Nothing & silence


Richard Marshall on Béla Tarr’s The Turin Horse.

Tarr’s film is, as is Endgame, a reworking of Lear, but one that cuts away before redemptive themes are even glimpsed. They evaporate away. Where are we here? More or less the mid point of Lear, where the darkest, bottomest pitch is reverberating, moments before any scent of spiritual illumination and rebirth are sniffed. The kingdom is mad, gone with the wind, the soul roars out a hint of its nature, torn into pieces, all vegetation gone, a swamp of wild writhing dementia and increasing voicelessness, coherence, increasing darkness. Somehow Tarr places the Nietzschean visitor into a monologue that merely increases the sense that his voice is the magical, supernatural mythic double of the chaos outside – one that is coming inevitably but in no particular way. It is an eerily lit story, one that we listen to with desperate concentration, perhaps glimpsing something of the agonies of a tragic drama, something that can enforce a reassimilated meaning to the stillness inside the house and the wildness out. We hope the warning the stranger tells will move mysteriously through the unfolding images of Tarr’s film, but the hope is lost. It’s a ghost warning that fades away, despiritualised. It becomes almost political and suppressed.

And the visiting wild strangers who are banished in hysterical violence, their wild threats and curses reverberating through the desolation that follows, the dried up well, the failing horse, light, world, we see them from too narrow an angle, too mobile a position so that their chaotic and threatening presence seems to include us as mute, passive onlookers. They are part of the storm, an infection of it with language attached, a trick to pull you in and confront dread that remains inchoate, complex and irrational. The event, singular and terrible, is compressed so that a puzzle remains like a grim afterimage or portent. The woman who witnesses this is not revealed in the successive hysterical moments but is rather another part of the mystery unfolding. Immediately afterwards the well is empty and the erosion of the world continues. The film doesn’t define a psychology, nor a society, rather it defines a philosophical idea, or better, an anti-philosophy. Here the idea of any sort of continuation or supreme vehicle for understanding, is removed and replaced by an impending obscurity that is freighted with extreme, even ecstatic emotion. Hence it is non-systematic, and without any interest in morality either. Before it we are dumb and inert, perhaps made realer through experiencing this, and beyond the temptation to mean anything. A previously existing and functioning network is breaking down, slowly but implacably, before our eyes and all we are asked to do is wait and witness it. It’s a slow and long period of waiting, but it brings to heel those who want a nihilism to be a belief or concept. Nihilism is that Nietzschean, Heraclitean process, closer to an event than concept. In this film it’s a condition that never started and wont stop going on.

Tarr’s film is odd in that its succession of images don’t ever seem anything but realist, except for the very opening sequence of the horse powering along. That strikes home as if a dream sequence of immense omniscience. But it is an image and omniscience the film is moving away from, until in the end we have cramped cell-like interiors and miniature shots of lanterns and flames, that sort of thing. That it’s shot in monochrome lends a sort of auteur art-house mood but more than that it just keeps it all at a distance, so we get enough time and space to approximate the actual catastrophe. The end is bleak and enigmatic. The characters cannot imagine doing anything that isn’t real to them, and so they fall into the abyss of the disappearing world not resisting and uncomprehending. They are not sad faces at the end. She seems fearful and he confused but resolute. On the other side of their faces is just the same. At the other side of the darkness is whatever is beyond. When we talk of nothingness we ought to be wary of the tendency to be assertive. Assertion seems another thing embedded in language, so perhaps a serious ironical tone is also in the monochrome pigments. A catastrophe befalls us like this. It is when we can no longer know who we are or what is the world. All propositions fail just after asserting the self-defeating proposition that all propositions fails. When done with, this film erases itself and it’s auteur. After the darkness that engulfs the fiction comes the blank black light of whatever happens inside the cinema, then outside in the world, which is where the film imperfectly and improbably still flickers. As with Beckett it clarifies the way in which we are the wretched. It haunts us with a kind of immense grief.