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The Cinema of Béla TarrThe Circle Closes$

András Bálint Kovács

Print publication date: 2013

Print ISBN-13: 9780231165310

Published to Columbia Scholarship Online: November 2015

DOI: 10.7312/columbia/9780231165310.001.0001

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The Persona

The Persona

Chapter:
(p.7) Chapter One The Persona
Source:
The Cinema of Béla Tarr
Author(s):

András Bálint Kovács

Publisher:
Columbia University Press
DOI:10.7312/columbia/9780231165310.003.0001

Abstract and Keywords

This chapter focuses on the career of Béla Tarr. Tarr was born in Pécs, in southern Hungary, in 1955. For his fourteenth birthday he received an 8mm camera from his father which started his journey into filmmaking. At the age of twenty-two, he released his first full-length feature film, Family Nest (Családi tűzfészek, 1977), which also won the Grand Prize at the 1979 Mannheim International Film Festival. In 1980, Tarr was among the founders of a newly formed studio called Társulás Studiá. Officially the studio's mission was to create and promote the semi-documentary, semi-fictional style the founders of the studio initiated five years earlier. However, filmmakers with clearly avant-garde ambitions could also come and make films in the studio. By the early years of 2000 Tarr was already well-known for his international successes and was recognized as a somewhat eccentric but important figure of Hungarian cinema. In 2010 he was elected president of the Hungarian Filmmakers Association.

Keywords:   Béla Tarr, Hungarian film directors, filmmakers, film studios, Társulás Studiá, Hungarian Filmmakers Association

Because this chapter is about Béla Tarr as a person, I will not refrain from evoking a personal memory. The first time I met with Tarr was in 1979, at a screening of Ermanno Olmi’s The Post. The screening was organised by filmmakers, Béla Tarr among them, who not much later organised their own filmmaking studio, called Társulás. Their goal was to find young film critics who were receptive to supporting their particular goals in creating documentary-style fiction films. As we left the screening room and walked toward some club in which we would discuss the film, Béla started to talk about the film, while most of us, including myself, were just trying to make some sense of what we had just seen. I was amazed by his crystal clear, strong, sharp and unambiguous comments formulated five minutes after he had finished watching a film for the first time. I was amazed how someone could have such an assured approach to the world as to be able to form so quickly an uncompromising, and accurate, opinion about anything. By the time we arrived at the club I was convinced that there was no other way of interpreting this film than the way Béla Tarr did. At least this is how I remember the story; Tarr has a different recollection of it. He says he was not present at the screening, and has never seen this film. He joined us only when we left the screening room, and made his comments only after he had listened to our conversation about the film. Whatever is the case, my impression of what he said was the same. Whether or not he saw it, he gave me a key to this film through the unambiguous, straightforward words he used.

This first impression has never changed since then. I think that the key to his character can be found in the power of his approach to the world, the uncompromising stubbornness of pursuing his goals, and the intelligence and sophistication by which he formulates his vision in both words and images.

(p.8) The outsider

Béla Tarr was born in Pécs, in southern Hungary, in 1955. For his fourteenth birthday he received an 8mm camera from his father. Very soon, at the age of seventeen, this camera got him into trouble. During his high school years he got involved with some radical leftist movements ideologically not far from Maoism. These groups, although consisting of intellectuals and artists, made a cult around physical work and around being among workers. They grouped around music groups like Monszun and theatre groups such as Orfeo. Tarr, while still a high school student, also went regularly to work in a shipyard and followed these groups on their regular excursions to workers’ districts and workers’ hostels. On one of these occasions he met a group of gypsy workers who wrote a letter to János Kádár, first secretary of the Hungarian Socialist Workers Party, asking him to grant them permission to leave the country to work in Austria, because they could not find enough work at home. The whole idea seemed so absurd in 1971 in a country where even visiting a relative living abroad required obtaining special permission, which proved an ordeal to anyone who tried, and this story inspired the sixteen-year-old Tarr to ask these workers to talk about their situation and motivation for his camera. With two of his friends they formed a filmmaking group they named after Dziga Vertov (referring to Jean-Luc Godard and Jean-Pierre Gorin’s ‘Dziga Vertov Group’). Tarr’s Dziga Vertov Group made a documentary about these men, and sent this film, Guest Workers (lost since then), to an amateur film festival, where it won first prize. The success made Tarr very proud of his film, which he wanted everybody, especially workers, to see. So he took his projector and tape recorder, and several times a week he would visit workers’ hostels, where he would set up his equipment and screen the film to workers arriving home from the factory. He even made posters by hand to advertise these projections at the workers’ hostels.

