In early 1889, Friedrich Nietzsche was said to have walked out of his home in Turin, Italy, and witnessed a carriage driver brutally lashing his stubborn horse. He stopped the scene by throwing his arms around the horse and sobbing, and in the days that followed, legend has it, Nietzsche lost what remained of his sanity. There’s tremendous drama in this incident—and in the philosopher’s remaining years, no doubt—but Béla Tarr’s The Turin Horse quickly dispenses of it in voiceover, with the screen still black, before his magnificent opening shot propels the film in another direction. And while Nietzsche’s presence may linger in viewers’ minds—the film could be seen as a demonstration (and rebuttal) of his ideas—Tarr chooses instead to follow the driver and his horse as they trudge along, through heavy winds, to the bleakest of destinies.
Tarr has said The Turin Horse will be his final film, ending a career that’s esteemed most for 1994’s Sátántángo, his 450-minute, multi-part epic about the dismantling of a Hungarian rural community, shot in a series of astonishing long takes. In form and content, The Turin Horse plays like an exquisitely harsh distillation of the earlier film, as if Tarr decided to remove one set of characters from that universe and place them in the middle of an arid rural plain, divorced from everything but their own quiet company and the grueling routines that comprise their day. As a swan song, it feels as out of step with the irony-choked times as Carl Dreyer’s Gertrud, offering a vision of absolute austerity that may only appeal to a self-selected few, but remains astonishingly powerful on its own uncompromising terms. The world did not end in 1889, but the personal apocalypse documented here could stand with Cormac McCarthy’s.
Set during a punishing windstorm that often recalls the most famous shot in Sátántángo—a long dolly through a garbage-strewn street that Gus Van Sant lifted, with tumbleweeds in place of trash, in his Tarr-inspired 2002 film Gerry—The Turin Horse stars János Derzsi and Erika Bók as the farmer and his middle-aged daughter, who live in isolation in a cabin that’s smaller than the horse’s stable. They exchange few words, and little tenderness, either: The two quietly subsist on boiled potatoes and brandy, draw water from a well, and rely on a stubborn, decrepit workhorse. Most of the dialogue falls to a neighbor (Mihály Kormos) who buys some brandy and expounds upon man’s debasement of the earth, and a carriage full of gypsies who pilfer the water supply.
Unfolding over six days, as the wind batters the farm mercilessly, The Turin Horse becomes, like a lot of last films, a story about death and decay, the extinction of a way of life. Derzsi and Bók lead a simple existence, but take away any element—the potato crop, the water in the well, the aged horse, the roof tiles shattering in the storm—and the situation gets dire. (Nietzsche’s notion of “will to power” conspicuously doesn’t apply.) Tarr renders their decline with tangible physicality: the burn on their fingers as they peel a hot potato; the heaviness of the horse’s bridle; the agony of Derzsi, with his lame right arm, chopping wood with his left. And yet The Turin Horse has a burnished beauty that’s awe-inspiring, like a clear window into a faraway world as it dangles, and then falls, off the precipice.