Hungarian writer-director Béla Tarr’s art-house bona-fides set up his work, fairly or not, as intimidating, impenetrable and overwhelming. His fierce reputation makes “The Turin Horse,” Tarr’s newest and reportedly final film, opening in Los Angeles on Friday, all the more astonishing for its simplicity. Long takes are carefully orchestrated around the tight space of a remote country cabin as an elderly father and his adult daughter steel themselves against a world that seems to be slowly winding down as resources diminish. It’s a slow-motion apocalypse.
With his graying ponytail, leather jacket, penchant for cigarettes and disarmingly direct manner, the 56-year-old Tarr is something of a central casting ideal of an international art-house filmmaker. He sat down for a conversation over cheeseburgers and draft lagers when he was in Los Angeles last fall for the film’s screenings as part of AFI Fest.
Your films have a reputation for being difficult to get through. It’s a badge of honor for some cinephiles just to say they sat through the seven-hour running time of “Satantango.”
It is easy. Easy to watch. It’s three parts, two intermissions. It’s really not a big deal to watch it. It’s just you are not used to that. Usually, when it’s shown anywhere in the world, it’s a weekend program, they start around 2 o’clock in the afternoon and finish around 10, then afterward everybody can go eat something. It’s really just, who was the stupid man — and I know it was here in Hollywood — who decided a film has to be 11/2 hours or maximum two hours?
Do you limit writers and tell Mr. Tolstoy, ‘‘‘War and Peace’ is nice, but it’s too long. We should take out the peace part because it’s boring and nothing happens”? That’s why I find it so stupid to talk about the lengths. I did a five-minute-long movie and it was my haiku. Sometimes, I only need five minutes.
Do you demand more of the audience? Do you want them to put in more effort when watching your films?
It is not an effort. If you are just sitting and watching, that is totally enough. You don’t need any effort. Just trust your eye and listen to your heart. It’s not difficult. Please do not use this word “effort.”
First of all, when you touch the camera, then you are waking up at four in the morning, in the dark, you are driving to the location and it’s cold and everybody hates everybody, it’s too early and you hate the actors, the actors hate you and the catering is bad, the coffee is bad and you hate the whole world. But you know why you do it? I do it for you. And of course I respect you and I know I have to do my best for you, because you are not a kid, you are an adult and you have to have the best. You are waiting for some good scenes, not just only for the stupid entertainment.... Everybody believes that film is just one thing. Surely not.
The story of “The Turin Horse” has its basis in an anecdote about Friedrich Nietzsche hugging a horse he had seen beaten in the street shortly before suffering a mental collapse. Is the horse in the film meant to be that horse? How did it get from Turin to the cottage?
Who cares about Turin? We just had a question — what could happen to the horse? — and we just wanted to tell you something about the horse. I remember the Milan Kundera book “The Unbearable Lightness of Being” and I could say we just did a movie about the heaviness of being. We just wanted to show you how long is life. You are doing your routine but every day is getting dimmer. And the light at the end just disappears, quietly, silent. And that is what we wanted. Not more and not less.
You know what the real human tragedy is? When you are capable, but by the end you cannot do it. You have the capacity, but you have no chance to fulfill your ideas.
Is it difficult for you when someone watches one of your films and then asks you what it was about?
When someone asks, “What about?,” I say, “How can I explain to you a film?” Because film is a picture, you can see with your eyes. How can I explain to you the eye of the horse? I have no words. And that’s the reason I did not become a writer. I’m a filmmaker. I know how to show you. I know the way. It’s impossible to tell you what you will see when you see the eye of the horse.
Why have you decided this will be your last film?
I think I’ve said everything I could.
Photo: Bela Tarr. Credit: Cinema Guild