Sátántangó

What might we define as the “cinema of damnation”? One way into it is to view the “genre” as a more pessimistic version of what John Orr has called in his book, The Art and Politics of Film, the “cinema of wonder”. For Orr, this incorporates Central and Eastern European cinema generally and the work of Tarkovsky, Paradjanov, Jancsó and Angelopoulos in particular. Who are their heirs apparent? Names and films that come to mind include: Artur Aristakisyan’s Hands (1993); Alexander Sokurov’s Whispering Pages (1996); Victor Kosakovsky’s Wednesday 19. 7. 1961 (1997); Vitaly Kanevsky’s Don’t Move, Die and Rise Again! (1989). And, though a veteran from the ’60s, Kira Muratova, whose The Asthenic Syndrome from 1989 remains some sort of abject apotheosis. But perhaps more significant names are Béla Tarr, Sharunas Bartas, and Fred Kelemen, whose films reject the natural world’s hopeful aspect, an aspect that encompasses the often socially pessimistic. While Orr sees the cinema of wonder as an “aesthetic of the rare experience”, in the cinema of damnation we’re much more likely to see nature as oppressively mundane – negatively at one with, rather than opposed to, social oppression.

Let us take for example the difference between Tarkovsky and Tarr’s use of rain. In Tarkovsky’s Mirror (1974) it conjoins with fire to create a magical effect, a frisson of the natural world at one with the strange beauty of a burning house. In Tarr’s universe rain is a daily presence, part of the grind of life as it pours down on the small towns and villages populated by the lumpy and depressive who believe the world is a miserabilist universe they’re helplessly shrunken by. In Damnation (1988) and Sátántangó (1994) the notion of being outdoors is deeply uninviting, as if a trip along the road is like crossing the surface of the moon. Thus Tarr’s world is often focused on half-lit interiors, showing us characters banging doors shut against the elements. These are characters so devoid of purpose they’re instead full of mischievous malevolence. Where one of the central questions for Tarkovsky is the meaninglessness of life in the presence or absence of God or art, and the way the elements hint at a benign being, in Tarr it’s the apparent meaningless of existence tempted by evil elemental forces. Where in Tarkovsky’s Stalker (1979) and The Sacrifice (1986) the zone may represent a religious locale in the former and the burning of the house a necessary sacrifice in the latter, in Tarr we’re talking less about a spirituality from without – from the possibly celestial – than a spiritual absence from within. In Damnation the central character’s lover says, “you’ve lost the beauty and love within you”, and so it comes as no surprise when at the end of the film he shops her and her husband to the police. And we might wonder how much love and beauty is within her when she cynically blow-jobs the wealthy town hood in his car behind both her husband and her lover’s back.

Tarr finds a wonderful visual style for this encroaching evil. His complicatedly blocked sequence shots seem to take away from his characters any sense of self-imposition. The characters don’t act in the world so much as seem to be acted upon by the world; a decision made is secondary to the forces compelling them. When, near the end of Sátántangó, a police officer reads out a lengthy, treacherous confession, the camera slowly encircles the desk and its two inhabitants: the officer, and another typing up the confession. Maybe a more conventional shot/counter shot style might suit a world of good versus evil, and would focus on cop and confessor, but Tarr refuses Manichaeism for something closer to Schopenhauer. It’s almost as if Tarr is the first genuinely Schopenhauerian filmmaker if we keep in mind the German philosopher’s comment in On the Suffering of the World. “If the immediate and direct purpose of our life is not suffering then our existence is the most ill-adapted to its purpose in the world: for it is absurd to suppose the endless affliction of which the world is everywhere full…should be purposeless and purely accidental” (1).

The Corridor

Tarr’s cinema of damnation then isn’t necessarily meaningless, but its meaningfulness is malevolent. This contrasts with Bartas’ perspective which is closer to a degree zero aimlessness. In The Corridor (1994), for example, the central character (played by Bartas himself) walks through the various corridors of the title, looking at and listening to the behaviour of those in the various rooms he passes along and walks into. Bartas’ character is neither obviously agent nor seer; neither one who acts to achieve nor who sees to perceive; and thus whose place in the world is provocatively without purpose. He witnesses immense deformity, mental illness and poverty, but the director chooses neither to explain the character and his world’s inertial genealogy, nor does he offer him brief purpose within the present circumstances. It’s a degree zero extended to the camera. Bartas often uses static, or almost perfunctory, framing which plays much more on offscreen sound than the possibilities in onscreen space. In Tarr, taking off from fellow Hungarian Miklós Jancsó, though with a very different purpose, space is constantly opening up as he shows us the enormity of malevolence. In Bartas, impinging offscreen sound implies something else: it suggests the weakness of self, the insignificance of being. The misery of Bartas, not just in The Corridor, but also in Three Days (1991) and A Few of Us (1996), isn’t the obvious inversion of the cinema of wonder often to be found in Tarr, but the apparent absence of the most basic will-power. When Tarr says “I don’t believe in God. This is my problem” (2) he implies that the spiritual issue is nevertheless the problem. In accepting that the “human is just a little part of the cosmos” he hints that a bigger controlling principle is required. In Bartas the problem often appears to be less the malignantly cosmic than the microcosmically abject. This can take the urban form of Three Days and The Corridor, or that of the isolated rural community in A Few of Us.