The workers took this well, but the Communist Party did not. One day at school, Tarr was ordered to go to the local party office to explain what he was doing and to screen the film to the party officials. They watched the film but didn’t say anything. They let him go, and no direct retaliation was undertaken. But a year later, when, after finishing high school, he wanted to study at university, he was told not even to think about it. He was denied admission to every higher educational institution in the country. So he went to work in the shipyard. He worked there for two years, but his frail, thin build wasn’t meant for the hard physical labour. He sent an application to the department of philosophy of Budapest’s ELTE University. At the admission exam he shocked the examining professor by asserting that Marx’s Communist Manifesto was like a work of art rather than a political programme, and that communism was a movement rather than some institutionalised political formation. He was refused admittance. He took the job of doorman at a cultural centre in one of Budapest’s workers’ districts. In the meantime he continued making amateur films, one of which won another prize at a subsequent amateur film festival. Members of the jury included István Dárday and Györgyi Szalai, two prominent representatives of a group of documentary filmmakers working in a kind of semi-documentary, semi-fictional genre. They invited Tarr to work as an assistant on their next major project, Film Saga (p.9) (Filmregény, 1977). At the age of twenty, Tarr had his first real contact with professional filmmaking.

In the meantime, Tarr already had a film project in the works, part of which was the film he won the prize for at the amateur film festival. This was about a young woman named Irén Szajki, whom Tarr met when he was filming in a workers’ district on the outskirts of Budapest that has been demolished since then. Irén was squatting in an apartment for a period, but eventually the city council had her evicted by force. Tarr, who was working alone at that time, decided to film the act of eviction. He found a hideout in a neighbouring building from which he could film the action quietly, and settled there half an hour before the city council agents arrived, accompanied by the police. Somehow the police found out about his being there and began the whole procedure by arresting him first and taking him to police headquarters. He was kept there half of the day, during which time the agents accomplished their mission. After that he was let go. Irén had nowhere else to go from this apartment but to his father-inlaw’s place, where she was the twelfth person in residence. This was the origin of Tarr’s first full-length feature film, Family Nest (Családi tűzfészek, 1977), where Irén Szajki played the female protagonist. She also played important roles in later Tarr films, such as Satantango and Werckmeister Harmonies.

Family Nest was made by the Balázs Béla Stúdió, an independent studio for young filmmakers, and released in 1979. At the age of twenty-two not only did he become the youngest film director in Hungary with a full-length feature film officially released, but thanks to Family Nest he earned a national and international reputation, the film also winning the Grand Prize at the 1979 Mannheim International Film Festival. At the same time, the fact that Tarr did not have any professional training did not escape attention. Not only was he very young, but he was also a total outsider in a professional community that was very careful not to allow anyone near film production who did not go through official training. For Tarr to be taken seriously as a filmmaker it was strongly advised he go to an official film school. Although just a couple of years earlier he had been banned from all higher educational institutions in Hungary, after Family Nest it would have been very difficult not to admit him to film school. He was accepted into Miklós Szinetár’s class, originally a television director training programme, later changed into a film director’s programme in 1978.

Tarr was no less an outsider in film school, not bothering to attend many classes. He was making his next feature film, The Outsider (Szabadgyalog, 1980). He was allowed to do whatever he liked, and was not required to live a regular film student’s life. The Outsider was already an official professional studio production. After the release of this film he started his third project, The Prefab People (Panelkapcsolat, 1982). At the same time he made Macbeth (1982), originally a film school assignment but later reproduced for television. By the time he graduated from film school he already had three full-length feature films finished, and two international awards, the Locarno Festival special mention for The Prefab People being the second. This was quite an unusually intense beginning to a professional career for a filmmaker of his age.

In 1980 Tarr was among the founders of a newly formed studio, called Társulás Studió. It was formed by people belonging to a certain ‘cinema direct’ current, who (p.10) were joined by some others who had ideas about filmmaking outside of the then-mainstream politically correct realist norm of Hungarian cinema. Officially, its mission was to create and promote the semi-documentary, semi-fictional style the founders of the studio initiated five years earlier. However, filmmakers with clearly avant-garde ambitions could also come and make films in the studio. Very quickly Társulás became Hungarian cinema’s most inventive filmmaking studio. But Társulás was short-lived. Right from the outset, filmmakers from other studios did not agree with the formation of Társulás, for the simple reason that they all had to live on the shrinking state funding of the film industry. Another studio meant distribution of the funds between five studios instead of four. After six years’ constant struggle, in 1985 Társulás, the only institutional background for the innovative spirit of Hungarian cinema, was dissolved.

