedy and feeble escapism of the village.

Ignorant to her plight, the villagers continue dancing to the accordionist playing the same repetitive phrase over and over for what feels like at least ten minutes. The town drunk keeps stumbling around, one man keeps balancing bread on his forehead, and the innkeeper keeps hitting the bar with a stick. Like the riot scene in Werckmeister Harmonies, nobody is talking, shouting or singing. They just continue moving silently until they pass out from exhaustion. It’s not much, but it’s certainly better than having to take deal with their real problems. Like taking care of that girl looking through the window, for instance.

Though Bela Tarr marks the end of each chapter with a voiceover, its interjections rarely do anything to lighten Sátántangó‘s overwhelming austerity. The one exception here is Estike’s suicide. For the village her death is a tragedy, but for her it is an escape. And ironically enough, it is one of the few respites Tarr allows us.

“She felt at peace inside and around her the trees, the road, the rain and even the night all radiated tranquillity. Whatever happens is good, she thought. Everything was simple, at last, forever. She recalled the events of the day, and smiled, as she understood how everything was connected. She felt that these events weren’t connected by chance, or accident, but by an indescribable beautiful logic bridging them together. And she knew she wasn’t alone, since everything and everyone, her father up above, her mother, her siblings, the doctor, the cat, these acacias, this muddy road, this sky and the night below it, all depended on her, just as she depended on everything else. She had no reason to worry. She knew her guardian angels were already on their way.”

Tarr’s blocking is immaculate all throughout, but especially when he is working with slightly larger ensemble sizes.

Though Tarr has a talent for finding beauty in solemnity, he only uses it sparingly. In this destitute Hungarian village of dilapidated buildings and free-roaming farm animals, a Messiah figure seemingly returns from the dead. Like the Prince in Werckmeister Harmonies, people are suspicious of him, and yet he quickly and easily charms them. Irimias is a false prophet bearing false promises, encouraging the villagers to give up their wealth to start a new, prosperous community which never manifests. Instead they are spread to distant corners of the country, unable to do anything but follow his orders even once their faith in him has been thoroughly destroyed.

Magical realism as Irimias falls to his knees, as if clairvoyantly recognising the site of Estike’s suicide.

The two characters who remain immune are the Innkeeper and the Doctor. The former retains a grip on reality, but is ultimately left alone for being the only one to do so. The latter is simply not around to realise what is going on. He shuts himself inside his house, only ever venturing out to buy more alcohol, and so when he realises the town is deserted he is confused. Regardless, he will just keep doing what he has always done.

The Doctor’s routine is only perturbed by the ringing of bells from a church we have previously learned doesn’t have any. Must the noise then be a sign from God? Upon investigating the source, the Doctor finds a madman clanging a piece of metal in the ruins of the church. “I’ve mistaken a common bell for the Great Bells of Heaven,” the Doctor laments. But Futaki heard the exact same sound at the start – surely this is no coincidence? The Doctor boards up his windows, retreating into a void that cuts him off from the outside world. Though traces of magical realism are sparse in Sátántangó, the instinct to reject the possibility of some mystical essence is widespread. Through these bookends Tarr intertwines this bleak landscape and the town’s lack of faith in spiritual icons, following unreliable worldly figures instead.

There may not be seven and a half hours worth of narrative here, but Tarr has always been adamant about his distaste for plot. Sátántangó is about a progression of tones and images, glacially paced, suffocatingly drab, and completely mesmerising from start to finish.

Using doorways as frames and large patches of negative space in his mise-en-scène – confining, hollow, and endlessly bleak.

Sátántangó is currently available to stream on The Criterion Channel.

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