The problem here is neither specific spiritual absence nor malevolent presence, but a chaotic despair where man has neither the energy nor the sense of purpose to affect the world. In A Few of Us there are images of isolated hardship where the few villagers drink in all night revelries. The woman who comes into the community serves a similar purpose to Bartas in The Corridor. She’s neither necessarily returning to the community to find herself – as we might expect of the seer – nor is she there to change the community, as we might expect of the agent. If in Tarr the inner despair comes out of cosmic chaos, in Bartas it seems more grounded in the immediate milieu. The milieu becomes a quagmire that the characters can’t easily escape, but can neither readily affect. There is an Alice in Abjectland side to Bartas; especially pronounced in The House (1997), where in an isolated mansion a young man wanders through the building observing and conjuring up the inactions of others whilst remaining inactive himself. In the opening voice-over he talks about not seeing his mother but keeping her in mind, as if his imaginary relationship is equivalent to its reality, that any reality may even be the product of one’s imagination, or that reality is something to which one is witness but incapable of changing.

But this solipsism isn’t Bartas’ point. His work may bring to mind Berkeley’s comment, “It is evident that the things I perceive are my own ideas, and that no idea can exist unless it be in a mind” but such a comment comes out of a belief that “in God we live, and move and have our being”. Bartas’ work seems to confront an aspect of Berkeleyian perception, without accepting the Berkeleyian assumption of a Godly presence. If for Berkeley all ideas are linked by God’s presence, by God’s unifying being, what happens if these ideas remain unlinked by anything bigger than the perception? Bartas here opens up an interesting cinematic approach to sensory-motor collapse – where the action and reaction no longer cohere – by illustrating characters locked into private, almost autistic worlds without a governing assumption about what might draw them together. This is of course a cinema of alienation, but it’s even more a reductio ad absurdum of solipsistic inevitability. Bartas’ degree zero has nothing to do with, say, Antonioni – with a cold-eyed phenomenological look at alienation generated quite specifically out of western capitalism and subsequent ennui. Nor does it have much to do with Bresson’s feeling for Grace that Susan Sontag finds echoed in Simone Weil’s notion that “Grace fills empty spaces, but it can only enter where there is a void to receive it, and it is grace itself which makes this void” (3). Certainly Bartas’ work has both alienation and the void, but this doesn’t allow for political possibilities, nor for Grace, but instead emphasises perhaps a “dis-grace”. In this Bartas is very much a post-communist filmmaker, for he brings together very well the problem of material collapse and the spiritually bereft. This Lithuanian filmmaker shows a world where material failure and theological absence has left something deeper and still more profoundly scarred than the political aspect of capitalist alienation and the spiritual possibilities of the void. In Three Days, the two heroes visit the dilapidated town of Kalingrad, named after the Soviet politician of the revolution Mikhail Kalinin, a town whose very name implies past glories and present defeats. And as the characters meet up with some local girls, or get into a bit of trouble, Bartas’ camera always implies that a general air of emptiness is stronger than any individual sense of purpose. Bartas’ “dis-grace” suggests what can happen when there is neither the spiritual nor the material to prop up an existence, and self-definition is still beyond one’s ken. Now this spiritual absence raises a metaphysical question in Bartas, the way it isn’t quite relevant to Tarr. Just how will characters communicate when all the avenues of semiotic communication have been closed, the already made meanings of capitalism, communism and religion? What could bring the characters together? If the characters are frequently alienated in Tarr it’s because of this malevolent atmosphere that still allows for a dog-eat-dog world. In Bartas it’s as though first of all they would have to try and define what all parties would mean by a dog.

