The Turin Horse (2011): Hungarian Master Filmmaker Béla Tarr’s Swan Song

A Potpourri of Vestiges Review

By Murtaza Ali

Featured in IMDb Critic Reviews

the turin horse, by bela tarr
The Turin Horse (2011) - Original Title:  A Torinói ló - By  Béla Tarr
Our Rating: 9.5
IMDb Ratings: 7.9
Genre: Drama
CastJános Derzsi, Erika Bók, Mihály Kormos
Country: Hungary | France | Germany Switzerland | USA
Language: Hungarian | German
Runtime: 146 min
Color: Black and White

The Turin Horse is a 2011 motion-picture written and directed by renowned Hungarian auteur Béla Tarr. The screenplay of The Turin Horse is co-written by Tarr’s long time collaborator László Krasznahorkai while Ágnes Hranitzky is movie’s co-director. Dubbed as Béla Tarr’s apparent swansong (as Tarr himself has expressed that he intends it to be his last film), The Turin Horse was premiered at the 2011 Berlin International Film Festival where it won the Jury Grand Prix award. The movie stars János Derzsi, Erika Bók and Mihály Kormos in the lead roles. Vintage Tarr, The Turin Horse is shot in monochrome by Tarr's regular cinematographer Fred Kelemen, with only 30 distinct shots, most of which last for more than five minutes, spread over a runtime of about 150 minutes.

The Turin Horse, The Master Rides the Stubborn Horse in the Gale Storm, Directed by Bela Tarr
The Turin Horse: The Master Rides the Stubborn Horse in the Gale Storm
The Turin Horse begins with a text narrative describing an event dating back to 3rd January, 1889 in Turin, Italy, wherein a German Philosopher, Friedrich Nietzsche, on witnessing the brutal whipping of a stubborn horse by its old, disgruntled master, makes a conscious effort to protect the horse from the merciless assault by putting his arms around its neck before himself succumbing to a state of sustained dementia that eventually consumes him a decade later. The fate of the horse, however, remains a mystery. The Turin Horse speculates, in a six-day-long sequence, what might have actually happened to the horse, its master and his daughter subsequent to the event described in the narrative. In the six-day sequence that’s presented in form of six chapters, Tarr captures their solitary, austere and mundane lives by fixating on the tedium of events that constitute their daily routine: the girl goes to the well to fetch water, dresses and undresses her father, cooks potatoes, eats them (without adding salt or spices) with his father who tops it up with Palinka—a traditional Hungarian fruit brandy. Tarr eloquently refers to it as the “heaviness of human existence”. The stark manner in which Tarr prophesies the eventual doom of his hapless characters almost has a poetical touch to it—a characteristic that’s highly reminiscent of Shakespeare’s King Lear.

The Turin Horse, The Old Master Retreats, directed by Bela Tarr
The Turin Horse: The Old Master Retreats
The Turin Horse, Old Master's Daughter Attends to his Father, Directed by Bela Tarr
The Turin Horse: Master's Daughter Attends to his Father
In The Turin Horse, Tarr’s prime focus is not on portraying the eventuality of death—which he leaves it to his viewers' imagination—but is rather on capturing the monotonous drudgery associated with human life. Béla Tarr says, “We just wanted to see how difficult and terrible it is when every day you have to go to the well and bring the water, in summer, in winter... all the time. The daily repetition of the same routine makes it possible to show that something is wrong with their world. It’s very simple and pure.” Death is a certainty that none can defy and yet we deliberately live in ignorance without giving any consideration to the eventual dooms that awaits us all. This consistency of life is seldom touched in cinema and that’s where The Turin Horse excels as a remarkable work of cinema. In The Turin Horse, the master and his daughter, who live in a remote, dilapidated farmhouse, are not symbols of human hope for survival, but are embodiments of human despondence that has crept into their systems through years of relentless struggle against their fate and mother nature which has not only lacerated them physically but has also scourged them mentally. It’s seems that the fate of the master and his daughter is inexplicably tied to that of the horse—a gritty, faithful beast which, after having served its masters day in and day out for years, has finally reached a stage where it is no longer good enough to fulfill their quotidian requirements. The incessant gale that blows across the arid landscape serves to testify the inexorability of the notorious forces of nature in humbling their greatest adversary: human. In The Turin Horse, we witness the treacherous forces of nature casting a rattling blow to both the human and the equine resolve alike.