Tarr made two films with Társulás, The Prefab People and Almanac of Fall (Őszi Almanach, 1985). In 1985 his next project, Satantango, was accepted by the studio, but the production could not start. With the dissolution of Társulás the chances that he could make this film fell considerably. He tried to sell the idea to several of the remaining studios with no success. He was even told by one of the studio heads, a film director colleague, that he was an amateur and he had better quit filmmaking for good. In 1986 Tarr found himself marginalised in the official Hungarian film industry, which he never really belonged to anyway, and it looked like he would not be able to continue as a filmmaker within the existing institutional structure. He started a new project less ambitious than Satantango. It was an idea he had had earlier about a small-town singer and her husband, and together with László Kransznahorkai, writer of the source novel for Satantango, he wrote the script for Damnation. He was used to the idea of being an outsider and accepted this marginalised position. He brought together several sponsors not directly involved in filmmaking, like the Hungarian Film Institute and the Hungarian Advertising Agency; Hungarian Television and MOKÉP, the state film distribution company, joined the project later. If Hungarian Television had not been involved in the production, it would have been the first Hungarian feature film after World War II to be produced entirely outside the official filmmaking system.

Thus far Tarr was not a widely known filmmaker. Each of his steps into the realm of filmmaking was irregular and kept him at the margin of the film industry. As Ágnes Hranitzky put it: ‘He wasn’t taken seriously as a filmmaker. For the studio people, he was just a wannabe.’1 He was categorised as someone belonging to the by-then extinguished documentary-style fiction film movement, and not even as the most characteristic representative of it, in that his films showed very few direct political concerns. Almanac of Fall was already atypical of Tarr’s former work and provoked more enthusiasm among critics abroad than among those in Hungary; but this film laid the foundations for his international reputation. The discrepancy between his marginal status in Hungary and his growing international fame became even more pronounced with his next film, Damnation. The film provoked harsh or mocking reviews in Hungary and a total rejection by the jury of the Hungarian Film Week of 1988, but at same time, it earned him the Foreign Critics Award on the same occasion, (p.11) two other international awards (Cannes and Bergamo), a nomination for the European Film Award and a number of other international festival invitations all over the world.

The next year Tarr received a DAAD2 fellowship for artists to spend a year in West Berlin. Upon return, the Tarr-Hranitzky couple gave up their apartment in the heart of Budapest and moved to a little village about thirty kilometres from the capital city. That is where they started preparations for their gigantic enterprise, Satantango. It looked as if Tarr had settled for remaining marginal to the Hungarian professional film world. He did not often participate in professional debates and did not keep in contact with most of the leading figures of Hungary’s professional film production. However, he has since become a frequent visiting professor at the Berlin film school, where he has been spending a couple of months each year. Ironically, he has not received any invitation to teach at the Hungarian film school as yet. In 1994 Satantango featured at the Hungarian Film Week. The organisers considered this a marginal event, forecasting a weak attendance due to the film’s extreme running time (seven and a half hours), and programmed it in a small theatre. Several hundred viewers showed up, loudly expressing their discontent. This film earned Tarr a massive international reputation among cinephiles all over the world. Respected critics praised this film, and a certain cult around it was born.

Due to the fact that during the preceding fifteen years he himself had to secure the financing for his own films, and played the role not only of the director but also of the executive producer, after the release of his next film, Werckmeister Harmonies, Tarr started his own production company, T. T. Filmműhely, together with producer Gábor Téni.

By the early years of 2000 Tarr was not a marginal figure any more. He was already well-known for his international successes and was recognised as a somewhat eccentric but important figure of Hungarian cinema. Although bringing together sponsorship for Werckmeister Harmonies took a long time, he managed to secure the financing for this film too, including important government grants. In 2003 he obtained the highest national award an artist can get in Hungary. In 2009 he accepted an offer to be a candidate for the future presidency of the Hungarian Film Foundation, but it was not long before he realised that there was very little support for his radical conception of how to run the Foundation, and he stepped back. In 2010 he was elected president of the Hungarian Filmmakers Association.

The lack of success of The Man from London was rather disappointing considering the high expectations, and all of this foreshadowed the difficulties surrounding the commencement of Tarr’s next project, The Turin Horse (2011). This is when Tarr announced that this film would be his last one, after which he would quit filmmaking. He made this announcement when he was already a national and international celebrity, known and respected by many in the international art-film world: T-shirts with his name on are on sale in Los Angeles, his style is imitated by other filmmakers, and he has become a cult figure for art-film audiences all over the world. In short, when Tarr ceased to be a marginalised outsider and became one of the touchstones of the mainstream high-brow art-film culture, he decided it was time to stop.

