Radio interview by Laure Adler on France Culture (09-24-2008) 45' [FRENCH-ENGLISH]
Laure ADLER: [..] Staying with poetry, meditation and the importance granted to the flow of time, we propose you to listen to the Hungarian filmmaker Béla Tarr on the occasion of the release of his film, based on a Georges Simenon adaptation, L'homme de Londres (1933).
Béla Tarr, thank you very much to be here with us tonight. The Man From London (2007), which premièred at the Cannes festival two years ago, is finally released on French screens now, and it's the occasion for our radio program to try and understand your universe.
Firstly, I would like to know if you went to the movies very young?
TARR Béla: Yes, often times. When I was a kid I liked to go to the movies. But I have to say, I don't anymore now.
ADLER: Why? Because you're busy doing your own films?
TARR: No. Because often I have the feeling that the audience laugh while I want to cry. that's the reason I prefer to watch the movies alone, or with friends around me.
ADLER: You like very much John Cassavetes, I believe, who influenced you a lot?
TARR: I like his movies. You know, everybody used to say him and I had something in common. But when I finally saw his first movies was in the 80ies. I grew up in Hungary, and it was a socialist country back then. It was a closed country, and we had no chance to watch a lot of things. Only towards the mid 80ies could I discover the great movies famous around the world, but we couldn't watch them.
ADLER: Let's talk about your universe, Béla Tarr. When we watch your films, we enter a landscape often devastated, where rain pours like in the Bible. We have the feeling it will never stop, that everything will be overflown. Men have worn out (?) faces. Women are totally broken by life. I have the impression you've had several lives. I believe you've been a worker.
TARR: Yes, I've been a worker. You know it was a long journey. When I was young, I was a very strong leftist. It was also a very strange situation. I grew up in a socialist country, then I became leftist who rebelled against this feudalistic system. I was 16, it was a time when the whole philosophy, the culture of the 60ies came to Hungary. And it was this atmosphere I breathed. The reason why I went to the factory and became a real worker was very simple, I wanted to know how was real life. Then I made a 8mm movie when I was 16, with Gypsy workers. Then I had some trouble. After high school, I wanted to go to college, but was refused because I wasn't a fan of the "system". that's how my life started, like a black sheep. Until now I'm still a black sheep. sometimes I'm terribly glad I'm still a black sheep, but sometimes it's very boring.
You know, the documentary style I began with, was a mix between documentary and fiction. And of course, at start I wanted to change the world. Now that I'm older, I have to recognize that I'm not capable to change the world. The world is stronger than me. Cinema is not enough for a change. I became more and more desperate. I saw that problems were not only social but ontological. Thus my cinematic style comes from my vision of the world.
ADLER: We have the impression you had several cinematographic lives. There was the beginning after the factory, a cinema socially involved, like Ken Loach : Family Nest (1979), The Prefab People (1982). Then you worked collectively with friends. And because of the Hungarian censorship you went to Berlin. this is where began a new cinematographic era, a new way to see the world and to film it. How? and why?
TARR: This is definitely not true. This was the idea of an American critic, his theory. A very good critic. Jonathan Rosenbaum from Chicago [read here]. It was his idea. It's not true. Step by step, from movie to movie, each one generates the next one. Of course I had some influences, maybe from the landscape, maybe from the weather, maybe a stroll around the corner. I must tell you that in my life, in my brains, in my style, I see the continuity. No breaking point, nothing. Because he hadn't seen some experimental stuff I did for the Hungarian TV, Macbeth (1982)...
ADLER: ...with a plan-sequence of 67 min. Which was a sort of fracture. I know you're one and only person, a filmmaker who continues to film the world. But there has been some changes...
