“Heaviness of human existence”: Bela Tarr used these words to describe his last film, The Turin Horse, which opened at the Berlinale in 2011. Life is indeed a big burden for many, due to the difficulties they face, when things spiral out of their control. Existence becomes tiring, almost an unworldly ghost-like appearance shrouds over them, and demise may feel like a beautiful dream then. The bleakness, bareness, and harshness of living condition are explored by Tarr in this film consisting of only 30 masterfully choreographed and beautifully framed shots.
A right-hand-paralyzed cabman, Ohlsdrofer, and his adult daughter have a quiet, agonizing existence in a stone house in the middle of nowhere. Their source of livelihood, the horse which pulls the cart, refuses to work and gradually stops eating and drinking amidst a fierce ceaseless wind and the possibility of the world coming to an end. Ohlsdrofer and his daughter spend seven days in their barely furnished house with minimal resources, doing the very essential chores every day: drawing water from well, heating, cleaning the stable, trying to feed the horse, and putting the colossal layers of clothing in the morning and removing those at night. By using long scenes, Tarr, aesthetically forces the philosophy of “heaviness of existence”. The duo’s life is minimalist; their monotonous and tedious daily life has a repititive music in it, unlike the cacophony, the two groups of visitors bring. Talking about visitors, some gypsies come to their well and conquer some of their peaceful, slow-moving time. The old gypsy gives the girl a book as a token of her kindness, which can be termed as an anti-god text defaming religious practices. It denounces religious institutions by pointing out its authoritarian nature and its scandals. It also hints at the end of the world: it reads “the Lord was with you …”, the past tense hints that God has left the world to ruin, to consume itself in its own sins. One night, Ohlsdrofer could not hear the bugs that he has heard for more than fifty years of his life, another hint of the previous hypothesis.
The father and daughter are more of a couple of puppets and less human, they are helpless in their misfortunes and sufferings and nothing seems in their charge. They are even too weak to protest, they continue haplessly about their life with a richness of hardships. Their horse, a slave to the humans, behaves more strongly than its masters. It protests against the hardship of its day-to-day activities, stops working and eventually stops eating and drinking. Nietzsche’s philosophy of master and slave morality comes alive here; the horse the perfect torch-bearer of the slave morality and the nature playing the role of the master. Nietzsche actually starts off the film, a voiceover narrating his traumatic experience in Turin of a horse being beaten by his master; he saves the horse but loses his sanity. The voice says, “Of the horse, we know nothing”. The visuals start after this, replacing the black void present earlier. Though the film starts this way, nowhere it is mentioned that the horse is the same as the one Nietzsche protected. But surely it is one of the numerous unfortunate creatures of the cruel world. The starting shot of the film shows the horse carrying the cart along with its master through a squally wind, its manes flowing backwards, the man’s hair also doing the same as they battle against the wind to make their way forward. This battle against the fiery wind, which is an important motif central to the film, is presented beautifully before the audience. The camera moves left and right of the horse head-on and then in its perpendicular direction to reveal their struggles. This also exposes the condition of the horse, which looks rather ill-treated.
Combining the philosophy of Nietzsche with the visuals need a master-craftsman, Tarr and his regular cinematographer, Fred Kelemen, are two such highly gifted men. The entire film is filled with moments of great compositions of both inside and outside including the initial sequence. There are instances of frame within the frame, mainly during the indoor shots, consisting views from the window. They are also brilliant in giving a certain depth to the visuals by presenting different objects at successive layers. Those frames tell the story in an aesthetic and graceful way and serves as parallel method of depiction. A beautiful shot is of the wind blowing fiercely and the girl looking outside through the wind; shot from the outside, the wind is grey and the girl’s whitish appearance almost seems like a ghost. It can be seen as the ghost of mankind looking at the passing time slowly collapsing into conclusion. The opening shot is also one complex yet highly artistic shot, presenting the philosophy of the film to the viewers.
The monotonous daily life of the father daughter pair is shown in a prolonged manner for giving the audience the feeling of their routine, so that we can understand their burdens and joys, if any. Nietzsche’s philosophy of eternal return has its shadow falling over this element of the film. Even after the possible end of the world, it can be interpreted that the same things will repeat itself over the course of time. The two characters look out of the window for a major part of the film. This can be taken as their eagerness to interact with the outside world in order to escape from their mundaneness of their daily routine. Their long brooding by the window-side also suggests a bleak future, uncertainty over what is coming to them on advancing time. Though many of their chores are repeated, the shots are choreographed differently most of the times. Not only the activities are repeated over time, but also the music has a same repeating pattern, the food is same every day, the shots are a bit different, lending different perspectives to the same thing.
Nearing the end of the film, the well dries up; the bugs are no longer present; suggests something disturbing, which is also said by the visitor during his monologue. That also brings forth the concept of God being dead and strengthened by the book the daughter receives. Death of God is a part of Nietzsche’s philosophy, which suggests that God is no longer the source of moral belief. During the later phase of the film, the duo leaves with their belongings only to return after some time. The way it is presented, at first the camera struggling its way along with them, tearing through the wind and when they go over the hill, it stays by the house brooding till their return. Their return signifies that not only “their” world but the whole world is on the verge of witnessing something dreadful, as the place they went (or at least tried to) is also the same portrait of dullness. Finally even the lights are out; they try hard to rekindle the flame but to no success. Probably the end is very near. Tarr moulds beauty and philosophy in this thought provoking piece of drama, where he orchestrates all the characters and elements so aesthetically that it’s a treat to the eyes and the mind.
Film Score: 94
Director: Bela Tarr, Agnes Hranitzky Screenplay: Bela Tarr, Laszlo Krasznahorkai Cinematography: Fred Kelemen Editing: Agnes Hranitzky Production Design: Laszlo Rajk Music: Mihaly Vig Cast: Erika Bok, Janos Derzsi, Mihaly Kormos