Bela Tarr became the most well known Hungarian director of films with the 1987 release of Damnation (Kárhozat). And, it’s no wonder. While not an inarguably great film, it is certainly close, and a good case for its greatness can be made. More cogently, the film showed Tarr as a filmmaker who is singular, despite some manifest parallels to the work of Andrei Tarkovsky and Theo Angelopoulos. This 117 minute long black and white film, shown in a 1.66:1 aspect ratio is similar, in structure, to Tarkovsky’s Stalker, and in pacing to Angelopoulos’s films, although its visual imagery is straight out of the Italian Neo-Realism of the 1940s and 1950s.
The film opens with a long slow pullback from a hot of a tramway of mining buckets moving back and forth, suspended over a bleak landscape, part of a small mining town. The sounds of the mechanized drudgery set the tone for the film, and as the camera pulls back from the buckets we see that we are inside an apartment, looking out the window at them. The camera then pulls even further back and around the silhouetted of a man’s head. The slow reveal moves from almost a documentary-like feel to one of utter expressionism, as it finally ends, and we see a man shaving with a razor. This break, several minutes into the film, ends a shot that is almost a mirror image of the final shot of Michelangelo Antonioni’s The Passenger. Antonioni, of course, is another filmmaker that Tarr is often compared to, and without a doubt, there are also similarities. Like the Italian cinematic master, Tarr’s shot is, at once, the essence of simplicity, but also complexity and duplicity, for, while we start out with what seems an objective documentary shot of an industrial landscape, suspended in mid-air, it soon morphs into what seems to be a subjective shot of a character looking hopelessly out of a definite place. But, then, as the camera pulls back behind the putative eyeline of the silhouetted figure, the shot again becomes objective and omniscient, then switches to a more conventional shot of the main character, whom we learn is called Karrer (Miklós Székely), shaving. Then, we see, as the camera, again pans behind him, how his reflected image disappears behins the imposition of the darkness Karrer’s body casts, until his face is swallowed by his body’s darkness.
Within the first few minutes of the film, two themes emerge. The first is that Tarr is challenging concepts of the viewer’s perspectives and assumptions, and the second is that his main character is a man whose essence is slowly disappearing, even before we get into the main thrust of the film’s tale. Then we get shots of a car in front of a dilapidated apartment building, only to have it pull back and reveal Kerrer, again, spying on the car’s occupant. As the man leaves, Karrer goes into the building to see a woman (Vali Kerekes), an ex-lover (presumably) of his whom he is still obsessed with, and wife of the man with the car, feeling only her love can save him from a life of seeming unemployment (we never see Karrer do anything of a positive note- work nor otherwise), staring at the buckets that pass by his apartment window. She sings at the town’s grimy bar, the Titanik, and dreams of making it to the big cities, so she can have comforts, with or without her husband (György Cserhalmi), or Karrer, whom she treats like a pathetic insect. Instantly, we know what the relationship between these two is. By visually presenting Karrer’s seamier insecure side with visuals, and seeing the faux confident posturing of the slatternly singer, with almost no words, Tarr has set up a universal situation, familiar to lonely men and manipulative women worldwide.
Throughout the rest of the film, a simple tale plays out. Karrer is given an opportunity to earn money smuggling things for the local bar owner (Gyula Pauer), but instead pawns off the opportunity on the singer’s husband, so he can be out of town more, and he try to restart their romance. The husband warns Karrer away from his wife, even though he views him as no threat, and takes the smuggling gig. Numerous scenes depict the suffocating life the people in this town lead, at the end of the Communist era. Karrer eventually gets the singer back in to bed, after a physical fight (although both what we see of their lovemaking, and the way it is presente4d- via peepholes and mirrors, makes it one of the least erotic sex scenes ever filmed- despite its nudity), but loses her affection soon afterwards, even as he ignores the potential of a deeper relationship with another woman (Hédi Temessy) who seems to have feelings for him, and always has a kind word for Karrer, and a spiteful, if accurate, opinion of the self-centered and vain singer. When the husband returns, things sour between Karrer and the singer, and when she ends things, after some well composed and choreographed shots, he eventually finks on the singer and her husband, telling the authorities of the husband’s role as a smuggler, and gets his revenge that way. He also turns in the bar owner, for his part in the scheme, and the fact that the singer let him do her while Karrer and the husband fought about the wife. In a sense, if one understands what the system was in Communists states of the last century, the ending may have been predictable. But, the results of how it affects Karrer are not. He seems to slowly lose a grip on reality, and in the final scenes of the film, in a hellish junkyard, he ends up on all fours, barking and driving away a stray dog that, along with some others, has spent the film scavenging through the wasteland looking for scraps of food in the gloomy rain that pervades almost every scene. Karrer is not only still a loser, and a bigger one than at the film’s start, but he has set up people and ruined their lives, not content to be alone in his own misery, but needing to have company in his swill.