TARR: But you know this is a process, step by step. If you watch The Man From London and my first movie, The Family Nest... the extreme close ups on this family, on this woman's face, it's a very long uncut shot, in 1967. Thirty years later, in The Man From London you see the same extreme close up on a woman's face in long take. There are common details, but of course I'm not doing the same movies. A lot of things have to change. You know, when you climb up the stairs, on and on, at some point you have to come back down. That's the point when I want to finish the film. That's why I really want to make the next film [The Turin Horse (2009)], which will definitely be the last. And I really want to tell everything I know about cinema, about life, about words, about people, about the world. And after I'll stop it.
I don't like to speak about movies, because for me the movies are pictures, books, songs, noises and the eyes of people... As an example, in Werkmeisters Harmonies (2000), there is a man who watches the eye of a whale, and the film is about what he feels, that why I can't explain you. For The Man From London, I can't tell with words what Ms Brown feels, but you can see it in her eye at the end of the movie. that's what I love about movies. you can show a lot of things that can't be put into words.
ADLER: Your cinema seem like an initiating and ontological quest, there is no scenario, but it talks to our subconscious or our unconscious. do you agree that your cinema invites us for an introspective trip inside our souls.
TARR: Let me tell you the truth, when I'm watching a movie, I'm after only one thing : I don't lie. It's the main issue. And the rest follows. All of my sensibility and my nerves must feel people. If I'm not able to feel your pain, in this case making a movie is out of question. If I see somebody who is being humiliated now, it hurts me. That's all. From the start till now, I'm always doing the same movie, a little differently, like you say. The main issue is human dignity.
ADLER: Your films today are in a sumptuous Black & White, which I would qualify of "charcoalish" for the lack of a better word. But before that you used colour. Notably in Almanac of Fall (1985), bathed in blue and pink-red. You first explored the possibilities of colour, before you definitively adopted this Black & White. why?
TARR: In the mid 80ies, Kodak changed the colour material, they are doing polyester-based film stock, and the colours are totally different. Everything looks like plastic. I don't like it.
ADLER: So Black & White is the antithesis of lies to you?
TARR: It's not that simple. I like B&W movies. I did some colour stuff with Macbeth, or Journey on the Plain (1995) for Hungarian TV, I shot them in colour. I had the feeling I had to use colour. I use colour when I want to show you something with colour. But if I don't need to show you an image with green, red or blue, in this case it's better to use B&W. Because I can play with B&W. Your eye always look at the brighter part of the screen. It's amazing how I'm able to play with the grey scale. And I have the courage to leave half of the third of the screen completely black. You know I could paint with light, with black and white and all the spectrum of greys. I try to paint. that's what I like to do.
ADLER: Some people say you're a filmmaker very abstract. But, personally, I believe you're a filmmaker very lyrical. Your themes touch me very deeply. For instance the unrequited love of a man for a woman he waits for desperately. For example the story, rarely made in movies, of the hatred of a son for his mother. The story of these people who follow blindly a false guru. Do you agree that in your cinema there are themes that are universal?
TARR: "Universalism" is a very dangerous word. I don't like to use it. The universe is too vast and we're too small. But I agree with you, I'm not abstract. I prefer doing very simple movie, but with a different logic. If you are a filmmaker you have to show what's around you. And I see just simple human situations. And I see some real emotions. I see real human tragedies. That's what I want to show you. I want to show you the life of normal people. They are not running up and down the streets with guns. I say no. What I try to do is to listen and show you the eye of people who touch me. Or I'll move the camera and you'll see the landscape behind. I want to show you real emotions. I place my actors within real situations, and they are not acting. They are. nothing abstract. Nothing real, of course. This is not simply realism. I don't know how to call it.
ADLER: As you show us the real life of people, you also show us landscapes, animals... but the soundtrack of your films, made with street music, gypsy music, cabaret music, musics we can hear in the streets, composes a mental universe constitutive of your art. How do you work this soundtrack.
