Multiple Vision

Deciphering the isolated gazes in the films of Béla Tarr
by Aaron Cutler  posted February 2, 2012
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Warning: Major spoilers follow.

This scene arrives about 40 minutes into Béla Tarr's new and (as he has claimed) final film, The Turin Horse. The horse's refusal to move comes on the second day of the film's six, and is one of the most startling interruptions of the daily routines of its owners, a father and daughter, who spend their storm-swept days dressing themselves and cooking and eating potatoes. What's unnerving about this moment isn't just the cruelty that the man inflicts on the animal, which has been established from the opening, as the man drives his beast of burden forward. It's also the sensation, at several points throughout the scene, of the horse looking directly at us, and of its expression signaling nothing. As we stare at the stable door, long after the people leave, we might wonder: Is it possible to think nothing?

The question of whether people can actually live without thought, and the possible ramifications of such life, have arisen throughout his career, which began with straightforward social dramas in the late '70s and early '80s and then, as the Eastern bloc dissolved, pushed toward the abstract. The horror in his films changed from government agencies controlling characters' thoughts to characters suppressing their own. The horse is the extreme of emptiness. Its gaze disturbs because, in most movies, we expect to find motivation in characters' actions, and motives usually lie in the face. Whatever is in the horse's face, though, will stay a mystery.

"Men and animals regard each other across a gulf of mutual incomprehension," W.G. Sebald wrote. But Tarr's movies don't settle for just this moral—the horse's enormous, inscrutable expression is part of a large network of isolated gazes, including ours. Consider the ending of Tarr's previous film, The Man From London (2007), when a murderer comes face-to-face with his victim's wife. Mrs. Brown has seen things we haven't—her husband's body lies inside a shed we never enter, our eyes lingering on a wooden wall whenever characters go inside. When confronted with the killer, she doesn't seem sad, or angry. She's blank.

Both these gazes—the horse's, and the woman's—suggest violence internalized. Mrs. Brown's life has been obliterated as her husband's has been, but her fate is worse, because she has to keep living.

Nothing is either good or bad unless thinking makes it so. A terrible sight in a Tarr movie traumatizes because of how it wounds not the eyes, but the mind. The pre-London film, Werckmeister Harmonies (2000), shows a mob trashing a hospital until its members are shamed into leaving—an old man, trembling, looks at them, and by doing so makes them see themselves. We think we've watched everything. But then the camera shifts to a young witness, János, wide-eyed and trembling. He's seen something we haven't. What?


In Werckmeister's source novel, The Melancholy of Resistance (written by Werckmeister screenwriter and frequent Tarr collaborator László Krasznahorkai), what he's seen is clear—the reality of people acting without consciousness. This revelation is so horrible to him that it destroys his mind and, since the character lives almost entirely inside his own head, he then vanishes from the book. In Tarr's film, though, we stay with him and his wide eyes, even as he's reduced to a mumbling shell in a mental asylum. A person with wants and agency becomes a sentient block of flesh. The film creates something out of nothingness, and, in giving absence a presence, shows how damaging the loss of consciousness can be.

Primo Levi writes in Survival in Auschwitz that the lowest point a human can reach is when he or she is forced to act without choice, performing tasks purely for his or her own survival. Freedom of choice is what separates humans from other animals. The Tarr crew (which, beginning with him and partner Ágnes Hranitzky has gone on to include a regular screenwriter, composer, and cinematographer) began by comparing humans to each other, then went on to explore varieties of the distinction, increasingly pairing human gazes with animal ones. Their first feature, Family Nest (1977), disintegrated a couple spatially until each member was confined to monologuing in tight close-up, the film cutting between them as they spoke about (not to) the other. The fact that they were different people, with their own wills, was the cause of their separation.

Yet what does it matter how close or far creatures—human or animal—are to each other if their gazes are all isolated? The gaze Werckmeister's János greets most readily is that of a giant dead whale, which gives him no meaning; at the end of Damnation (1988), a man and a dog circle each other on all fours, barking. The long shot holds their perspectives as equally valid, and the rain and rocks surrounding them become as expressive as they are. A frequent shot in Tarr's late films will begin with a corridor, doorway, or window, move past or through it, circle around to show a person watching something, then circle back to catch the object of their gaze. As this happens, the value of each human, animal, and other object in sight grows more equal.

Which leads us back to The Turin Horse, and to a suggestion—the horse's gaze disturbs because, like that of Werckmeister's shivering old man, it sees the extent to which humans have become animal. The film's father and daughter are creatures of instinct, every bit as much as their beast. The girl dresses her father after dressing the horse; at mealtimes, the father snorts and tears his food apart at the dinner table. When visitors come, the parent and child behave like animals, their alert eyes and ears forcing them to stop whatever they're doing, and look.

And this is perhaps related to another commonality among the three creatures. Like the horse, the humans are imprisoned. All three are imprisoned inside a harsh storm they can't escape, a Hell on Earth; all three are further imprisoned inside stone and wood buildings. And just as their bodies are trapped inside buildings, their thoughts might also be trapped inside their minds. The father, too old and weak to work, sits inside the house, staring out the window. We're often behind him; sometimes we see him from the side.

The girl, by contrast, is constantly moving forward, busy tending to the other two. As she goes out to see the horse each day, our eyes move between her, the horse, the straw, the blocks of wood, the door, the path, the wind, and they all seem to hold equal weight. This doesn't change until late in the film. The three left the house, then stopped and came back, and now, as the father unloads, the girl sits inside, staring out the window. We move closer to her, and the closer we get, the less clear it is what exactly she's looking at. Yet the harder the storm rages, the clearer it becomes that, for one of the first times in the movie, her eyes aren't focused on performing a specific task. She's just sitting and staring. We glimpse human desire.

Need is an expression of instinct; desire is an expression of free will. While Tarr's films show people losing consciousness, they also show them gaining it, and living freely as a result. In his earlier film, Satantango (1994, and also based on a Krasznahorkai novel, out in English translation February 21), a little girl chooses to kill herself. As she lies down, poisoned, the film's voiceover says: 

She thought, she felt, she knew—this simple progression tracks a person creating her own order, and taking control of her body by taking control of her mind. The people in The Turin Horse ultimately claim their thoughts, too. This is why, rigorous as it is, the film proves exhilarating.

If all things are connected, all things might be equally miserable. A final visit to the barn suggests this, with one last look at the horse, breathing slowly, not moving. It will not work. It will not eat. It doesn't have to give a reason—its instinct demanded it stop.

But that's the horse. Human beings are different. This creature's isolated gaze gives way, a little later, to two creatures whose gazes meet. It's appropriate closure for the Tarr group, to move from Family Nest's locked-off looks to this moment, in which two animals regard each other, and remind each other that they're human. Humans, even if they live in hell, can choose how long they'll stay.



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The Cinema Guild
Erika Bók in The Turin Horse, directed by Béla Tarr
Photo Gallery: Multiple Vision
Video: Family Nest
Video: Damnation
Video: Satantango


February 3–10, 2012 The Last Modernist: The Complete Works of Béla Tarr


Aaron Cutler is a writer in São Paulo. His film writings can be found at

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