If, then, Tarr’s a great metaphysician of collective, greedy, desperate despair, and Bartas a solipsist by virtue of the inability to trust in any assumption of underpinning communication when both materialism and spirituality are absent, where does that leave German filmmaker Fred Kelemen? In a technical sense he’s clearly somewhere in between. In Fate (1994) he offers Tarr-like long takes, but relies on a hand held, implicative camera suggesting the filmmaker is goading as readily as filming, as though Kelemen wants to create despair as much as film it. In one sequence a character drinks a bottle of vodka straight; in another scene a woman dances in a bar wearing nothing more than an open dress. Where Tarr shows us what we might perceive to be an intractable, all encompassing despair – a community falling apart, and the individuals within it unable to hold themselves together – Kelemen seems to be ferreting out despair by looking at Berlin’s underbelly. One of the things that give Tarr’s world its sense of inevitable miserabilism is his wider mise en scène. This is the combination of the Jancsó-like long take that eats up space already mentioned, and Tarr’s interest in finding a malignant environment. He’s talked about how he needs “a special impression from the locations”. Any hint of optimism implied in location must be quickly vanquished. This may help explain why he uses monochrome in most of his work. As he says, “With black and white you can keep it more stylistic, you can keep more of a distance between the film and reality which is the important thing” (4). Stylistic here may equate with the consistently malign.

Abendland

Kelemen appears more interested in focusing on a general notion of contrast. In Abendland (1999) he moves between the long-take long-shot and the close-up video insert. He wants, like Bartas, to suggest a degree zero of non-motivation, but it’s as if where Bartas’ minimally moving camera suggests a paralysis at one with his characters, Kelemen’s camera offers a hope more present in the world than in the character’s self. Sure he says, “I think our world is cruel”, but he also says, cryptically, “when we stop hoping, we fall asleep and can be killed very easily” (5). In Abendland there’s the close-up despair of the video insert, but there is also the camera that picks up symbolic possibilities in a dead swan, in a picture on the wall of a Klimtian woman who looks like the hero’s girlfriend, in the film’s increasing use of an encompassing deep, royal blue. But the final escape from despair doesn’t stem from a communication coming out of spiritual hope but in fact from the very depth of misery. What brings the central character and his lover together again is a kind of abject epiphany. It is after the discovery of the dead body of a missing young girl which has haunted the community that our hero finds a capacity for feeling he had thought was beyond him. And of course the symbolic possibilities in the images just mentioned are far from optimistic: dead swans, Klimtian women and a blue caught between the blue of calm and a blue of despair – it is as ambivalent a use of the colour as Lynch’s blue in Blue Velvet (1986). But they’re nevertheless possibilities, hints at other worlds, where Tarr and Bartas’ work is more inclined to emphasise the closing down of any alternative way of being. If Tarr suggests the victory of the malign and Bartas the “dis-grace” of extreme alienation, Kelemen may be moving toward what Tarr has talked about but never finally illustrated cinematically: “the more desperate we are the more hope there is…” (6) Abendland suggests that out of the fusion of personal despair and an innocent girl’s demise something positive springs. In Kelemen’s world two negatives can make a positive.

What is interesting in Tarr, Bartas and Kelemen is that they might initially be perceived as realists, but of course that conforms to a narrow notion of realism equated with miserablism. They are all in fact close to low-key metaphysicians. Tarr may say in interviews “there are no allegories in any of my films and there are no symbols and any kind of metaphysical things…” (7) but in retreating from the specific day to day realities of life for a more encompassing take on existence, Tarr, Bartas and Kelemen are asking questions that we might call philosophical. When the motor-sensory system breaks down, the “natural” action becomes the inevitable question. In each instance the philosophical invades the image. Thus when Tarr talks about lingering over a shot of glasses in a bar rather than focusing on his central character’s dilemma in Damnation – whether or not to become involved in a smuggle – the camera queries the nature of a world beyond the situation. We might loosely define this as the difference between the self and being, between the self-ish action of personal existence, and the self-conscious direction. Here we could say the unmotivated camera movement becomes the motivated question, the philosophical question. For to be philosophical, in common parlance, is to distance oneself from oneself, to gain a perspective on oneself. In both Tarr and the Kelemen of Abendland, the directors abstract action; they deny it psychological singularity for a metaphysical totality. An example of this is of course the confession sequence in Sátántangó, but it’s also central to the rather different confession scene in Damnation. Here the confessor is present but the camera is, if you like, absent. It witnesses the confession not from inside the police station, but from a single take crane shot outside the building. And just as the camera implies distance, so something in the central character adds to it. “So it was this awful inner tension that brought me here, setting the affectionate friend in me aside to fulfil my duties my deep respect for order imposed upon me”. Both the camera and the dialogue suggest something external to the conventionally psychological.