TARR: I proceed with the same manner. We cannot use the original sound on location because a film set is terribly noisy. I'm the loudest because I'm always shouting directions. The other reason is the international cast [in The Man From London]. Everybody acts in their own language, and it really looks like the tower of Babel. Concerning the music, we're recording it before the shooting. I'm working with the same composer for 25 years. He's a poet, Rock n' Roll musician, an artist. We are very good friend. He understand exactly what we want. He wants the same thing.
ADLER: when we watch Sátántangó (1994), like I had the privilege to see it, because it was released on DVD, we are offered a long invitation to voyage. Because it lasts 7 hours. It's sequenced, chaptered. Like a sort of testimony of the Western world that used to be Communist, where moral values collapsed. Do you agree? Why certain of your films are so long?
TARR: What do you mean by long?
ADLER: I mean, since you say you're philosopher, I have the impression you've read Heraclitus a lot, we are immersed in a river that has nothing to do the time we endure. But it's a time we choose to live with you.
TARR: I don't know. What you say is really nice. I'm blushing.
At the time when Hungary and other new states joined the European Union, in may 2004, the omnibus project from Copenhagen gathered filmmakers from the European Union, and I did the one for Hungary. It lasted only 5 minutes! One take. I'm terribly proud of this movie.
ADLER: You can.
TARR: because it looks like a haiku. Sátántangó is really long. But the duration matches your intention. I can't accept when somebody ask me to make a movie that lasts between 1h½ and 2h. It's ridiculous. It's like if Tolstoy was told War and Peace is great but if you could reduce the Peace part... The War part is very interesting, but the Peace part is boring...
ADLER: ...so you compare yourself to Tolstoy?
TARR: NO. I just make this analogy to show haw stupid it is. For example, a painter paints miniatures and sometimes they make a large painting. To me, the short film length is like a Haiku. And it's the same working process and the same effort as the 7h long Sátántangó. I grew up in a communist country and I know very well the communist censorship. I also know the Western censorship. And I can tell you there is this censorship of the free market, and to me it's the same shit.
ADLER: We know that the shooting of The Man From London met a lot of difficulties... (shooting issues). Then the premature death of your producer, Humbert Balsan, we loved so fondly. Then your film has been cancelled. But finally it carried through. The Man From London, it's a book written by Georges Simenon in 1933. I wanted to know why you decided to pick Simenon?
TARR: I like to read. My ideal holidays is to be sitting at home in the summertime, in the garden (because I live in a smaller town in the country). One night like this, I've read this book by Simenon. What stroke me most was the atmosphere. It's night, somebody sitting in a cage alone. Nothing's happening. The city sleeps. The sea waves noisily. This is the image that touched me. This is not just a criminal story. What is important is that it's a man over 50ies, his life is very monotonous, he spends all his time working, then goes to the pub, the goes home. The small old routine. And that's his life. This is life.
ADLER: And he has a daughter. He doesn't want her to end up like him.
TARR: Yes, exactly. but He never thinks about it because he has accepted his fate. It's the order of the world. What was interesting to me, was to observe what happens when this man meets the temptation. He gets the chance to do something and to give something. Observing how he is rewarded and how he loses in the end... This is a kind of destiny. This is a very human, normal and profound story. I love these people and I can show them on the film, to convince you to love them too.
Then I began production of the film. One day I got a phone call from Humbert Balsan, he said OK to join the production. Two days before the first day of shooting, we heard the news from Paris that he passed away. We shot 9 days, and afterwards the French bank cut the funds and we had to stop the shooting. I was certain we'd finish this film. Firstly for Humbert. Secondly because we spent a lot for money for the set. And it's public money. He trusted me, so I had to honour the contract. And thirdly, if a man starts something he must finish it.
ADLER: ... a woman likewise.
TARR: Yes of course. You know, I love women. If you watch my movies, you'll see that I respect them and love them very much.
ADLER: .. that's right. More than men. Anyway The Man From London has opened in France now, it's a beautiful film, and it is dedicated to : Humbert Balsan. Infinite thanks Béla Tarr.
TARR: thanks a lot.