The Turin Horse, Old Master's Daughter goes to the Well, Directed by Bela Tarr
The Turin Horse:  Old Master's Daughter Goes to the Well 
Old Master and his Daughter Savor Boiled Potatoes, Directed by Bela Horse
Old Master and his Daughter Savor Boiled Potatoes 
The Turin Horse is only the first Béla Tarr movie that I have had the privilege of watching. And, I must admit that it is unlike anything I have ever experienced before, a devastating experience that shall stay with me for the rest of my life. The Hungarian auteur is ubiquitously renowned for highly unconventional, metaphysical works which being high on abstract symbolism, à la Tarkovsky, are driven by spontaneity rather than the plot. Like Tarkovsky, Tarr too relies on long continuous shots to impart detail—a trait that has helped him gain mastery over mise en scène, more commonly referred to as the articulation of cinematic space. In Tarr’s existentialistic world there’s no place for the ramblings of the divine. A man must come to terms with the harsh realities of his mortal existence and must not hope for any external intervention to bail him out of his misery or to help him attain salvation, for the omen is omnipotent and omnipresent and there’s no escape from the maw of endless darkness. The sooner he accepts his fate the lesser would be the extent of his suffering. Despite this axiomatic consistency, Tarr’s characters have a strong sense of dignity that doesn’t let them give up until the very end. In The Turin Horse, the father-daughter dyad despite realizing fairly quickly that their doom is nigh—from the very moment the horse refuses to take orders—still continue with their hopeless struggle until the very end. In its constant refusal to eat the food offered by its masters the incapacitated horse too demonstrates a sense of heroism that one generally expects from Tarr’s characters.

Hungarian Master Filmmaker Bela Tarr
Hungarian Master Filmmaker Bela Tarr
While the Hungarian auteur has called it quits primarily because of being disconcerted by the growing commercial trends in cinema that has transformed the medium into a market which imposes censorship on moviemakers robbing them of their creative freedom and also because of his grave fear of repeating himself he has left behind a great legacy for the next generation of filmmakers. However, the good news is that Tarr would continue to guide the young upcoming moviemakers in their endeavors to serve the medium. Tarr will be running an academic film course at the University of Split, Croatia which, according to Tarr, will serve to be a kind of laboratory where people can work and create together. The three-year course will intake 16 international students in its first year and will feature the likes of Jim Jarmusch, Atom Egoyan, Tilda Swinton, Fred Kelemen and Jonathan Rosenbaum as lecturers.

The Turin Horse, The Arrival of Gypsies, Directed by Bela Tarr
The Turin Horse: The Arrival of Gypsies
The Turin Horse, The Paranoid Visitor, directed by Bela Tarr
The Turin Horse: The Paranoid Visitor
Through the medium of The Turin Horse, Béla Tarr portrays the grim picture of the world that owing to human exploitation is on the brink of annihilation. The Turin Horse despite having echoes of Bergman, Bresson and Tarkovsky has a typical, bizarre outlookaugmented by minimal use of dialoguethat one can only associate with Tarr’s peculiar style of moviemaking. The Turin Horse’s apocalyptic themes bear a striking similarity to Samuel Taylor Coleridge’s The Rime of the Ancient Mariner while the pitiful state of movie’s characters inexplicably reminds one of the unnamed narrator in Fyodor Dostoevsky’s Notes from Underground. Their futile struggle for survival brings to one's mind the futility of the fishing adventure undertaken by Santiago in Ernest Hemingway’s The Old Manand the Sea. Mihály Vig's requiem-like orchestral score, in great unison with the dramatic howling sound of the incessant gale, portends to the impending doom that awaits the movie’s hapless characters—a symbolism for the Armageddon that awaits us all on as we continue to tread the paths of destruction. The Turin Horse's hypnotic, evocative black and white cinematography is first-rate and more than makes up for the sparsity of dialogue. The apocalyptic monologue delivered by the paranoid guest who visits the old master's farmhouse in want of Palinka also alludes to the self-destructive ways of the humans. The arrival of the gypsies, whom the old master unceremoniously drives away, marks the beginning of the end for the father-daughter dyad.
The Turin Horse, The Old Master savors his daily doze of Palinka, directed by Bela Tarr
The Turin Horse: The Old Master Drinks his daily doze of Palinka
Overall, The Turin Horse with its eerie, melancholic and stark motifs serves to be one of the most uniquely refreshing experiences of our time. The Turin Horse is a fine example of auteristic mastery demonstrated by an artist extraordinaire who's at the height of his powers. The movie is definitely not meant for those who look up to cinema as a mere mode of entertainment, for they are bound to be engulfed in boredom of the highest order. Those who are accustomed to Tarr’s profound, albeit peculiar style of moviemaking are ought to be delighted by the Hungarian master’s swan song. Also, those who are not averse to experimentation in cinema and are willing to delve deep enough to be able to experience the new highs and lows of cinema will be rewarded to the fullest. The Turin Horse is a great means to get acquainted to Béla Tarr’s oeuvre before exploring his more intimate works like Sátántangó (1994) and Werckmeister Harmonies (2000).

