The Turin Horse Review

Béla Tarr’s apocalyptic fable, his final film, comes to DVD from Artificial Eye.

The title of The Turin Horse (A Torinói ló) is a reference to an incident in the life of philosopher Friedrich Nietzchke, where he came upon a horse mistreated by its owner. This is explained by a voiceover at the beginning of the film. The film itself takes place in a small house in a rural, bleak part of Hungary, lived in by a young woman (Erika Bók) and her father (János Derzsi), not forgetting their horse (played by a mare called Ricsi). The film follows them over six days, as the well dries up, they have just potatoes to eat and the horse slowly loses the will to live…

There is a type of cinema which you could broadly call the “European art movie”, cinema as a means of personal artistic expression, a type of film that was concerned as much with matters of philosophical or spiritual import rather than conventional mass entertainment. It had its peak in the 50s and 60s, when anyone with claims to cultural sophistication had to have seen the latest Bergman, Antonioni and the like. As a type of film, it was notably beleaguered by the mid 90s, as particularly illustrated for many at Cannes in 1994 when Pulp Fiction beat Three Colours: Red to the Palme d’Or. And now, in the second decade of the twenty-first century, many of this type of film’s great exponents are dead, or significantly elderly (Jancsó. Resnais, Godard) and/or in poor health (Rivette). We lost Theo Angelopoulos earlier this year and now, at the relatively young age of fifty-seven Hungarian Béla Tarr makes what he announces as his final film. Maybe he feels he has no more to say. Maybe it is due to the increasing difficulty of making this kind of film at all. Whatever the reasons are, it’s a sad day.

Made with his usual collaborators (co-director and editor Ágnes Hranitzky, co-writer Lászlo Kraznahorkai, score composer Mihály Vig, cinematographer Fred Keleman), The Turin Horse has all the hallmarks of a Béla Tarr film: the black and white photography, and above all the trademark long, very long, sequence shots. There are only about thirty separate shots in this two-and-a-half-hour film, each intricately choreographed. While this is utterly absorbing if you surrender to it, at the back of your mind you can’t help admiring individual shots as technical feats, from the opening one where the camera keeps pace with a horse drawing a cart, circling it and at times almost floating in air (okay, very likely on a Steadicam), all without a break.

In its storyline, The Turin Horse is Genesis in reverse. In the Bible, God created Heaven and Earth in six days and then rested. In Tarr’s film, we have six days of entropy instead, moving from rapid movement (that horse and cart) to stasis and eventual darkness. It would be very easy to parody a Tarr film for its incessant miserabilism, life seen as a Beckett-like trudge through bleak and windswept landscapes, but there’s a conviction (and an intentional po-faced humour) to it that maintains conviction. The film is mostly a two-hander, the only other significant character being Bernhard ( Mihály Kormos), who arrives on the second day (an hour in), delivers a suitably apocalyptic monologue and then leaves.

For newcomers to Tarr’s work, this might be a good place to start before throwing yourself into the deep end of the seven-hour Sátántangó, say. It won’t convert the unconverted though. But for those who value Tarr’s work, this will be essential. It’s a type of cinema which has fewer and fewer exponents nowadays. After the somewhat disappointing The Man from London, this is a fine way for Tarr to go out.


Artificial Eye’s DVD is dual-layered and encoded for Region 2 only. The affiliate links refer to the DVD edition. For links for the Blu-ray, go here.

The DVD is transferred in its correct ratio of 1.66:1 and is anamorphically enhanced. It’s an excellent transfer, with solid blacks, clear whites (though not many of them) and a wide range of greys. Contrast, which is vital to black and white film, is spot-on and grain is suitably filmlike.

The Hungarian-language soundtrack is presented in Dolby Surround (2.0). I don’t know why a new film – which does have a Dolby Digital soundtrack, according to the end credits – shouldn’t have a 5.1 mix, but even so the exterior scenes do make good use of the surrounds with all that howling wind and the mournful music score. English subtitles are optional.

There are two extras. One is the trailer, all 44 seconds of it, consisting of no dialogue and one shot (of the lamp, late in the film), which fades out to some critical quotes and the UK release date. However, also on this disc is Hotel Magnezit (11:49). This very early short – date often given as 1978 but it says “1980” on the opening title card – is very different from Tarr’s mature work. It is in black and white, but Tarr clearly hasn’t developed his sequence-shot technique, telling his tale – of an old man ejected from the hotel of the title – in a more conventional way, by cutting back and forth between the people speaking, resulting in undoubtedly more individual shots than there are in the whole of The Turin Horse. The short is transferred from what looks very much like a video source (it may even have been made on video), very noisy and artefacted, which may of course be an intended look. The soundtrack is mono and English subtitles are again optional.


Updated: Sep 26, 2012

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