The film is, despite its black and white, dark and sodden landscapes, amazingly beautiful. Rarely has the geography of the human mien been captured so wrenchingly, whether in the faces of the main characters, or in shots that seem to be social commentaries that underscore and play out against the main narrative, and featuring people who are never seen again. There is almost a clinical aspect to the way that Tarr pores over not only the human aspect but also the ruins of a small town. Yet, never is it technically clinical. The slow motion of camera movements away from the seeming center of the story is something that few filmmakers do, Yet Tarr does so, not only with ease, but a purposiveness that hints at the fact that the putative focus of that is just that, putative, and of no more genuine interest than a small portion of a derelicted building he turns his camera on.
The DVD, put out by Facets Video, has a good transfer, although, here and there, there are some flaws and splotches. The film’s subtitles are in white, but unlike the often unreadable subtitles The Criterion Collection uses on black and white films, Facets uses a black outline around the white lettering so that the words stand out very well. There are no features to speak of, and the only ‘extra’ is a small booklet that features some pretty good essays on Tarr and his canon. The film’s screenplay, by Tarr, adapted along with László Krasznahorkai, from Krasznahorkai’s novel, is the sort that most critics would not rave over, because it is not larded with dialogue that sets the mind ablaze, nor is its pacing something that most video game addicted Americans will find stimulating. But, like Last Year In Marienbad or 2001: A Space Odyssey, the film’s screenplay is key to its greatness, for its holds together the often conflicting images, which would fall to anomy without the script. The pair, Tarr and Krasznahorkai, have become Europe’s latter day film-novelist equivalent to the 1960s pairing of filmmaker Hiroshi Teshigahara and novelist Kōbō Abe. The cinematography, by Gábor Medvigy, is suoperb. Often in black and white films, especially those of recent decades, the use of that palette has no real significance, for all it does is present a blanched world. Tarr and Medvigy, however, make full use of total blackness, and its interruptions, as well as the plenum of grays that run between it and its antipodes, showing the superfluity of color in many films, and just how effective black and white cinema can reflect dreams, their lack, and the horror that fact can present. In this sense, Damnation truly is a horror film, with its desolated urban landscapes (which were a set, not real), often shown at odd angles, often reminding a well rounded cineaste of earlier horror films like Vampyr, Frankenstein, The Cabinet Of Dr. Caligari, or many other German Expressionist films from the silent era.
As wonderful as the cinematography is, I must, however, return to the screenplay, and compare this film with another film about a near-sociopathic loner, filmed a dozen years before this one, in color, but mostly at night, so that the color was minimized. I refer to Martin Scorsese’s Taxi Driver, for like Damnation, much of the film follows the singular lead character, who is rapt by his reflection in mirrors and windows, who is obsessed with a woman who disdains him for dreams that she will never achieve. While Taxi Driver is, for most of its length, a film that deals with the impotence of the modern man, at least Travis Bickle (portrayed by Robert De Niro) eventually shoots his load. Karrer does not. In fact, he is so impotent that he is reduced to arguing with a feral dog, one who, when we see them muzzle to muzzle, we are not quite sure if Karrer may even attempt to sexually mount. This is another way in which Damnation can make its claim to being a ‘realistic’ horror film.