(p.12) The maverick

‘When someone makes a film that is seven and a half hours long it means that he just ignores the way the world is.’3 Being an outsider has been a conscious choice for Tarr for the most part, and provided him with the freedom of not being engaged to any institution or person who would try to make him respect rules he did not want to respect. If Tarr really stops making films, his life as a filmmaker could be seen as a product of a fully dedicated, non-compromising artist who not for one moment in his life was busy building up a ‘career’. All he was concerned with at every moment was making the film he wanted to make the way he wanted it to be, no matter in what environment he had to work. At every instance he has done what he wanted, not what he was allowed or advised to do. He was as fully dedicated to his film when, at the age of twenty, he was hiding in the staircase of a building with his 8mm camera, waiting for the police to evict Irén, as when, at the age of fifty, he decided to rebuild the financing for The Man from London, and go back to Bastia with new people to restart the production a year after he had to stop. He was the same person at the age of seventeen, visiting workers’ hostels with his projector showing his only film to the workers, as he was at the age of thirty-eight, when he went out shooting Satantango with the money he borrowed from the cafeteria tender of the studio so that he could pay the technical crew. He was the same person at the age of twenty-four, when instead of attending classes at the film school he made his second feature film, as he was at the age of thirty-two, when after being refused by every studio, he built up funding for Damnation independently at a time when this was considered inconceivable to many.

For Tarr, filmmaking has always been a question of inner moral conviction rather than a profession. In the 1970s he was truly convinced that making films was not only a way of life, but a political mission as well. He thought that his films would provoke a revolution merely by their form and by their messages. Tarr had a rather political avant-garde conception of art: radicalism in the artistic form should influence directly the viewer’s political ideas. However, his films were neither subversive nor radical enough in their form to be considered politically significant. As much as he took his political mission seriously, his films, among the works of the documentary-fiction current, were not in the least politically explicit. No wonder that they did not provoke any political reactions. (The others did not either, for that matter, and if any of these films had been considered politically dangerous by the political powers they would have been banned right away, as was the case with Gyula Gazdag’s Bástayasétány74 (1974) and with more than one documentary film of the period.) Tarr’s radicalism and his reputation for being a difficult person had a different source than politics.

There is a recurrent motif in Tarr’s films which explains much of this paradox. In the majority of the films made after Almanac of Fall we find a lonely, marginalised protagonist who takes on an outsider’s or an observer’s position (Karrer in Damnation, the doctor in Satantango, Valuska in Werckmeister Harmonies, Maloin in The Man from London). The character of András in The Outsider can be considered as the first manifestation of this character type. I would not go so far as to say that these characters are self-portraits of the filmmaker, but they certainly represent a point of (p.13) view which he shares. Tarr found his real artistic radicalism when he realised that his radicalism had to do with his position as an outsider rather than with his inner political convictions. He has been radical as a filmmaker rather than as a political thinker or activist. And it was through his absolute self-centredness, stubbornness and unconditional devotion to the cause of his films as an outsider that he could make prevail his real political point of view: his solidarity for the outcast, for those who really are at the margins of society, for the real outsiders, not outsiders only by choice. In his films Tarr has become a spokesperson for these people with the help of his aesthetic rather than explicit political radicalism. None of his films represents better this attitude than the five-minute sketch called Prologue, which is part of the portmanteau film made by twenty-five European film directors called Visions of Europe (2004). This film consists of a single take, which is a simple tracking shot near a line of seemingly homeless people standing speechless in line for something. After three and a half minutes, the camera arrives at the head of the queue, where a window is opened by a smiling young woman who starts to hand out little portions of free food to these people. The last sequence, lasting more than a minute of the film, is a list of several hundred names of the homeless people we have just seen standing in the line. This is the most explicit political statement made by Tarr about the enlargement of the European Union, manifesting the same attitude one can find in all of his films. Each of these people has the same dignity as those on the other side of the window, only they are very poor, humiliated and crippled.

In a way this attitude ensured him the possibility of a certain working style. Because Tarr is least concerned with the opinions of people who do not share his dedication to his cinematic cause, he expects devotion from his collaborators that goes beyond mere professionalism. For Tarr no film of his was ‘just a film’. Each of them was a ‘cause’ to which everybody in the crew had to dedicate himself or herself entirely with inner conviction. This is why, starting from Damnation, credit lists do not make a distinction visually between important and less important creators. Everybody is shown in the same way with no distinction. The opening credit of Damnation does not even read, ‘A film by Béla Tarr’, but, ‘A film by…’ – and a list of names. For Tarr his crew formed a community of people dedicated to the same cause outside the mainstream norms. This was a community that had been working together for more than twenty years, and some of them thirty years or more, including Ágnes Hranitzky, of course, actor János Derzsi, Irén Szajki, Miklós Székely B. and composer Mihály Víg.

