Satantango (Hungary, 1994) * * * *
D: Bela Tarr
I arrived at ten to noon, having decided not very much before that I would attend, and hastily packing some hidden bottled water and a collection of Marvel Comics' 1970's "Son of Satan" for the breaks (this was Satantango, after all). I wanted to find something like an airplane pillow, but had nothing around the house that would suit. It was a rainy day, a "Bela Tarr" day, as Tom Yoshikami, curator of the Cinematheque, put it. He was there to greet us as we stood outside, huddled like grim Bela Tarr characters, waiting for the morning politics & commerce conference to be let out; Tom, by contrast, was hellishly excited, and when we did pile in he snapped pictures of the lot of us, the damned passengers on the S.S. Satantango. By David Bordwell's count, there were about 35 of us at the start. Surprisingly, not so many would leave by 9pm, when Tarr's 435-minute, 26-reel film would be completely unspooled. As Tom explained, the film would be shown as the director intended: in one sitting, with two "intervals"--a ten-minute break for some much-needed stretching after the first two hours and twenty minutes, then an hour-long break for dinner after the next two-hour segment. The final segment would be a marathon three hours. (Tom, having--like the rest of us--never seen the film before, actually got the segment running times mixed up, and told us that the middle section was three hours. Not that it made much of a difference, as you lose track of time within the film.) At an earlier Cinematheque screening during the Godard series, Tom had promised some kind of certificate would be printed up and handed out to everyone at the end of Satantango, but no such luck. Anyway, by the end, the rewards of the film were obvious. Although whatever I say about the film must be preluded by mentioning that David Bordwell, at the end of the dinner break, was telling us to keep Satantango's secrets to ourselves, and that if our friends who didn't come asked us how the film was, we were only to say that it was the greatest filmgoing experience of our lives.
Well, it's up there. Bela Tarr is one of the few contemporary directors to make work so directly inspired by the brilliant Russian director Andrei Tarkovsky (Andrei Zvaygintsev, director of 2003's The Return, is the only other director to seem as influenced by Tarkovsky). Tarkovsky's films are of a singular style: extremely long takes and tracking shots, with an emphasis on nature--falling rain, the wind, running streams--and with signature motifs: stray dogs running through the frame, intense portrait studies as his characters stand stock-still, looking off into the distance, and a touch of the fable, or magical realism, in the plotting. Almost all of these traits--even the stray dogs--are incorporated into Satantango. But Tarr is too unique a director to owe everything to Tarkovsky--it's only that Tarkovsky is the easiest frame of reference (Robert Bresson is another, in the way Tarr directs his actors to show little to no expression while delivering their lines, and the way he lovingly frames their stark and stock-still faces in black-and-white.) Tarr has his own hallmarks: most obviously, he is obsessed with creating a sense of everything being filmed in "real time." His edits are almost invisible, when they do occur, and Satantango reportedly only contains approximately 150 shots. (Most films, a fraction of the length, contain thousands and thousands.) His landscapes are always despairingly grim--here, a muddy and stormy wasteland that its farmers must take pains to traverse, strapping on boots and layers upon layers of clothing. And the buildings in the world of Bela Tarr always look uninhabitable, with the paint peeling off the walls and the floors covered in dirt and cigarette butts. It's as though Tarr must create the most unsparing landscape in order to achieve his moments of transcendental beauty.
Satantango is based upon a novel by Laszlo Krasznahorkai. Apparently in synch with the source material, it is arranged like a tango: six steps forward, six steps back (but not in that order). Some scenes advance the plot, while others step backward and show the same scene from a different character's perspective, so the audience slowly learns what is happening to multiple characters concurrently as they criss-cross each other's paths, each trapped in his own world to the point of obsession and paranoia. In this, the villagers and farmers are not very different from the citizens of the village of Werckmeister Harmonies, the more accessible feature that Tarr subsequently made; in Werckmeister, the villagers are in such a panic at the coming arrival of "The Prince"--a sideshow freak who delivers fascist speeches to accompany the presentation of a preserved whale--that their fear of riots and violence almost seems to make the mayhem happen. Nothing is so pronounced in Satantango, but the idea is similar: two men, Irimias (Mihaly Vig), described at one point as a "wizard," and his lackey Petrina (Putyi Horvath), were thought to be dead, thanks to the rumors spread by a young thug in their employ, but one day are rumored to be "resurrected" and on their way back to the small farming community that Irimias once lorded over. The announcement of his coming and its effects upon the paranoid, frightened farmers dominates the first two segments. Schmidt, Mrs. Schmidt, Kraner, and Futaki--who's sleeping with Mrs. Schmidt, as much of the village seems to be--were on the cusp of escaping from the village with a pool of cash; Halics, a timid schoolteacher, tries to make plans with Mrs. Schmidt of his own; but all these plans seem doomed upon Irimias' arrival. The proprietor of the local tavern is in an outright panic over Irimias: he thinks the man will want to claim ownership of the bar, as Irimias can, in an indirect way, claim credit for the man's modest wealth. On one drunken night, all of these characters and more gather at the tavern to dance to a maddening, broken tune played by accordian, feverishly stewing in their pot, while just outside, two strays--a young, damaged girl with some rat poison, and a doctor who relies upon the care of the villagers to sustain his life--stagger through the night and, freed from anyone's care, tangle with death.