In denying conventional film language – shot/counter shot – and making the central character’s confession about the necessity of order over his own feelings of jealousy – Tarr denies the notion of an autonomous self. In each instance, though, the scenes give justification to apparent bad faith. The self-conscious direction helps give meaning to the limitations of the fatigued individual. In the circular Sátántangó an opening and closing voice-over informs us of the coming autumn rains, and of the bell tower that collapsed during the war. There is something of a depressive Nietzschean eternal return here where we have a land constantly trounced by invaders and yet populated by locals who never leave, nor can never quite understand their predicament. The impoverished doctor may say at the end of the film that the people are caught in a cosmic “vert-schaft”, but they’re also products of a nation that has been over-run perhaps once too often. There is an explicit reference to the return of the Turks (who ruled much of Hungary from 1526 to the late 17th century before the Habsburgs took over). There is also anything from a visiting figure claiming to be a spiritual leader, to the sweeping October rains that the film conspicuously mentions at both the beginning and at the end, all adding to this sense of the invasive. Thus when the reclusive Karrer in Damnation reckons he’s hardly the master of his own destiny, or one of the community in Sátántangó, Futaki, talks about trying to get a job somewhere else, though he’s unlikely to go anywhere, the camera, the wild weather which hems the locals in for the winter, the historical and the cosmic, all give justification to the sense of an inertial world bigger than the individual populating it.

Damnation

The philosophical thus becomes the sum total of possibilities within a presented existence and bad faith dissolves into a relative fatalism. This is partly how the cinema of damnation goes beyond realism without hinting at the transcendent. Where realism might merely suggest the difficulties within the immediate milieu (Ken Loach for example), the cinema of damnation hints at the apparently unavoidable nature of despair: the resonance of the echo within the world. Transcendent cinema may want that echo to hint at the possibility of a higher being (Dreyer, Bresson, Tarkovsky), but the cinema of damnation seems more a cinema of dire yet multi-faceted actualities than of spiritual possibilities. What its characters look for is often the best option within the clearly hopeless. In Damnation, Karrer, despairing of humanity, communicates with a dog before disappearing into the muddied wilderness. At the end of Sátántangó the doctor no less despairingly boards up his windows from the inside. In both Three Days and A Few of Us the characters finally leave the community not because, it seems, there is something better elsewhere, but because there is nothing to keep them where they are. Abendland may appear more optimistic than most, but the best option comes out of terrible realities. It would be too much to say here that love will flourish, the most the characters can expect, one senses, is the possibility of consoling each other within their despairing state.

What we have in the cinema of damnation then is a realism, or, if you like, a realisation. It is in this realisation that realism is eschewed and transcendence denied. Realisation offers a perspective on realism without resorting to anything beyond the full weight of the widest possible milieu. The question the films ask is this: what’s the best option available in what is already the worst of all possible worlds? If Karrer acts treacherously amongst those who are themselves treacherous, is communication with a dog not the best option? If the community one comes from is dull and fatiguing but no worse than the one that is visited, then why not return home asks Three Days? If we argue and fight and emotionally tear each other to pieces, is this still not better than the murderousness outside Abendland wonders?

The metaphysical perspective of comprehending oneself and one’s position in the world doesn’t generally lead to possible spiritual enlightenment, ritual significance, political martyrdom or profound understanding, as we sometimes find respectively in Tarkovsky, Paradjanov, Jancsó and Angelopoulos. It is enough merely to remain within the realm of sanity. For if the central image in the cinema of wonder is, in Orr’s words, “watching a rainbow during the sensation of aftershock” (8), in the cinema of the damned the rainbow has been replaced by the retreat into madness and drunken reverie. The realisation remains within realism not beyond it. How so many characters of damnation might ask, does one remain sane? Surely the priority is to remain resolutely in this world when those who look as if they’ve gone beyond it are so obviously mad. Sanity thus becomes something one can’t necessarily take for granted; it instead needs to be pursued. Hence in Bartas we see he isn’t necessarily rejecting the expectations of the seer, but instead turns the seer into an internalised agent. The action is not outward but inward. It’s a perpetual fight against perceptual collapse and catatonia. Bartas’ character journeys through the hallways of The Corridor comprehending the frailty of self in the crumbled minds of the building’s inhabitants. In A Few of Us, the young woman travels to the Siberian wastes perhaps as anthropological observer, but seems finally to settle for the preservation of her own mental and physical well-being. Here again, in Bartas, we see the Carroll influence, but where the nonsense in Carroll is chiefly through language, in Bartas the non-sense is chiefly through language’s absence. The non-sense has been absorbed into the face and the body, the buildings and the topography. This is especially pronounced in The Corridor, where there is the character humming as he looks out of the window at the beginning of the film; the young boy setting fire to the sheets, the lean, middle-aged moustachioed drunk crossing himself just before he falls off the stool. Then there is the building, with its long, narrow corridors and its rooms crumbling and crowded with dozens of bodies, or half lit and barely occupied. Bartas’ is certainly a world out of joint; the only question remaining is to what degree one can minimise one’s misery within the wider despair.