As much as Tarr tries to keep the same collaborators around him, he has no problem with dismissing anybody who does not fit into his plans. This is a particularly delicate issue when it comes to cinematographers. For his four early films, until Almanac of Fall, he worked with several cameramen, usually two or three at a time, as the documentary style required multiple cameras. Cameraman Ferenc Pap was always among them. But problems started with Almanac of Fall. Lighting issues and complicated dolly movements drove Tarr to change cameraman twice during the production of the film. With Damnation Tarr needed entirely new camerawork, which had nothing to do with the earlier documentary style, based essentially on improvisation and static close-ups. Tarr wanted someone who could help him develop even further the long-take (p.14) style with complicated and well-designed tracking shots. Because he knew what he wanted to accomplish, he looked for someone inexperienced, rather than someone who already had his own crystallised camerawork style. Gábor Medvigy, who had not made a feature film yet, was his choice. Their cooperation was not without conflicts, but it was good enough for Tarr to ask him to work on Satantango too. Their relationship worsened dramatically during the shooting and further after the release of the film, yet Medvigy also worked on Werckmeister Harmonies. However, this latter film was filmed by four consecutive cinematographers. The problems with the cinematographers continued with The Man from London, only this time several cinematographers were asked and then dismissed at the beginning of or even before the shooting. István Szaladják, who started the film, simply walked away from the production site, and took a plane back to Budapest after the first week. Tarr then tried to ask Medvigy again, but this time he refused. Finally, Tarr found a cameraman he had already worked with on a short film (Travel on the Plain): Fred Kelemen, a Hungarian-born German filmmaker and a former student of his.

Not unrelated to the problem with cinematographers, rumours spread that Tarr was a difficult person to work with. His reputation as a difficult person to negotiate with in financial terms and as someone non-compromising in artistic terms was constantly growing. The difficult situation in which Werckmeister Harmonies’ producer found himself after the film was released reinforced this image, even though the producer’s problems were not due to the film. Even more so the suicide of Humbert Balsan, the executive producer of The Man from London, in spite of the fact that his death in 2005 could not possibly be related to the film, the financing of which was secured already. Nevertheless, some of the people in the French film industry felt that somehow the difficulties imposed by the production of this film after all might have played a role in causing the suicide of the chairman of the European Film Academy.4

Tarr seemed to be a ‘difficult person’ above all to the sponsors. Tarr has always been a non-compromising perfectionist. Already at the beginning of his career he was known for his excessive use of film stock. He always ran beyond the assigned quantity by using multiple cameras and repeating scenes as many times as necessary for the result he wanted. But problems with financing became really severe with Damnation. Tarr set up the financing structure of his film himself, and from this point on it was really him in charge of matters of financing. Satantango was already an international co-production, but the length of the film and the fact that Tarr was not willing to cut it to ‘normal’ length caused problems for one of the co-producers. The international success of Satantango opened up more possibilities. Building up the financing for The Man from London was relatively easy at the beginning, but after Balsan’s death it became a nightmare. Tarr needed both Hungarian and French government support to be able to finish the film.

All of the stories and gossip of this kind contributed to Tarr’s image as someone who is very problematic to negotiate with, who is willing to go to the very end in the pursuit of his artistic goals, who squeezes the last drop out of everyone who works with him, and the last penny from all possible sources, but also as someone who is overwhelming, and impossible to resist.

(p.15) Working methods

When I taught in Berlin I kept telling the students that making a film is not like first you write the script, then the dialogue, and next you choose the actors from a photo album. I said: you don’t write a script first, you don’t write the dialogue. Here is your synopsis, and the next step is that you choose your actors and the locations. And when you have them all, knowing who will play and where in the film, only then you write the script. So, what they learned from me was that right after the synopsis they have to look for the actors and the locations, and only after that they can write dialogue and scenes, when they know already that they can put the camera there and who will play it. That is the only way you can write scenes and dialogue that don’t feel like a kick of a horse.5

There are several characteristics of Tarr’s working method that have remained constant over the years, even if his style and themes have changed considerably. One of them is the concentration on actors and locations rather than on the narrative as manifested in the script.

