In a small Hungarian town lives Karrer, a listless and brooding man who has almost completely withdrawn from the world, but for an obsession with a singer in the bar he frequents. Tarr’s immaculately photo-graphed and composed film is about eternal conflict: the centuries old struggle between barbarism and civilisation.
Kárhozat is close to being a genre film in its story of love and betrayal, a theme that Tarr has described as being very simple—even “primitive.” Karrer lives a withdrawn life in a mining community where his evenings all end up in the Titanik bar. He is offered a smuggling job by the bar’s owner but passes it on to Sebestyén, husband of the singer at the bar. In Sebestyén’s absence, Karrer and the wife sleep together and Karrer seeks a lasting relationship. He considers denouncing Sebestyén to the police. On Sebestyén’s return, there is a confrontation between the two men and the bar owner takes the woman to his car, where they have sex. The next day, Karrer denounces them all. In the final scene, Karrer approaches a waste tip in the pouring rain where he confronts a barking dog. Getting down onto his hands and knees, he barks at it until it is forced into retreat.
However, what is most striking about the film is its style—the emphasis on formal composition, the use of the long take and the sequence shot, the slow movements of the camera and the experimentation with sound and time. It is worth recalling Antonioni’s comment on his own films that his main claim to fame lay in the reinvention of cinematic time—a claim that could also be made for Tarr. Other film-makers who could be said to work in this tradition include Jancsó, Andrei Tarkovsky, Theo Angelopoulos and Aleksandr Sokurov. Tarr, however, maintains a much stronger sense of narrative, even if it is subverted in various ways.
The opening shots of Kárhozat indicate that we should not expect anything like a conventional development. The camera is placed behind Karrer’s head as he looks out through an open window, black coal buckets move towards us, and we hear nothing but the runners on the wire. The camera moves slowly forward until the head fills the whole of the screen. The scene then shifts to the bar where there is a panning shot taking in a range of people, bored, drunk or asleep.
There is a long held shot of beer glasses, the off-screen sound of balls on a pool table and the sound of accordion accompaniment by the player at the bar. Outside, it is pouring with rain, and dogs pass. In the framing of images, there is an obsessive emphasis on the textures of walls and plaster with the film’s characters placed in front. In one sequence, accompanied by a pan, walls alternate rhythmically with group portraits of human misery. The accordion music attains a strange, hypnotic and hallucinatory quality. Flat, sideways images of cars become two dimensional icons. The film’s mise-en-scène functions as a counterpoint to the story.
Tarr says that it is not his objective to tell a story but to get closer to people—”to understand everyday life.” But he points out that even his earlier films were unconcerned with psychological processes. His interest was always in the personal “presence” of his actors. Kárhozat provides a kind of circular dance in which the walls, the rain and the dogs also have their stories.
Bela Tarr’s Satantango (Satan’s Tango, 1994)
The rain falls down on a humdrum town
The human protagonists are matched by the scenery, weather and time. However, it is also an artificial world, since the town was constructed from seven locations and, in some instances, houses and sets were specially built. The driving rain is almost transparently artificial.