Artificial Eye collects existing releases of the formidable Hungarian director’s films Werckmeister Harmonies and Damnation into a set with the newly released The Man From London. Noel Megahey reviews.
Taking on average around four years to make a film, shooting long takes of slow tracking shots in stark black-and-white with minimal dialogue and obscure intentions, his films lasting up to seven and a quarter hours in length, it’s no wonder that the Hungarian director Béla Tarr has a formidable reputation and why his films are perhaps not the most accessible to a wider international audience. Despite appearances however, there’s nothing particularly challenging in the director’s subjects, and the intentions of his films – which tend to be adaptations of novels and fairly faithful ones at that – are clear and consistent throughout his work. No, the challenge of watching a Béla Tarr film is more to do with having the patience to watch a long tracking shot of, typically, a man shown from behind trudging in silence through the rain across a muddy field or down a long rough path for several minutes, and trying to comprehend just what the director’s intention is in holding such a shot for such a long period. When you watch a scene like that in a Béla Tarr film, time and space take on a different meaning and you find yourself having to completely redefine how you watch cinema. No-one really wants to work that hard for what seems little return.
Tarr has claimed in an interview (included on one of the discs in this collection) that there is no symbolism in his films, and in a way that’s true. There is no director who is quite so literal in his work. If a scene indicates that a character will walk to a certain place, that a mob will march down a street, then Tarr will film that scene in its entirety for however long it takes – even longer when the characters are not in a particular hurry or slowed down by the heavy mud as they trudge almost invariably in gloomy, dark, misty or rainy conditions. For a large portion of the journey, if not the entire journey, the viewer follows one or more figures from A to B with no cuts, no edits, no zooms, just a long slow silent tracking shot, perhaps involving a 360˚ pan to take in the surroundings and character of the location. Whether there is merit in such a method is debatable, and many viewers will justifiably find it tedious, frustrating and even pretentious, but such rigorous naturalism does have a purpose, creating a sense of time and space very different from the shorthand trickery of conventional filmmaking and editing techniques, putting the viewer in the moment, allowing them time to contemplate where the character could be heading (more than often there is no indication given – Tarr doesn’t spell everything out for the viewer) and search for clues in expression, demeanour and in the surroundings.
The length of the takes and the resultant uncommonly few shots that each film has, in spite of their length, does undeniably have a tremendous impact in this respect. The totality of each respective scene sticks in the mind much more than would a conventionally edited scene of establishing shots, medium shots, close-ups and two-shot dialogues. Scenes consequently take on a sense of momentous importance and linger in the mind even as you move through the film, building up an image of a film in its totality rather than a conglomeration of isolated but interconnected incidents.
All this gives the impression that form is more important than the content in a Béla Tarr film, and perhaps that’s also true. There is nothing extraordinary in the subject matter, his films – certainly his more famous latter films – having it would seem very little personal, auteuristic involvement or great observations to impart. The stories, adaptations of other writers’ work, are based around a familiar crime plot, a film noir plot distorted and extended to such a length and with such gravity and seriousness of purpose that it’s the existential underpinning that takes prominence over plot and revelation, those long trudges indeed taking equal importance to any answer that might or might not be found.
Whether the tawdry lives of these horrible characters that inhabit these films, with their greedy, lustful, base desires that put them into a bitter struggle with their neighbours and with each other really merits such gravity and attention however is going to be another matter of contention, but Tarr’s method does seem to touch on something deep and primal about the human condition, on their aspirations for something greater, something to elevate their miserable lives and make it worth living for, but ultimately failing to rise above their true nature. Few seem to find their lives improved by awareness of or submission to any higher authority – whether it be considering the wonder of God’s creation in the eye of a giant whale, taking in the wonder of the solar eclipse acted out in human terms by drunks in a bar, in contemplation or refutation of God-given harmonic structures defined in human terms by an obscure 17th Century German composter, in the following of prophets, in the produce of their labour or in obeisance to State authorities – so almost invariably they turn to less noble activities, cheating, lying and stealing. Tarr’s powerful expression of this eternal struggle makes the issues seem very real indeed.
The Béla Tarr Collection is released in the UK by Artificial Eye. It contains three of the director’s films – Damnation (1988), Werckmeister Harmonies (2000) and The Man From London (2007). The latter two films are presented on dual-layer discs, while Damnation is single-layer. The Man From London is encoded for Region 0, while the other two films are Region 2. All the films are in PAL format.
Each of the three films in The Béla Tarr Collection is also available separately. Damnation and Werckmeister Harmonies have been released together previously by Artificial Eye, and although they have been repackaged here and given new catalogue numbers for individual releases, they are identical to the previous editions reviewed here, with the same set-up and menus. The Man From London is released here for the first time and has been reviewed in its individual release here.
In general the transfers are all fine. Damnation is presented in 1.33:1, has a few minor dustspots and reel change marks, but good black-and-white tones and clarity. Werckmeister Harmonies is at a ratio of about 1.58:1 rather than 1.66:1 and is not anamorphically enhanced. It’s a little on the dark side, but there are few problems with the quality of the print. With a more recent transfer, The Man From London is anamorphically enhanced at a 1.66:1 ratio and looks excellent, with no serious issues. In all cases the Dolby Digital 2.0 audio is clear with no issues. Extras are limited to what is available on the original releases. These consist of a Filmography on Damnation, a Béla Tarr Interview (37:40) on Werckmeister Harmonies and another Interview with Béla Tarr (15:39) on The Man From London. Details of the quality of the transfers can be found in the reviews linked above.
Repackaged to go along with the release of The Man From London, there is nothing new in The Béla Tarr Collection for anyone who already has the original Artificial Eye release of Werckmeister Harmonies and Damnation, and it doesn’t include Béla Tarr’s seven and a quarter hour masterwork Sátántangó, which constitutes a set on its own, however this is still a fine collection of films for anyone wanting to take the plunge on one of the most distinctive filmmakers in the world today.
It’s the end, but the moment has been prepared for…
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