Yet, Taxi Driver provides another ‘in’ to how Damnation works, the cinema of misdirection. There is a scene in the Scorsese film where, after Bickle has taken Betsy (Cybill Shepherd) to a porno flick, he tries to apologize and call her from a payphone in a shitty hallway of a tenement. As we hear only his end of the conversation, the audience can tell that Betsy is brushing him off, and the camera ‘looks away’ from the internal angst of Bickle, and down the corridor, out into the bright daylight. We hear Bickle deal with his rejection, but we do not see it. Similarly, Damnation uses the same technique, although it is used repeatedly, and not with such dramatic emphasis as Scorsese used it. In a number of scenes, characters walk in to and out of frame, and the camera lingers on a structure of building, and even looks in a direction away from it, to see dogs, or insects, or the beading of rain on a window, as if to subtly suggest that the ‘story’ we feel the film is about is not necessarily the only thing of concern to the film. The most damning shot in Damnation, of this sort, is at film’s end, after Karrer has scared off the wild dog, and walks off, leaving the film to end pondering the rain, mud, and destruction, in a scene that reminded me of the end of Ursula LeGuin’s The Lathe Of Heaven. In an earlier shot, the camera slowly pans through the local bar, from Karrer, and the husband and singer conversing, to follow the husband as he speaks to the bar owner in back, and then around the pool room, past Karrer and the singer, and back to the husband’s return. This plays out over several minutes, even as we hear Karrer and the singer speak. Yet, the most interesting things in the shot are nor what is said, but the little and manifestly predictable habits we see totally minor characters engage in, even over such a brief time. After all, it’s a pool bar, and whether in Hungary, Chicago or Singapore, they have their own rules of etiquette, so to speak.
Naturally, most critics, even those who praised the film, barely got what the film is about, and often imbued blatantly wrong ideas from the barest of threads. Instead, they digressed on to treatises about Tarr’s conflicted take on existence, his being an anti-Communist zealot, or his merely being derivative of earlier directors, especially the nominally similar Tarkovsky. Where Tarkovsky is explicitly spiritual, Tarr is overtly materialist. His characters not only reject inner lives, but they are seemingly incapable of understanding what they are. Karrer, as example, reiterates his desires for a ‘life’ with the singer, unawares that what he has, pathetic as it is, is still better than nothing, and that if he ever got his wish, it would likely only hasten the end of that relationship. The singer cares nothing of anyone but herself, and her husband veers between testosteronic threats and an impotence of mind that equals Karrer’s. Only the woman played by Hédi Temessy shows any depth, yet she is not only marginalized by Karrer’s lack of attention to her feelings and entreaties, but by her own inability to see that she is as rote a creature as the others are, despite her ability to see the Möbius Strip life she, and the others, inhabit. In this way, Orson Welles’ The Trial is the most direct antecedent for Damnation. The Kafka tale is as circular, if a bit grander, but nonetheless fatal.
Too many critics and filmgoers (even twenty years ago) have too delimited an idea of narrative, and what it is and can do, to appreciate an artist like Tarr, who exploits those very conventions, but not in radical antitheses, but in sly digressions to the next door, so that what the viewer is left with is not a conventional tale, but a story that almost ghosts its essence upon the expected. Dourness becomes a thing to marvel, and beauty becomes a thing tossed aside, and the camera often makes the viewer question their import, something few works of art do, taking too much for granted. When the camera focuses on something, therefore, it is not the thing in front of the eyes that is the subject, but the watcher behind. This subtle displacement of the everyday is a thing that adds psychological heft to the film, even though not in a manner discernible to most arts lovers. Often, silly appellations like a ‘noir Angelopoulos’ are used, even though their utterers have not a clue what such a claim means.
Damnation is a film that achieves greatness in many moments, but sometimes does not know when its points have all been made. The slight excesses of lingerance are the only down sides to a film that is a terrific document of the human creature; one that still has relevance to its viewers, as well as its viewed.
[Originally posted at Blogcritics]
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