Prior to The Turin Horse, I’d never before seen a film by Hungarian director Béla Tarr, but I was familiar with his reputation for dark, slow-paced films, was aware of his highly-praised film Satantango (primarily because of its 7.5 hour runtime), and knew that he’d said The Turin Horse (a mere 2.5 hours long) is to be his last feature.
The film opens with Hungarian dialogue over a black screen (save for the English subtitles) which explains that German philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche went mad after seeing a man beating a horse, but nothing is known of the man who owned that horse. It then proceeds to depict one possible account of his life, starting shortly after his encounter with Nietzsche. The man arrives home, puts away the horse and cart, and goes inside to his daughter. Dinner that night, and every other meal depicted in the film, consists of a single boiled potato, eaten with bare hands while it’s still so scalding hot that they have to blow on their fingers while pulling off the peel. The man’s job is hindered by the fact that he’s had a stroke and is unable to use his right arm, and despite his impatience at tearing into his potato, he never seems to eat more than half of it. Entertainment is primarily limited to staring out the house’s lone window watching the constantly-raging wind blow leaves and dirt about the yard, and conversation is at a premium.
When every day is usually the same as the one before it, differences are generally welcome. But the second day of the film shows that’s not always the case. On this day, and the several that follow, the horse refuses to pull the cart. It also refuses to eat or drink. And so the man can’t do whatever it is he usually does during the day, so it’s just more staring out the window and drinking palinka while the wind howls outside.
The Turin Horse is one of the most deliberate and pensive films I’ve seen in quite a while. There are only about 30 shots in the entire movie, so there’s no fast cutting or back-and-forth exchanges like in most films. It doesn’t try to fool the audience into thinking it’s one long, seamless shot — the cuts are obvious, and often the camera lingers when the action has ceased as if forcing you to reflect on what you’ve just seen. And what you’ve seen will have been a bleak, low-budget, minimalist representation of daily life for these people that’s hard to call beautiful but is nonetheless raw and effective. The soundtrack has a similar single-minded focus to it. Most of the time, you hear the wind, but occasionally that’s replaced with a simple and repetitive cello score, and on the rarest of occasions we may hear someone speak. But none of these seems to happen at the same time, so when there is something to be said, the other sounds are diminished.
The lack of color, the scant visuals and sounds, and minimalist plot all work together to ensure that you suffer along with the man and his daughter. Further, there are elements of the story which seem to have been left intentionally vague as yet another way of torturing the audience. It may blur the line between art and boredom more than any film I’ve seen in recent years, but it also somehow manages to have a powerful lasting effect on the viewer.