Film Journal: Bela Tarr’s The Turin Horse (2011)

First, a story over black screen. It is the story of Nietzsche, the German philosopher, witnessing a horse beaten in the street by his caretaker. He embraces the horse. Nietzsche, at the brink of his well-known insanity, never wrote again. Before cutting to the film’s opening scene, the intertitle reads “we know nothing of the horse.” The horse is the epiphany of what the philosopher called “the beast of burden,” the story of the overwhelming weight of the world.

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The visual narrative of Bela Tarr’s The Turin Horse begins with a long take of the horse making its way up the mountain, guided by an old man. At the bottom of the hill, a young woman ushers the man and his horse into a stable. They are a nameless daughter and her father, Ohlsdorfer. The wind blows. She undresses Ohlsdorfer from his work clothes and redresses him in the casual fabrics of a townsman. There is no dialogue throughout these scenes of farm life, since the expression of the story is worked out in the howling wind of winter afternoons and the movements of the young woman’s daily routine inside the warmth of her home. After serving up the simplicity of a steamed potato, the younger woman tells the elder man to eat.

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These slow, repetitious, and labor-ridden days triangulate the drawn out movements of the film with the exception of three slight interruptions. The first interruption is rendered by a townsperson, Bernhard, who arrives to buy off some of Ohlsdorfer’s brandy. He tells of the decadence of the town and the social corruption of its people. The second interruption arrives in the form of a traveling band of gypsies, a cosmopolitan stain upon barren the landscape. They arrive abruptly at the edge of this isolated shack to gather water from its well. Ohlsdorfer runs them off. Later, in the film’s climactic apocalypse, the world literally fades to black. Candles do not light. We understand this moment to be the end of the world, and Bernhard and the band of gypsies to be its prophetic messengers. The film ends.

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The final scene of The Turin Horse is also a closing bracket to the opening scene of The Werkmeister Harmonies (2000). In the earlier film, hope and optimism seemed to be worked out in the universe. A prince-like character reminiscent of Dostoyevsky’s Myshkin in The Idiot, offers signs of the pure heart, the altruistic spirit who looks out for the good of the whole. Even in the cold and windy 19th century world of an isolated Hungarian province, the light of day conveys the beauty of a barren landscape, impressing upon the viewer a beauty in all things. But in darkness, the whole has come to an end. It was immediately anteceded, as Bernhard and the band of gypsies each illustrate, by a diffusion of parts: the social decadence of community, the self-interested individual, the visual landscape disintegrates into the audible conjectures of speech at the end of the world. We know Nietzsche, like Dostoyevsky, for his attentiveness to the individual beyond the slavery and conformity of social decadence. Nietzsche’s story, the final lament of the world of the will, the lament of a discipline imposed to the point of inactivity (of the horse), becomes the story of Bela Tarr. This film is understood to be his last.

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