I know what you’re thinking. Seven and a quarter hours of miserable people trudging through drab, bleak Hungarian countryside in pouring rain - black and white, subtitled, slow, East European minimalist, arthouse cinema featuring long scenes where little is said and nothing much happens - Sátántangó isn’t exactly going to be a bundle of laughs. Well, you’ve got that right. The middle part of a trilogy of films co-written with the author László Krasznahorkai starting in 1987 with Damnation and ending in 2000 with Werckmeister Harmonies, the intimidating reputation of Béla Tarr’s four years in the making magnum opus Sátántangó from 1994 is only matched by its long anticipated release on DVD. It more than lives up to every expectation.
Despite its formidable reputation, Sátántangó is not as difficult and unapproachable as it might appear. Much in the same way that the plot of Damnation, such as it was, adhered to many of the styles and characteristics of a film noir, Sátántangó is actually something of a thriller, albeit one that is highly stylised, unusually structured and certainly at variance with the conventional pacing of the genre. A group of people are holed-up in a small farming community and it appears that they have been there for a long time, with a lot of money between them, all dreaming of a better life they are going to have when they get away. Kráner (János Derzsi) and Schmidt (László Lugossy) are planning to split the money between them and leave, but Futaki (Miklós B. Székely) – who, like everyone else, has been sleeping with Schmidt’s wife (Éva Almássy Albert) - overhears their plans and demands to be counted in. As they are arguing over how to divide the money between them, the news arrives that Irimiás and Petrina (Mihály Vig and Putyi Horváth) – long believed dead – have been seen causing a disturbance in a nearby inn and are heading their way.
With scenes taking place in practically real-time, long, slow and endlessly drawn out, the characters mired in dark, muddy and desolate locations, Tarr’s film says much about his view of the human condition, but it is one that is specifically linked with Hungary’s status as a former Soviet Bloc country. The opening scene – a single ten minute tracking shot following a herd of bulls though the buildings that make up the farm yard where the characters reside – sets the scene for a population lost and without direction, wandering aimlessly with no purpose other than existing. It’s a modern-day Sodom and Gomorrah, the inhabitants sleeping with each other’s wives, raucously drinking and dancing, squabbling over what money they have been able to store up under the old regime and waiting for the opportunity to make their getaway. And the old regime is crumbling. The comings and goings of the people on the farm are being documented by the Doctor (Peter Berling), who keeps them under constant surveillance – but he’s grown fat and is too fond of his fruit brandy. When Mrs Kráner warns him that she will no longer make deliveries for him, he finds that he cannot fend for himself without the support of the people and their complicity in keeping the old ways going. Similarly, Irimiás and Petrina are hauled up before the military authorities who are outraged at their inactivity and vagrancy, for failing to heed the rule of order. Human life is meaningful, rich beautiful and filthy. It links everything. It mistreats freedom only ...wasting it as if it were junk.”
The same themes that are evident in the other parts of the trilogy, Damnation and Werckmeister Harmonies, are even more evident here - people struggling to exist in impoverished circumstances, their lives without direction, order or meaning. Here however, the characters have money, resources and abilities, but no will or imagination to do anything with them. Used to being treated like the cattle seen in the first scene of the film, they have allowed themselves to be misused, mistreated and spied upon, but finding relative safety and comfort by merging anonymously into the herd. When that authority disappears, they find then that they have no volition of their own, and no-one to stop them from over-indulging in the few little pleasures that were available to them – drinking, dancing and fornication. A spectre from the past however, in the form of Irimiás and Petrina, has risen from the dead and is about to pass judgment on their lives.
There is no small amount of pleasure to be gained from trying to figure out all the symbolism and allegory in the story, and a certain degree of anticipation to be drawn from the slow unfolding of events – the initial scenes are replayed over the first four hours of the film from different perspectives, each cumulatively adding to form a complete view of the sordid situation – but the real strength of Sátántangó is almost entirely within Tarr’s wonderful mise en scène. The camera lingers over the grim, hard-set, craggy and worn faces of each of the characters, each of the drab, dank rooms they inhabit and the bleakness of the featureless landscape that surrounds them as they trudge and squelch down muddy roads under heavy rain that almost beats them into the ground. The scenes stay static enough for the viewer to savour every little detail – the gentle patter of the rain building up to a heavy downpour, stray dogs wandering in the background, the relentless ticking of passing time, the buzzing of flies crawling along walls and tables. Tarr somehow even seems to have the spiders and flies practically choreographed to appear on cue at the end of long ten minute takes. The long unedited takes and the constant replaying of events serve to show how everything is connected and all of it speaks of the aimlessness of the characters and their grubby little lives and their relationship with the land around them - life in misery in perpetuity. The camera is not static however – it follows the characters, tracks them, closes in on them, encircles them – each of the movements serving to emphasise a situation or condition.
There are many ways to interpret what is going on in Sátántangó, but the principal objective of Tarr’s technique is to capture the essence of the characters and their surroundings, drawing the viewer into this world and letting them experience every single moment, in practically real-time sequences, from as many aspects as possible. More than figuring out what is going on, what is more important is for the viewer to open themselves up to the experience of the film and dance with the devil. Sátántangó is truth 24 times a second. At over seven hours however, so much truth may be more than one can bear.
Sátántangó is released in the UK by Artificial Eye. The film is presented over three dual-layer discs, is in PAL format and the DVD is Region 2 encoded.
It’s perhaps unreasonable to expect any DVD distributor to strike a brand new anamorphic print of a seven hour black and white film with limited appeal, so unfortunately we have to make do here for now with the best that Artificial Eye can manage – and fortunately it’s not too bad. The transfer is however non-anamorphic but close enough to the 1.66:1 original aspect ratio. There is a reasonable range of tones that certainly capture the qualities of the film and the infinite variety of shades of grey that make up the lives of the characters, but blacks are perhaps closer to very dark grey. Shadow detail consequently isn’t great, but there is reasonable definition, the contrast level varying however depending on the scene. A few white dustspots speckle the print every now and again, but the transfer is largely stable and free from anything but the most minor of flaws.
The audio track is generally fine, with scarcely any audible background noise. The entire soundtrack for the film appears to have been post-synchronised, so lip movements don’t always match perfectly. It does however allow for the effective employment of sounds like the buzzing of flies, the ticking of clock and the plodding squelches of mud on the paths. This vital aspect of the soundtrack - there is often little else in a dialogue-light film – comes across very well indeed.
English subtitles are provided, in a clear white font and are optional. Occasionally the grammar doesn't seem that great, but this could just be down to the convolutions of the oblique narrative and dialogue.
The only extra feature on the entire three-disc set is a text Filmography of the director’s work on disc one.
If you have seen the earlier Artificial Eye release of Béla Tarr’s Werckmeister Harmonies and Damnation, you will have a fair idea what to expect here in Sátántangó, only more expansively and more in-depth - long, slow, drawn-out single unedited takes of black and white East European bleakness, the characters aimlessly wandering through rain sodden fields, drinking and carousing to fend off the misery of their lives, looking for someone to lead them, direct them and give their lives meaning. It’s over seven hours long and every single gruelling minute of it is astonishing. Tarkovsky and Bergman inevitably come to mind, both in technique and subject matter, but Béla Tarr takes those arthouse sensibilities to punishing extremes. Sátántangó goes further than most and in doing so, Tarr creates for himself a unique place in cinema and achieves a unique dialogue with the viewer, but it’s not an experience that everyone is going to want to put themselves through. It will leave an indelible impression on anyone who watches it, but those brave enough to sit through it all in one go may feel soiled and unable to ever remove the grime it leaves clinging to the skin.