The word genius seems to get thrown around quite easily in the film industry when describing talented directors who have left their mark in the silver screen. These names include the likes of Orson Welles, John Ford, Akira Kurosawa, Stanley Kubrick, Jean-Luc Godard, Ingmar Bergman, among several others. Beyond our own taste and opinions, we can’t deny that some people have changed cinema forever with groundbreaking narratives and techniques that prevail to this day.
There are other great artists who deserve the word but have yet to acquire the fame, at least in the mainstream, of the aforementioned names. In this category we find Robert Altman, Kenji Mizoguchi, Jean-Pierre Melville, Mikhail Kalatozov, etc. To one of these filmmakers is who I’d like to dedicate the following text to: the greatest pessimistic director, Béla Tarr.
Born in Hungary in 1955, he was a precocious lover of philosophy, which shaped him throughout his professional training. After recording his first short films and videos, he chose to make the study of knowledge into his secondary occupation. Throughout his work we can observe his grim and nihilist inclinations that he delves in through an almost academic perspective, in a way that is different when compared to other directors who explore these themes in their films.
His first offerings were simple pieces, full of realism that captured the Hungarian society of the time. Tarr broke into the scene in 1979 with Family Nest, a low-budget film that resembled a documentary.
The follow-up to his career debut was the 1982 film, The Outsider, a narrative about a violin virtuoso with a tumultuous personal life. Not long after, The Prefab People came out, a film about everyday living in Hungary. But it wasn’t until 1985 when he entered the inner circle of the cinema world with Almanac of Fall, a raw dark film portraying the relationships of several people sharing an apartment as they show their darkest and worst habits.
Three years later, he shot his heaviest work that became one of his greatest achievements. Damnation centers on a seemingly simple story, the disillusioned life of Karrer who is hopelessly in love with a married singer. This film is the epitome of Tarr true narrative, full of impeccable compositions within well-structured long takes. It’s worth noting that music plays a determining part in the movie.
Most of his followers consider his 1994 release, the seven-hour-long Satantango, as his best film yet. The beautiful cinematography frames Tarr’s exploration on the feelings of pessimism, nihilism, and evil in a small town.
With the dawn of the twenty-first century came the release of Werckmeister Harmonies, a complex masterpiece that is daring as it is dark. Its premise revolves around a circus coming to town that appears to have brought wickedness with it. Tarr’s iconic style continues to be a huge aspect of the film.
The Man from London came out in 2007. This movie is charged with a premise on morality and ethics, which many critics felt lacking in the intensity often related to the filmmaker.
In 2011, Béla Tarr said goodbye to cinema world with The Turin Horse. There are films with dense thematic but this one is in a league of its own. It’s an exhausting piece that captures the cruelty and despair of routine, through the life of the owner of a horse who, according to the legend, drove Nietzsche mad in this Italian city.
When speaking of his retirement from film, as well as his last movie, he said, “At first I wanted to change the world through my social sensibility. But then I understood that these problems were more complex than I thought. Now I can say that it’s something quite heavy and, though I don’t know what’s next, I can see something getting closer, the end.”
This statement seems to encompass Béla: pessimistic, ambiguous, dark, nihilist yet still, mysterious and academic.
Heir to such diverse styles such as those of Tarkovsky, Mizoguchi, Bresson, and Antonioni, Tarr remains a great film innovator. By possessing a unique vision that lead him to become one of the most acclaimed filmmakers of the last part of the twentieth century and the start of the twenty-first. He is film’s top pessimist.
Translated by María Suárez