We do see Irimias and Petrina as they journey to the village. Most stunningly, in one long shot we follow them down the avenue of another town, while a windstorm sweeps garbage up from behind them, as though they themselves are the billowing wind. We actually meet them as they're being reprimanded by a police captain--told that they're outlaws, and asked to contribute to society. Petrina calls Irimias a poet; what people seem to fear the most about Irimias is his charisma, for he seems able to command anyone to do anything. But he's also deeply disturbed, and in a mad fit in a local bar not far from the police station declares that he'll blow up everyone, as a droning hum which only he can hear builds and builds. (The idea of a "calling" noise which only one person can hear is repeated, crucially, a few more times in the film.) Sometimes he is treated as a Jesus, but he warns one character that he will liberate no one, and it becomes clear that he has more diabolical aims as he arranges for the purchase of some explosives from a dealer who is, it seems, faced with a pretty stark moral choice. The final, three-hour stretch of this film spins in unexpected directions, and we are left with plenty of time to ruminate on the film's themes of fear, moral crimes, and penance.
What's most astonishing about Satantango is that, at seven-hours-plus, I can't imagine removing a single scene. What seems insignificant or like "padding" early on gains greater meaning at the film's conclusion; it's actually a tightly plotted film that could be longer, and more obvious, but is trimmed lean. What accounts for the film's length are those very long shots in which very little happens. We watch characters recede into the distance on errands, or disappear into the darkness on doomed journeys; we study the wretched existence of the doctor for an endless interval as he struggles to support his drinking--and his voyeurism (for he plots the comings and goings of every villager in exhaustive notebooks, while living a deeply internal life); we follow the mad satan's tango on that pivotal, drunken night until every dancer collapses--and still the accordian player summons the strength to continue another tune. There is a lot of talk about "eternity," particularly from Irimias--humorously, at one point a policeman, editing one of Irimias' screeds, says "cut all that about 'eternity'"--and certainly Tarr wants to play with the viewer's conception of time. It's as though he knows you were dreading the viewing of Satantango, and knows that you expect to spend a lifetime in this theater, so why not discuss it? By opening up that end of the discussion, Satantango becomes much more than a film about fear: it becomes a film about time and lifespans and the long crawl everyone takes toward death. Like The Brothers Karamazov, Satantango is a work of great length that is able to incorporate a great variety of ideas within its chapters. By the time it's over, you do feel as though you've spent all day reading a novel from beginning to end, and the result is just as disorienting and just as satisfying.
We staggered out of the theater, our newly formed club, our elite, at 9pm, and it was snowing: the first snowstorm of the winter. (Devilishly enough, the film is even set during the last weeks of October.) I had been inside so long that a whole season had passed by. By next morning, the images did not leave my head. I still see the horses escaping the slaughterhouse, clopping through the empty town square. I still see the little girl thrashing cruelly with the cat, exercising her power. I still see the lunatic ringing the knell. Even parts that seemed irrelevant, confusing, or infuriating seem to have sealed to the greater image. There is a great clarity to that 435 minutes, and every minute seems vital. It's a wonder that Werckmeister Harmonies, Tarr's next film, could cram so much incident into two-and-a-half-hours (so much more than happens in Satantango). I wonder how much more weight and meaning it would have had at twelve! Susan Sontag said about Satantango that she would "be glad to see it every year for the rest of [her] life," but even as I prepare to face Tarr again in a month's time (with his considerably shorter film, Damnation), I think it will take at least another year before I'm ready for Satantango again.
Remarkably, Facets is releasing the film on DVD. I can only think it would suffer, given that at home there is no compelling reason to stick with the film through thick and thin, and more distractions are likely to intrude. Still, I'm glad it will get more viewers, and my advice to everyone: set aside a day, turn off the cell phone, get comfortable, sit it out to each of its two "intervals," and open yourself up to Tarr's hypnosis. It's a masterpiece, but you must meet him more than half-way: you have to walk the full length of that muddy road, to that church-tower, that speck in the distance.
A big thank you to Tom Yoshikami for sharing the photos: above, we await entry to Satantango; below, ready for the screening (I'm four rows back in the black sweatshirt, glasses and gray hair, dead center; David Bordwell and Kristin Thompson are front and center, as always)