Sátántangó

“From now on, you are free.” —Irimiás, Sátántangó

“Where is the hope, Mr. Tarr?!” —Werckmeister Harmonies Q&A, 2000 Toronto Film Festival

In the 14 years before Béla Tarr’s 1994 magnum opus Sátántangó became available on DVD, it had a reputation among hardcore cinephiles as the Mount Everest of modern cinema. At seven hours and 15 minutes, the film created obvious problems for even the most austere arthouse distributors—and that’s before factoring in the seven-to-10-minute takes, the spare black-and-white photography, and a 12-part structure in which time continually doubles back on itself. (And the cat torture. And the owl. And Tarr’s unsparing view on the avarice, stupidity, and sloth of mankind. Etc.) So with oxygen tanks in tow, the intrepid few huddled in film festivals and repertory houses whenever it passed through their city, and spent the bulk of their waking hours climbing the hill together. In a film culture that’s been dispersed—and in some ways diminished—by the DVD age, when everyone consumes movies at separate times and in separate pods, Sátántangó offered a rare communal experience, where cultists had no choice but to take the journey together. 

Sadly, I was never able to see Sátántangó in a theater and I’ve only caught up with it on DVD, over the course of an ordinary workday, with occasional interruptions and necessary intermissions. (The 12-part format does provide easy stopping points.) The issue of whether it’s important to see movies on the big screen is something I’ve given a lot of thought—Noel Murray and I fought about it at 5,000 words here—and the advent of HD televisions has softened my movie-theater dogma over time. But while I understand the problems of access to Sátántangó for anyone who doesn’t live in a major city, and I appreciate that Facets has made it widely available to people who wouldn’t see it otherwise, I can see now why the film inspires such big-screen-only zealotry from its supporters. To torture the Everest metaphor a little further, it’s a film that requires and rewards sustained effort on the viewer’s part; in order to appreciate its magnificence, you have to trudge through its longueurs, step by arduous step. It’s one of those films that teaches the audience how to watch it, and ideally, that means sitting in the dark and immersing yourself in a world that’s alien on many different levels. 

Based on the 1985 novel by Tarr’s fellow Hungarian László Krasznahorkai, Sátántangó recalls the wave of modernist European films from the ’60s—Last Year At Marienbad, L’Avventura, Belle De Jour, and others—that were as much about experimenting with narrative forms as they were about anything else. The 12 parts are structured in the form of a tango: Six steps forward, six steps back. Though it takes place over two days, time keeps folding back on itself, so incidents that happened earlier in the film are viewed from another angle, usually in an offhand way. (Gus Van Sant’s “death trilogy”—Gerry, Elephant, and Last Days—was inspired primarily by Tarr and this film in particular. If you’ve seen Elephant, the strategy of looping time by showing parts of the day from different characters’ perspectives was lifted from Sátántangó.) Some of the chapter titles—“The Spider’s Work” and “The Spider’s Work II”; “The Perspective From The Front” and “The Perspective From Behind”—make the connections clearer, and the same events take on a new context and sometimes a radically altered significance. So we move forward and backward, but it’s always a net gain.

The famous opening—an eight-minute tracking shot that follows a herd of cows as they hoof through the mud (and is infinitely more exciting than I can possibly make that sound)—accomplishes more than its simple action might suggest. For one, it establishes the setting, a rural Hungarian town whose best days are firmly behind it; the streets are a terrible bog that forbids movement, much less commerce, and the houses are pocked by stripped paint and other signs of decay. And then, once we meet its inhabitants, the bovine metaphor is frequently apt, as most of them thoughtlessly go along with a scheme without questioning it—at least if they aren’t the schemers. As members of a collective farming community that’s disintegrating in the twilight of communism, they’re the ghosts in a ghost town that Tarr renders with tactile, eerie beauty. 