Realisation is thus no more or no less than an acceptance of harsh realities without allowing oneself to be crushed by them. It’s a cinema of immanence over transcendence in a very obvious sense. A few minutes after the moustachioed drunk in The Corridor has fallen off his stool he’s back on his feet again, but any hint of communion with God his crossing himself implies is quickly replaced by an oblivious need to lose himself in dance. In Damnation, Karrer may say his actions are of significance because the world’s so out of phase, but this doesn’t lead to epiphany, merely to a walk out to a dreary mud heap on the edge of town.

Of course there is no clear line of demarcation between the cinema of wonder and the cinema of damnation. Tarr’s Werckmeister Harmonies (2000) undeniably has moments close to wondrousness: the swelling score that accompanies the central character’s night time walk through the town near the beginning of the film; the presence of the gigantic stuffed whale – an image that resembles the giant hand in Angelopoulos’ Landscape in the Mist (1988) or the monstrous Lenin statue in Ulysses’ Gaze (1995). And surely Tarkovsky’s Stalker, with its grim, post-industrial landscapes, might as readily belong to damnation as to wonder.

But simply to incorporate Tarr, Bartas and Kelemen, as well as films like Don’t Move, Die and Rise Again!, Whispering Pages and The Asthenic Syndrome, under the same rubric as Tarkovsky, Angelouplos and co would be to ignore key differences of epiphanic possibility in the latter versus spiritual impossibility in the former. When we describe Tarr as offering a malign cosmology, or Bartas a degree zero belief, we’re talking about a philosophy of minimal hope within hopelessness, nor an ontology of wonder within hopefulness. Any hope isn’t ontologically transcending, perhaps, but realistically practical, even survivalist. Man realises his status not in the calling card of a higher being, but in the degree of degradation of which he is capable. This may be why, Tarr, Bartas and Kelemen’s work is as full of “degrading” images as Tarkovsky and the others’ work is full of epiphanic ones. Whether it’s the mad, drunken dance in the middle of Sátántangó, where people drink and dance till they drop or career into somebody else, the oblivious dance in the pouring rain in Damnation, the heroine pounding the dance floor with her heels until the tiles crack in Abendland, or characters falling off stools in Werckmeister Harmonies and The Corridor, the emphasis is clearly on man’s negative capability, with man at best capable of a decision that can offer a non-hopelessness, but nothing so grand as spiritual release. Spiritual hope in such a world wouldn’t be a higher calling but a lower demand. Whether that be the aforementioned moustachioed man in The Corridor or the doctor in Sátántangó confusing the sound of the bell, theology, politics, ritual or will can no longer relieve the soul. What can is obviously another question.

Endnotes

  1. Arthur Schopenhauer, Essays and Aphorisms, Penguin, London, 1970, p 41.
  2. Interview with Béla Tarr by Fergus Daly and Maximilian le Cain, Film West, Spring, no. 43, 2001, p. 30.
  3. Susan Sontag, Against Interpretation, Dell Publishing, New York, 1966, p 192.
  4. Interview with Béla Tarr by Fergus Daly and Maximilian le Cain, Film West, Spring, no. 43, 2001, p. 30.
  5. Interview with Fred Kelemen by Roger Clarke, The Independent, 8 April 1999.
  6. Interview with Béla Tarr by Jonathan Romney, Enthusiasm, 04, p 7.
  7. Romney, Enthusiasm 04, p 4.
  8. John Orr, The Art of Politics of Film, Edinburgh University Press, Edinburgh, 2000, p 54.

About The Author

Tony McKibbin teaches Short Courses at The University of Edinburgh and writes for various magazine and journals. His website can be found at tonymckibbin.com, and some of the material from the website is in book form: On and About Film and Other Essays; Craig Dunain and Other Stories.