The Turin Horse (5/5)
In the grand tradition of some great action adventure films, Bela Tarr’s film The Turin Horse, opens with Friedrich Nietzsche. A narrator relates the story of Nietzsche encountering a man in Turin, Italy whipping his horse because it refused to move, forcing Nietzsche to step in and protect the horse by placing his body in between the animal and the whip. The event involving the horse in Turin apparently led to Nietzsche’s mental and emotional break. But, as the film notes, no one knows what happened to the horse. The first scene of the film, then, follows a similar horse and driver as they make their way home to a weathered barn and adjacent home. It’s not clear whether this is supposed to be the exact same horse and driver Nietzsche encountered in Turin, and even though it appears the film takes place at the end of the 19th century, it does not look like the film is set in Italy. Even if the man and his horse do not serve as a literal link to Nietzsche and the events in Turin, they serve a clear thematic connection.
With the exception of a neighbor who doubles as a prophet of the apocalypse and a band of gypsies we see through the home’s windows, the film follows only three characters, a man, his daughter and their horse. The movie boldly refuses to offer up even a semblance of a plot. The anti-plot unfolds over the course of six days, and in that time the viewer follows the father and daughter closely as they go about their daily business fetching water from the well, eating potatoes and getting dressed and undressed. The horse, either because it is old and dying or because of some hidden existential malaise that seems to also permeate every frame of the film, refuses to eat and can barely serve its purpose as a porter.
Tarr appears interested in marking time. As mentioned, the movie is divided into six days, and we follow the man and his daughter as they engage in a number of menial tasks. At the start of each day, the daughter walks to the well, fills up several buckets, and returns to the home. This daily event is filmed in a single shot, so we see every action. We also watch as the two characters sit down and eat potatoes for dinner every night. By filling up the film’s two and a half hour screen time with the minutia of repetitive work, Tarr seems to be asking us to examine the monotony of living. The labor necessary to even stay alive occupies these characters world to the exclusion of nearly everything else. With the exception of a scene where we witness the daughter reading from some sort of book, these characters spend their time being busy dying. Their lives are labor.
The kinds of labor these characters engage in are related to their material conditions. They must feed and clothe themselves. There is no transcendence in this kind of work. It is quotidian, necessary and ultimately pointless beyond mere existence. The characters appear to have no internal lives, their conversations never extending beyond the immediate here and now. Strangely, the stoic horse is the only character who projects some sense of understanding of these larger truths. He is the one who refuses to eat, who refuses to go on. And if this is merely an audience projection onto an unthinking animal, then this only further emphasizes the impossibility of making meaning in this world.
Some might wonder how it’s possible to spend time with these characters in the small space opened by Tarr. But despite the film’s bleak tone, there’s something inviting about Tarr’s stark and gorgeous black and white imagery. The little home is constantly surrounded by leaves and dirt kicked up by an unending windstorm, an appropriate visual approximation of the director’s bleak worldview. Likewise, the intermittent score by MihalyVig is beautiful while maintaining an underlying sense of dread. (Although, I would be curious to see what someone could do with Tarr’s images and music by the Seattle post-rock band, Earth, since they seem to be artistic cousins. Make it happen, internet!). While the film can be obtuse, especially towards the end, Tarr pulls the viewer into his world. And it’s because he marries the beauty of everyday images with large existential questions that if you give yourself over to it, the film will stay with you long after it the final fade to black.