Béla Tarr in LA and NYC

Béla Tarr and Ágnes Hranitzky’s Werckmeister Harmonies (2000)

The title of the American Cinematheque’s seven-film retrospective opening today goes hard—Boundless Damnation: The Films of Béla Tarr. The Hungarian filmmaker will be at the Aero Theatre in Santa Monica this evening to introduce a new 4K restoration of his 2000 film Werckmeister Harmonies, and he’ll be on hand at every screening through Saturday. He’ll then fly to New York, where he’ll introduce two screenings on Monday and another two on Tuesday at Film at Lincoln Center.

Werckmeister Harmonies is one of the major works from the latter half of Tarr’s filmmaking career. We can take clear measure of the oeuvre because, even before it premiered in Berlin in 2011, Tarr announced that The Turin Horse would be his last feature. Aside from a short (Muhamed, 2017), an installation (Missing People, 2019), and a production credit (Valdimar Jóhannsson’s Lamb, 2021), he’s stuck to his word.

The Cinematheque will devote one day, Friday, to the early work, screening Tarr’s first and second features at the Los Feliz Theatre in Los Angeles. Family Nest (1977), made at the Balázs Béla Studio when Tarr was only twenty-two, is a docudrama focusing on a young woman raising her daughter in the cramped apartment she shares with her husband and his family. In 1985, when Jonathan Rosenbaum was still at the Chicago Reader, he called Family Nest “a blunt piece of Hungarian social realism.”

In 1978, Tarr met—and eventually married—Ágnes Hranitzky, who edited all of his films from The Outsider (1981) on and is credited as a codirector on the final three features. When Jonathan Romney met the couple in 2001, he noted in the Guardian that they “cut a dash together, in bohemian black with matching scarves.” The Outsider tracks the meanderings of a young music lover and drinker as he falls in and out of work and in and out of love. “There were a lot of shit things in the cinema, a lot of lies,” Tarr told Romney when discussing these early films. “We weren’t knocking at the door, we just beat it down. We were coming with some fresh, new, true, real things. We just wanted to show the reality—anti-movies.”

Another crucial collaboration began just a few years later when a friend sent Tarr the manuscript of what became the debut novel by László Krasznahorkai. “I read it, and fell in love immediately,” Tarr told R. Emmet Sweeney in Film Comment in 2012. Sátántangó made Krasznahorkai a literary figure to be reckoned with, and he and Tarr hit it off right at the outset. No one in Hungary, though, would fund an adaptation. When Sátántangó finally appeared in English in 2012, Theo Tait, writing in the Guardian, called it “a monster of a novel: compact, cleverly constructed, often exhilarating, and possessed of a distinctive, compelling vision—but a monster nevertheless. It is brutal, relentless, and so amazingly bleak that it's often quite funny.”

Krasznahorkai and Tarr decided to make do with the limited resources the Hungarian Film Institute had to offer and wrote a screenplay on a more modest scale. “And yet there is nothing minor or slight about Damnation [1988], which moves fluidly through literary landscapes, mapping out references that range from Hamlet to Dostoevsky, to Goethe,” wrote Ela Bittencourt in Reverse Shot in 2012. Miklós B. Székely plays a loner who falls head over heels for a married singer (Vali Kerekes) at a local bar, “but as usual with Tarr,” wrote Bittencourt, “imagery and their metaphoric resonance are more important than plot. Suspense is a result of deliberate pacing and vagueness and, in this case, of the mysterious omnipresence of dogs.”

The mood is deepened by the soundtrack composed by Mihály Vig, another collaborator who stuck with Tarr through The Turin Horse (and beyond; they worked together again on Missing People). On Damnation, Sátántangó, and Werckmeister Harmonies, Tarr worked with cinematographer Gábor Medvigy, and as Ed Halter wrote in the Village Voice in 2007, the “signature Tarr shot—as unabashedly avant as anything by Michael Snow or James Benning—creeps unbroken for up to ten minutes or more, smoothly panning in horizontal landscape scrolls, or tracking back at a snail’s pace to reveal lugubrious human interactions unfolding in real time, enforcing its own otherworldly pace in brazen defiance of our collective attention-deficit disorder. Each shot becomes a mini-movie in itself, prying open a rare opportunity for deep contemplation, then filling it with the bitter antimatter of spiritual desolation.”

As Tarr told Sweeney, “in Hungary everybody hated” Damnation, “and they told me very clearly that I could not make movies in Hungary any more.” So he and Hranitzky moved to Berlin. Then the Wall fell, freeing the couple to return and begin work on Sátántangó. Running more than seven hours, the film saw its international premiere in Berlin, where it won the Caligari Film Prize. “Set on an entropic collective farm during the last years of Hungarian Communism, it’s a mordant, characteristically Eastern European tale of hapless peasants and charismatic swindlers,” wrote the Voice’s J. Hoberman in 2007. “Despair has never been more voluptuously precise. Sátántangó has cast its spell on cineastes as varied as the late Susan Sontag and the rejuvenated Gus Van Sant. If you have a day to devote to it, the same might happen to you.”

In Santa Monica, that day will be Saturday. Werckmeister Harmonies, in the meantime, has begun a theatrical run that will take it to venues throughout North America. Lars Rudolph, a street musician Tarr discovered in Berlin, plays János, a postman in an unnamed town where a circus rolls in with a bizarre main attraction, “The World’s Largest Giant Whale.” Riots have broken out in a nearby village, and the violence threatens to spread. Werckmeister Harmonies is “probably the most accessible of Béla Tarr’s films,” wrote Reverse Shot’s Jeff Reichert in 2006. “It may be his background in social realism that allows Tarr the leeway to mingle the fantastic (a whale in a truck) and the mundane (János stacking dishes), but the result is a cinema of unparalleled strangeness.”

Two years later, Reichert found that The Man from London (2007), Krasznahorkai and Tarr’s adaptation of a 1934 novel by Georges Simenon, “feels somehow smaller than Sátántangó or Werckmeister Harmonies,” but “Tarr’s still brought the full force of his cinema to bear.” Tarr was working for the first time here with a new cinematographer, Fred Kelemen, a filmmaker and theater director championed by Susan Sontag. Kelemen also shot The Turin Horse, which opens with wind and fury. A coachman (János Derzsi) drives his horse hard, and when he arrives home, his daughter (Erika Bók, who also appears in Sátántangó and The Man from London) serves the daily meal, one boiled potato for each of them.

“This pair, this house, are the film’s universe,” wrote Nick Pinkerton in the Voice in 2012. “Through each day, signs of life shrivel away: The woodworms go quiet, the old nag won’t eat, the well runs dry. And finally, in an inversion of creation, God—that is, Tarr—proclaims, ‘Let there be dark.’” In the New York Times, A. O. Scott suggested that The Turin Horse should “dispel any skepticism about the finality of [Tarr’s] decision to abandon his vocation, since it is hard to imagine a more thorough and systematic statement of intellectual despair.”

“All my movies are comedies!” declared Tarr in his conversation with Sweeney. “Except The Turin Horse.

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