The plot, such as it goes, pares down to a simple logline: The dismantling of the community brings a little money to its residents through mysterious means, possibly a government subsidy. But several are quietly plotting to funnel all those dividends to themselves—most notably Irimiás (Mihály Vig), a charismatic con man who promises some residents a fresh start somewhere else. Through various characters’ perspectives, the first half tangos with Irimiás’ return to town after a two-year absence, during which he was presumed dead. There’s some conspiratorial whispering from some who want to take off with the money, a chapter that introduces Irimiás and his partner Petrina (Putyi Horváth) as layabouts who chose criminality over honest work, and another segment that reveals life through the eyes of a drunk doctor who obsessively monitors the world outside his window. Eventually, when Irimiás does return, he separates several people from their money, convincing them that a promising new collective farming opportunity exists on an estate. And throughout Sátántangó, we get staggering single-take sequences like this one, which was lifted (or paid homage to)—with desert tumbleweeds in place of urban garbage—in Van Sant’s Gerry

There are plenty of themes at play in Sátántangó, particularly the relationship between the individual and the collective, and the political dynamic that develops when the former is folded into the latter. But insofar as it’s about people, the film is unrelentingly, often comically cynical, dividing its universe into opportunists consumed by power and avarice, and the lemmings willing to follow them off the cliff. That quote above from the Q&A after a Toronto Film Festival screening of Tarr’s 2000 follow-up, Werckmeister Harmonies, when a woman in the audience pleaded “Where is the hope?!”, is a line my film buddies and I still throw around in the face of miserablist festival fare, but it really does apply here. Whatever levity escapes Tarr’s unsparing view of humanity comes in the form of gallows humor and bitter irony, as when Irimiás sweetens his sales pitch with the promise of freedom. If there’s any hope, it’s in awakening our consciences to the evil, exploitative realities of the world—“a slap that returns us to our senses,” as critic Jonathan Rosenbaum put it—but that’s hardly a glimmer of sunshine. 

Though Sátántangó is intricately constructed, several of its parts could work as a standalone short feature, especially the most harrowing chapter, “Comes Unstitched,” which follows the grim trajectory of a young girl whose innocence is tragically perverted. Her older brother convinces her that if she buries coins in the ground, a “moneystalk” (this seems roughly translated, but you get the idea) will sprout and they’ll be rich; in reality, of course, the brother shovels up the money just as soon as she leaves. Once she recognizes her betrayal, she takes out her powerlessness on her cat, the only creature over which she has control. (Cat fanciers take note: These scenes are really hard to watch.) Her odyssey is like the film in microcosm, with acts of exploitation compounding lives that are already beset by misery and tragedy—and here, a spectacular moment of transcendence. And Tarr renders this vignette with harsh beauty, as in this sequence, where the girl walks home alone through the rain and darkness, and then later in the light, with the cat tucked under her arm. (Footage has been cut from both shots in this clip for brevity’s sake. Both are very long individually, but I wanted to highlight the continuity from one to the next.): 

One scene in “Comes Unstitched” finds the young girl outside the window of a bar while watching the piss-drunk barflies inside dance what is presumably the tango of the title. The camera never shows her face; it reveals the bar from her angle, from the outside looking in. In the next chapter, Tarr takes us inside the bar, where the warm and abandon of the revelers throws the girl’s perspective into sharp relief. It’s one of several moments when alternating angles on the same event puts it into a radically different light. It also demonstrates the degree to which Sátántangó is fundamentally an experiment in how stories are told; for as much invention and investment as Tarr pours into the photography and Animal Farm-like political allegory, the film’s real achievement lies in its deconstruction of the form. The 12-part “tango” structure; time marked via long takes (sometimes 10 minutes, with only about 150 cuts in the whole 450-minute movie) and overlaps; a soundtrack humming with unnatural, often Lynchian ambience; a third-person voiceover (presumably taken directly from the novel) that comments omnisciently on the action at the end of most segments: All this deconstruction presents a radical challenge to the way audiences are used to processing stories on screen, but taken together, it’s a revelation. 

It’s also, for the uninitiated and leery, easier to watch than I’ve made it sound. Yes, there are long takes and cat torture and unalloyed misery, yet there’s a majesty to Sátántangó that’s weirdly seductive, too. Perhaps it’s Stockholm Syndrome—as I wrote earlier, seeing it in the dark and in the theater (or replicated as closely as possible at home) would undoubtedly make it easier to endure—but Tarr renders the world of the film so vividly (and stocks it with so much to consider) that it has an enveloping effect. Though it isn’t escapism in the traditional sense, Sátántangó has a transportive effect that’s kept the same cinephiles coming back to it over and over. For the current wave of international cinema, it sets an imposing standard.

Coming Up: 
June 10: Starship Troopers
June 24: A Tale Of Two Sisters
July 8: Delicatessen

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