Finding the right location has been of prime importance to Tarr’s work. He never uses a studio set, and always works in real locations. A location for him is not just ‘an apartment’, not just a small-town street or some landscape. Every little detail has to bear the atmosphere and the unmistakable visual characteristics of the world in which the story takes place. The landscape, be it natural or built, is an essential part of the narrative composition in Tarr’s films. Part of the effect Tarr intends to evoke is the feeling on the viewer’s part that he or she recognises this environment as real. So it has to be real. Even if Tarr modifies the landscape in order to intensify its effects, details of it are mostly real. There are some important exceptions, however. Almanac of Fall is played out on an artificial set with no connections to any real-world location, although the apartment was real and not built up in a studio. The tower in The Man from London is also an artificial construction at the port of Bastia, and the farm in The Turin Horse is an entirely artificial construction. Tarr spends a lot of energy to find the appropriate exterior he needs in his films. Sometimes he finds them close to one another; sometimes he has to construct the landscapes from little pieces, as in the case of Damnation, where the town in which the film takes place does not correspond to any existing location. Every street, every corner and every building is taken from a different place. Tarr made a selection of the most deteriorated sceneries of Hungary so that the whole film carries an extremely concentrated atmosphere of shabbiness. And in order to find the exact landscape he imagined for The Man from London, Tarr went on a tour of every possible little port town in Europe before he made a decision to choose Bastia in Corsica.

Actors’ faces are as important for Tarr as the landscape. That is the reason the same actors recur in his films very often. What he looks for is expressive faces rather than psychologically realist acting. His characters’ faces are required to express a certain past and a certain existential situation without any real acting. In this, he is a real follower of Bresson, Antonioni, Jancsó and Tarkovsky. Until Werckmeister Harmonies he mostly (p.16) worked with amateurs or actors who did not appear very often in the films. Again, Almanac of Fall is the main exception, featuring only well-known professional actors. By contrast, in Satantango most of the main characters were amateurs. In later films, even if international stars such as Hanna Schygulla, Tilda Swinton, Peter Berling and Lars Rudolph appear, amateur actors remain the choice for important roles: Erika Bók in The Man from London and in The Turin Horse; Miroslav Krobot in The Man from London; Alfréd Járai, Péter Dobai, Putyi Horváth and Irén Szajki in Werckmeister Harmonies.

Downplaying the importance of the scenario has for a long time been a part of the art-film production mode, especially in a style where the documentary-like effect requires a considerable amount of improvisation. What Tarr learned from direct cinema was that dialogue depends very much on what the amateur actors are able and willing to say, and camera movements can be decided only after they know where they will shoot and how the amateur actor is able to move. They had only a storyboard with situations and a general outline of the development of the dialogue, not the precise words and sentences. This is the general principle of the documentary-fiction style, where much of the film is based on improvisation. Tarr left behind the semi-documentary style, but this principle remained his fundamental working method.

Improvisation dropped back considerably after Tarr started his collaboration with Krasznahorkai. Not only situations, but carefully formulated dialogue was written before shooting, and even if considerable changes sometimes had to be made to the dialogue, they were rarely the result of actors’ improvisation, at least not more than in any other film. However, a certain amount of improvisation remained part of Tarr’s work. We could roughly say that while in his first period (until Almanac of Fall) improvisation was at the centre of his work, because the actors themselves had to improvise their dialogue and movements, in the second period improvisation is imposed by the complicated long-take style in real locations. Tarr has the pattern of the camera movement in mind, but the exact choreography and pace of the movements are determined on location during the rehearsals. Instead of detailed technical scenarios he has drawn up, all that Tarr has in his hands during the shooting is the dialogue book and many photos that he or the cinematographer take continuously of the set from different angles. These photographs have the function of orienting the creators. They serve as starting points for the cameraman and the rest of the crew to envisage the result of the given shot. Sometimes, however, even these pictures are not respected and the shot is entirely changed during shooting. For example, one of the key shots from the plan of The Man from London, in which the tower could be seen from Maloin’s apartment, was finally left out. Every important detail is decided only on location and no preliminary plans or ideas are respected if they don’t seem to provide the required effect.

Tarr explains his improvisational working method by a curious inner motivation: ‘The lack of self-confidence has to reach an extent where all you can trust in is that you’ll feel what is not good.’6 It is not that Tarr doesn’t know what he wants. This means that he can feel that the effect of a given shot takes place only when it really takes place on location during the shooting. He does know what effect he wants, but he does not know what it feels like until it happens. It is as if directing for Tarr means (p.17) ‘eliminating what is wrong’ from a sequence until the ‘real thing’ comes forward. Tarr treats each shot as an individual sequence, rather than as a sequence functioning in a narrative flow. They must be the way they are in their own right, not because they move the narrative forward. Each shot is a long sequence, a block of time, and it has to have an exact atmosphere, an opening and a closing, and a dramaturgical curve of its own, depending only to a small extent on the next or previous shot. All shots must have their own individual aesthetic essence, and in this respect they are in fact reminiscent of the construction of space in time employed by Tarkovsky in service of the notion of ‘sculpting in time’.7

