An interview with Béla Tarr
"I am not a pessimistic guy. If I was pessimistic, I would never even have started to make films. I hope that these films will be watched in twenty, thirty or forty years, and I think this is as optimistic as you can get in today’s world."
The film has been almost universally interpreted as a creation story in reverse order. Do you agree?
Not really. The Turin Horse is about the general hardness of human existence, about how hard it is to live life and be able to bear the monotony. If you drop out of your role, that’s the end. But I did not mean to talk about passing away and death. I just wanted to show how hard it is to go and fetch water from the well every day, come rain or shine. It is as simple as that.
Why did the story of Nietzsche and the Turin horse provide a good starting point for that?
The Nietzsche part gave us the opportunity to ask the question: what happened to the horse? This is the starting point, or perhaps even the main question of the whole film. We just started to think about the further story of the horse: it must have an owner whose right arm might not function, and who is a bit animalistic like the horse itself.
Do you see your own life as that hard, do you feel that way about it? Or do you perhaps feel, rather, that filmmaking is that hard at the present moment?
No, if you look at my previous films, this has been a very long process. My first film was based upon my social sensibility: I wanted to change the world, to slap people in the face. Then I understood that some processes are more complicated than that. Now I have reached a phase in which I have not much left to say. Yes, right now it is very hard, I don’t know what comes next. What I can see and what I do know is that the end is inevitable. Even when we started making the film, I knew that this was going to be my last film.
Are you in a pessimistic stage?
I am not a pessimistic guy. If I was pessimistic, I would never even have started to make films. I hope that these films will be watched in twenty, thirty or forty years, and I think this is as optimistic as you can get in today’s world. Yesterday someone came up to me after one of the screenings and said: ‘this film is sad and depressing, but there is a lot of energy in it, and this makes me happy in the final analysis.’
How do you cooperate with Krasznahorkai? Who adds what? Is the idea his or yours? This time it seems as if he had started the story.
In 1985 I attended a reading by Krasznahorkai. He read excerpts and fragments from his own writings. That was when I first heard the story about Nietzsche. Even then, this issue moved me greatly. Then later on, when we came back from Berlin, we bought a cottage in the countryside, it was an old building, but the stable was still there. That was the second time I thought about the horse. The story had been working inside me for some time and I told Krasznahorkai that I wanted to do something with it. We wrote a short synopsis, it was like a memo: there is a father, his daughter and a stranger who can be a neighbour or a visitor or anyone. This was as much as we knew in 1990. We were working on Satan’s Tango then, so we put it aside. Then we had to stop shooting The Man from London for a year which was a very painful period for me. Then Krasznahorkai, in order to shake me up a bit, said, ‘let’s concentrate on the horse!’ It was like a work therapy that lasted for two weeks. He sat down, wrote it and put it in front of me. We didn’t make a synopsis. We had the six days, the recurrent dramatic structure. It’s as simple as that, I don’t need a synopsis. When we hunted for money, we sent this text to everyone and said that there would not be any more, they had to decide on that basis whether to trust me or not.
Sometimes the horse seems more alive than the people themselves.
No, they do have a lot of feelings, but they conceal them. Nothing happens, they just live, and this is what everyone does day by day: getting dressed, getting undressed, eating. We wanted to show that something is wrong. I do not judge, I just say that something is wrong…
Are the male protagonist’s swearwords Nietzschean, too?
Just think of Sándor Petőfi, our 19th century national poet! He also swears in many of his poems. That was the way people spoke then as well – language is still the same as it was then. There are perhaps a few new slang words. There is nothing about Nietzsche in the film, by the way, only his shadow in the figure of the neighbour. We brought in Nietzsche’s shadow with the monologues, but these are not his texts. One thing is for sure, and it is Nietzsche who had said it: God is dead. This is the main issue. The guy says that it is us humans who destroy the world, but God also takes part in this destruction.
Do you tend to think a lot about the details before shooting?
I have no theory, I just look for a scene and a protagonist. In this case, the valley and the lonely tree. The house was not there, but I hate artificial settings anyway. So we tried to build it as it should have been, with craftsmen who were real old-timers. Then Ágnes [Hranitzky, Tarr’s editor and co-director] found the paraphernalia that were also important, the objects, the clothes, and then we started shooting.
So let me ask: what happened to the horse?
It is a mare that we had found at a horse-fair. When I saw her, I knew that she was the Turin horse, but she had already been sold to someone. We went up to the new owner, a really brutal guy, but he did not want to sell her to us. He led her up to his cart and harnessed her, but the horse did not budge, and then I was absolutely sure that this was our horse. The guy started to beat her, but I held him down. It was really like what had happened to Nietzsche in Turin. Then in the end the horse was ours. Now she lives happily in the countryside, on a huge estate. She is 18 years old, but she is doing fine.
Do you think the apocalypse is going to be the way you show it in the film? Or was it simply what the story required?
I think the end of the world will be very quiet. It won’t be a great show, it will be like real life. Death is the most horrible thing that can happen to anyone, but when it is watched live it looks like nothing is happening.
It seems as if you were working with more takes than usual.
There are thirty long takes as usual, but the camera moves and that’s why you feel that there are more. There are a lot of different perspectives, but we do not edit. In my opinion, it is easiest to maintain attention and to make the actor stay within the situation with extreme long shots. This is how I can create an atmosphere that is closest to real life.
This is your first work in which there is no trace of a sense of humour.
That is true, or just a bit perhaps. There is perhaps a point where Derzsi behaves a bit like a macho, but there is no more humour, that is true. All of my movies have been comedies so far, and people laughed a lot, but I am in no laughing mood now.
I can imagine you abandoning filmmaking, but I cannot imagine you having no more ideas. What will you do with them?
Yesterday I went home by taxi and the driver did not know the way. Since I lived in Berlin and I know the city well, I explained the way to him. So I thought, I know how to drive and I like it, so perhaps I will be a taxi driver in Berlin...