Readers, please feel free to share your opinion by leaving your comments. As always your feedback is highly appreciated!  
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The Turin Horse Trailer  

Previous Review: Gangs of Wasseypur (2012)

Next Review: Ra. One (2011)

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  1. Wonderful review. Haven't heard about this movie before, although i have watched Bela Tarr's Werckmeister Harmonies. Will watch it soon, and be back with a comment.

  2. Well done. The Turin Horse is a mesmerizing cinematic experience of the highest order. I strongly recommend watching Tarr's previous 4 features as well.

  3. Thanks mate... I just can't differ from your opinion on The Turin Horse. As daunting as it may be, I will surely try to savor Tarr's previous works asap... but first let me continue my tryst with the French New Wave, especially
    Jean-Pierre Melville which (thanks to your recommendation) started with Le Samourai and has grown more and more intimate since then :-)

  4. Thanks a ton, Arun! The Turin Horse is a must watch for anyone who is passionate about cinema. Btw, I haven't had the privilege of watching Bela Tarr's Werckmeister Harmonies yet but will try to get my hands on it soon. I will love to hear from you once you have watched The Turin Horse :-)

  5. I've just downloaded this film :) Great review and I love your analysis of the film in particular. I watched Satantango a while ago and loved it to the core. Will watch this movie and come back with my comment :)

  6. I am glad that you liked my review... I would love to hear from you once you have watched The Turin Horse. Btw, I am yet to watch Satantango... I am sure it would serve to be an equally sublime experience :-)

  7. Great review! Loved reading this!!

  8. I am glad you liked the review... Thanks a ton :-)

  9. 365 moviesandsongs365July 12, 2012 at 4:39 PM

    I definitely admired the acting and cinematography. Sadly I found the story too bleak, and so little dialogue tedious, which is not really the filmmakers fault, because that was what they were aiming for. I guess The Turin Horse (2011) is not for everyone. I prefer Werckmeister Harmonies (2000).

  10. Well, you are right in your observation... Bela Tarr and team succeeded in achieving exactly what they wanted to achieve in the first place. The movie's plot is straightforward and use of dialogue is minimal even for a Tarr movie. I haven't had the privilege of watching Werkmeister Harmonies yet, but I look forward to watching it soon :-)

  11. there are no films like Bela Tarr's, though the reviewer was right to note the films of Bresson and Tarkovsky as similar. For me, Bresson's cinema verite and Tarkovsky's magic realism and hypnotic pacing in particular. What distinguishes Tarr from the others is in the way he uses mesmerizing music that sounds wounded and suffering, always on the verge of losing the rhythm, and brings out the voices of character and environment as if they are inextricable.

    the apparently monotonous action in the mise en scene is not painful to watch because it is boring but because it shows a reality we all dread, without the rituals of distraction we perform religiously, not the reality we inhabit as actors unaware that we're acting, but the austere zone where our thoughts call out to the void in our unbearable solitude and bring on an avalanche that overtakes us unawares, slowly and silently from behind.

    but Tarr always provides an unexpected distraction, something spontaneous that breaks the spell of gloom from its hopeless dread. Suddenly dance music, as in my favorite, Satantango. A man in the most desolate of cafes picks up an accordion and plays so a few locals can dance. It's jubilant and comes on like a Spring thaw after an unbearably long, cold winter. There is human contact and joy and so hope. But then, the dance sequence goes on too long because the accordion player is relentless in playing the same melody ad nauseam and so what you hoped was a distraction from the gloom becomes another aspect of it for which you also wish distraction. You find yourself wishing for a close up of one of Tarr's troubled faces, so you can look into the eyes and read the mind and thereby free your own mind from the tyranny of the noise and rhythm and monotonous joy of the music.

    Tarr's frequent collaborators are composer Mihály Vig and author Laszlo Krasznahourkai and both are essential to realizing his vision. i've mentioned the music but the stories by Krasznahourkai are obviously also crucial. It's interesting how Tarr translates the verbose prose of Krasznahourkai into an almost wordless script and through the use of music, winds, rains and human silences builds up to a similar fervor that Krasznahourkai achieves through words alone. And, for me, it's in this creeping, hysterical fervor where the music is on the verge of losing its rhythm, where Tarr resembles Bergman.

  12. Thanks a lot for offering such an elaborate explanation... it has indeed helped me a great deal in understanding Bela Tarr's cinema!


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