Needless to say, editing is a relatively unimportant phase of Tarr’s work. When a film consists of thirty to fifty shots, the order of the shots is not a real issue in the editing phase. Each shot consists of an entire narrative sequence and represents a temporal unit that is fixed at the time of the shooting, and cannot be altered later on. It happens very rarely that the order of these sequences is altered during editing or that any of them is left out. Much of the process of editing is dissolved into the process of planning the time sequences of the story, and the rhythm of the film is also fixed in the shooting phase. That is also when the length of the shot is basically fixed, leaving only limited opportunities for some adjustment through editing. This is why the shooting schedule is adapted to the chronology of the story when this is possible. As the possibility to change the order of the shots is limited, and especially because there is no way of changing the order of the scenes within the individual shots, it is essential for Tarr to know how a shot ends in order to know how to start the next sequence. And because most aspects of the shot are determined during shooting, filming in chronology wherever it is technically and logistically possible becomes the optimal solution.

Obviously, extreme long takes raise the question of the possibility of corrections. If something in a ten-minute take is not quite successful, the whole take has to be repeated with the risk of doing something else wrong in the second version. There is no possibility of mixing the two versions by keeping what is good in each. A third, a fourth, or a tenth version has to be made until everything is perfect. Sometimes this becomes impossible, especially when several weeks or months pass between the shooting of the different versions, and in such a case Tarr has to come to accept what he hates most: a compromise.

Making a film is a real collaborative work for Tarr. Anybody in the crew or in his closer environment is welcome to contribute to the creative process with a useful idea. Everybody in the crew has his or her precise role of course, but anybody is free to make comments on things that may seem beyond his or her competence. Tarr never says, ‘This is none of your business’, as long as the person in question does not speak nonsense too often. Everybody is encouraged to have creative ideas that contribute to realising the film’s main conception. This is why Tarr considers his main collaborators as co-authors. Everything depends on the person rather than on the position the person has in the crew. An assistant may propose important changes in the soundtrack at the post-production phase, and Tarr will listen to him; a line producer may suggest shifts in camera movements or framings; and of course the cinematographer is required to be as creative as possible, in line with Tarr’s thoughts, naturally. (p.18)

The Persona

One person with whom Tarr has a special working relationship is Mihály Víg, his main composer since Almanac of Fall.

(Courtesy of Béla Tarr)

Mihály Víg was a member of the underground rock group Trabant, formed in 1980. The group did not last long but became incredibly popular in young intellectual and avant-garde circles. In the early 1980s two Hungarian films featured their music or some of their members: Gábor Bódy’s Kutya éji dala (Dog’s Night Song, 1982) and Eszkimó asszony fázik (Eskimo Woman Feels Cold, 1984) by János Xantus. Tarr was also looking for a composer for his film from this environment. His choice of Víg turned out to be a good one; not only has he become one of his most stable collaborators, but Víg’s work has become an essential part of the Tarr films. As Tarr explains:

Without the composer the films wouldn’t be what they are. He goes into the studio a month before the actual shooting takes place, composes the music, gives it to us and then we use the music during the shoot. So the music plays an equal role to the actors or the scenes or the story. And we trust him so much that we don’t go there into the studio. He composes the music and brings the music to us. It’s a very close and very profound, very friendly relationship which has been shaped over the past 15 years, and it’s a relationship where we don’t need to talk about anything serious. We never talk about art, we never talk about philosophy, we don’t discuss aesthetics.8

It may sound strange that the music is composed even before the shooting starts. This means that Víg’s work is not based on the actual images. Rather, the opposite is true. Tarr uses the composed music while actually shooting the film. He knows which scenes will be accompanied by music, and when they are shooting this particular scene they play the music. Very often the music during shooting helps in creating the (p.19)

The Persona

Left: Hranitzky and Tarr on the shoot for Almanac of Fall in 1983. Right: Hranitzky on the shoot for Almanac of Fall in 1983.

(Courtesy of Béla Tarr)

exact rhythm of the long and complicated camera movements. According to Gábor Medvigy, cinematographer of Damnation and Satantango and main cinematographer of Werckmeister Harmonies, the shooting of the second market-place scene was saved by Ágnes Hranitzky’s idea to start playing the music out loud in the square so that the Steadicam operator felt the rhythm of the scene.

The person who has overall control in all aspects of Tarr’s films is his wife, Ágnes Hranitzky. She trained as an editor and started her film career as an assistant editor in the mid-1960s. From the mid-1970s she became involved with the documentary-fiction current. She also became the editor for Filmregény (1977), during the production of which she met Béla Tarr. Filmregény’s co-director, Györgyi Szalai, called her attention to a twenty-year-old second assistant. According to Ágnes, Szalai said to her about Béla, with an obvious lack of foresight: ‘Watch that kid, he is awfully good, but the best thing about him is that he doesn’t want to be a filmmaker.’ Hranitzky had a different impression; she has been living and working with him ever since. She should have been the editor of Family Nest but was busy at the time, so her assistant, Anna Kornis, became chief editor, and Hranitzky was consultant. In The Outsider she is credited as co-director and editor of the film.

The Persona

Hranitzky and Tarr preparing The Turin Horse.

(Courtesy of Béla Tarr)

Since then, she has always been part of the creative process right from the beginning (p.20) of a project. Tarr discusses with her every little detail of the idea, the scenario, the dialogue, the visual conception, the camera movements, the set, the props, the actors, directing, post-production, and she is of course the editor. She is present at every phase of the production and takes action independently if she feels it is necessary. During the shooting phase, other than keeping a critical eye on everything, she is the one who holds the crew together, keeping up morale in times of crisis. She has the authority to give instruction to anybody in the crew and she does this with an incredible thoughtfulness, so that her instructions do not contradict Béla’s. If they have different ideas about something, nobody in the crew notices. They discuss it in private.

One could ask why the Tarr-Hranitzky filmmaking relationship is not considered in the same way as, for example, the Straub-Huillet relationship. Why do we speak about ‘Tarr films’ rather than about ‘Tarr-Hranitzky films’? For the public the name of Ágnes Hranitzky is not known at all, even though she is always credited as co-director in each film. Only their collaborators know exactly Hranitzky’s role in the creative process, but as one of their closest collaborators, cinematographer Gábor Medvigy, put it, ‘nobody really knows the nature or their work together’. So, we have to accept what they say about it. As she explains: ‘I have a say in everything, but it’s always Béla who has the creative initiative.’9

Notes

(1) Personal conversation, 2008.

(2) Deutscher Akademischer Austausch Dienst: the German state’s academic international exchange programme.

(3) Unpublished interview, Budapest, 1994.

(4) A French film, Le père de mes enfants (The Father of My Children), by Mia Hansen-Love produced in 2009 about Balsan’s suicide has a character in it, the uncompromising ‘young Swedish genius’, who is very difficult to handle, and whose behaviour does not make the producer’s life easy. However, the film refrains from putting all the blame on him for the producer’s suicide.

(5) Unpublished interview, Budapest, 2004.

(6) Unpublished interview, Budapest, 1994.

(7) ‘What is then the essence of the work of the film director? Sculpting in time. Just like a sculptor, who takes a marble block, and having an idea about its future form, extracts all that doesn’t belong to it, the filmmaker takes a time block, an enormous portion of fact of the existence, and eliminates all that he doesn’t need, and keeps only that which turns out to be a component of the film image.’ Andrei Tarkovsky (1989) Le temps scellé. Paris: Cahiers du cinéma, 61.

(8) Jonathan Romney, ‘Places off the Map’, interview with Béla Tarr on the stage of the NFT in London. In: Béla Tarr. Published on the occasion of the retrospective of Béla Tarr’s films at the MOMA in New York, 15 October 2001, p. 48.

(9) Personal conversation, 2010.

Notes:

(1) Personal conversation, 2008.

(2) Deutscher Akademischer Austausch Dienst: the German state’s academic international exchange programme.

(3) Unpublished interview, Budapest, 1994.

(4) A French film, Le père de mes enfants (The Father of My Children), by Mia Hansen-Love produced in 2009 about Balsan’s suicide has a character in it, the uncompromising ‘young Swedish genius’, who is very difficult to handle, and whose behaviour does not make the producer’s life easy. However, the film refrains from putting all the blame on him for the producer’s suicide.

(5) Unpublished interview, Budapest, 2004.

(6) Unpublished interview, Budapest, 1994.

(7) ‘What is then the essence of the work of the film director? Sculpting in time. Just like a sculptor, who takes a marble block, and having an idea about its future form, extracts all that doesn’t belong to it, the filmmaker takes a time block, an enormous portion of fact of the existence, and eliminates all that he doesn’t need, and keeps only that which turns out to be a component of the film image.’ Andrei Tarkovsky (1989) Le temps scellé. Paris: Cahiers du cinéma, 61.

(8) Jonathan Romney, ‘Places off the Map’, interview with Béla Tarr on the stage of the NFT in London. In: Béla Tarr. Published on the occasion of the retrospective of Béla Tarr’s films at the MOMA in New York, 15 October 2001, p. 48.

(9) Personal conversation, 2010.