Images from The Horse of Turin:
Godís gifts revoked: the beasts of the earth, water, light.
The world as Hell: Sylvie chasing her bonnet across the parched, vacant wasteland. The horizon becomes the imprisoning limit of the Father and Daughter’s home/exile.
Man’s better side atrophied, dead.
Everything sucks, forever. The End.
The apocalypse that is economic and ecological in Take Shelter and historical in Meek’s Cutoff becomes mythic and universal in The Horse of Turin. “At the beginning of my career, I had a lot of social anger,” says Bela Tarr in an interview.
The film takes as its text and point of departure a very short story by Laszlo Krasznahorkai that re-imagines the episode of Friedrich Nietzsche’s collapse in Turin, when he famously threw his arms around the neck of a carriage horse that was being flogged. Nietzsche deteriorated into catatonia even as his philosophy detonated like a depth charge, collapsing two thousand years of Western faith and intellectual tradition. But “of the horse,” Krasznahorkai’s fable concludes, “we know nothing.”
The Horse of Turin tells us not what became of that particular horse (the film seems set not in Italy ca.1889 but in some blasted and timeless existential landscape) but the fate of all the mute suffering creatures of the earth in the aftermath of Nietzsche’s deicide. The film’s protagonists are two peasants who, no less than Nietzsche’s poor whipped nag, have slaved at unrelieved, plodding labor their whole lives. The respect Tarr pays these people is in the sheer screen time and rigorous scrutiny he devotes to their quotidian routines. The Horse of Turin is a pitilessly slow, repetitive film, with long passages recapitulated with incremental variations, as in its minimalist score. We see father and daughter going about their daily chores in the grueling tedium of real time, in uninterrupted shots that last as long as eight minutes. They eat the same meal day after day: one massive boiled potato per person, skinned with bare fingers and devoured still steaming. As the punishing wind outside whips up stinging dust storms, collecting water from the well becomes an undertaking to set your teeth against. Even dressing is a laborious ritual because one of the father’s arms is limp and useless. All this is less ennobled than simply beheld, honored, by Tarr’s ascetic attention. Fred Keleman’s cinematography is almost devotional, making fine-grained art of weathered wood, rude stone, earthen floor, swirling mane and rippling horseflesh, faces lashed and bodies spraddled by time and work. Throughout, the wind moans and rages without respite and Mihály Vig’s mournful score saws on, as though playing music were another grueling chore.
As if in some dark fairy tale, a series of curses befalls the two peasants. On the first night the Deathwatch beetles stop ticking, leaving ominous silence. Then the titular horse refuses to budge or to eat, obstinate as Melville’s Bartleby, and it’s clear, by the middle of the film, that it is moribund. As in Take Shelter, the death of an animal seems a portent. Next the peasants’ well runs dry. Finally the lamps will not light, even though they’re filled with oil, and even the sun goes dark. The Turin Horse is a Book of Genesis in reverse—like a black Mass, read backwards—telling the story of Uncreation. The film is divided, like the Biblical Creation, into six days, in the course of which we see God’s gifts taken back one by one. Its sequence of mysterious privations inverts the order of Creation in Genesis 1:1-25: first the “living creature[s]” and “beast[s] of the earth,” created on the sixth day, sicken and die; then the Waters, which were separated from the land on the third day, recede and vanish; and finally light, the first of God’s creations (“fiat lux”), fails. Throughout these successive losses the windstorm relentlessly rises, supernatural in its wrath, like a scouring judgment on the earth. God rebuked long-suffering Job from out of a windstorm, and here, as in Take Shelter, the rising storm is the voice of some universal sentence upon Man’s offenses.
The only explicit explanation or hypothesis we ever hear for these escalating misfortunes comes when a guy named Benhard barges into the hovel demanding booze, and, halfway through a film in which scarcely a word has been exchanged, delivers a long, lugubrious rant about human corruption, the death of God, and the well-deserved destruction of mankind. Like many a barroom diatribe, it goes on for a while and tends to ramble, restating its main points several times. The gist is that humankind has brought about its own damnation through its insatiable lust for possession. And that those decent few who once knew better lost faith in goodness and so abandoned the field, bequeathing the earth to vermin.
In other words, The best lack all conviction/While the worst are full of passionate intensity. Bernhard isn’t a spokesman for Nietzsche, who saw in the advent of nihilism a crucible for the forging of new values; he sees nothing in God’s absence but a feeding frenzy, the world left prey to rapacious avarice. The father dismisses all this as “rubbish,” but it’s significant in light of this tirade that it’s his own “good” right arm, as opposed to the “sinister” left, that hangs limp and useless. He is a living embodiment of Bernhard’s text, Man crippled by the failing of his better side.
A second intrusion comes with the appearance of a wagonload of gypsies bound for America. When the father brandishes an axe at them they curse his well and move on, leaving behind, as backhanded thanks for the water they’ve stolen, a book Tarr calls “an anti-Bible” (like the film’s anti-Genesis). The daughter reads aloud a verse that echoes Bernhard’s anti-sermon, about priests closing down the churches because of people’s sinfulness. The next day, when their well runs dry in fulfillment of the gypsies’ curse, father and daughter decide to abandon their homestead and make their escape to someplace not utterly devoid of hope where the wind is not howling desolately 24/7. We watch them haul their carriage up the hill, disappear over the horizon, and then, after a long minute, return. There is never any explanation for their turning back. It seems possible that the outside world has ceased to exist, as if this Godforsaken place is the fallen world to which humanity has been condemned, and they’ve been repelled by the flaming sword at Eden’s gate. The world we see in The Turin Horse is dramatically Fallen, like the landscape of dry grass, cracked mud flats, and alkalai lakes in Meek’s Cutoff, suggesting the land east of Eden. Neither Meek’s’ settlers nor the Father and Daughter can find any way to escape. Stephen Meek’s odd refrain--“Hell’s fulla bears, Jimmy,” “Hell’s fulla Indians,” “Hell’s fulla mountains,” makes him sound like some grizzled frontier Virgil. Both these films seem to posit Earth as Hell, desolate and inescapable.
On the last day, the day of darkness, the father urges his daughter to eat, despite everything, but even he has no appetite. He says they’ll try again tomorrow, but as the film fades to black they sit there slumped and unmoving, dumbly enduring, like chattel, in the Hell of hope abandoned. In Take Shelter and Meek’s Cutoff we are confronted with a choice, left with some chance to turn back, but compared to the utter desolation of Tarr’s black fable even the futilitarian heroism of Beckett’s I’ll go on/I can’t go on is a needlepoint sampler homily. Light, the first creative act, the one by which we behold all others—and the one most beloved of artists and cinephiles—has been extinguished. Tarr claims this will be his last film. The rest, presumably, is silence.
Each of these films can be read as a warning; one immediate and urgent, one taking a longer view of a civilization in crisis, the last a damning Old-Testament prophecy. Read together, through a kind of film-crit haruspication, they form a disquieting pattern. Since I started thinking about this essay, several other end-of-the-world films have come and gone from both arthouses (4:44 Last Day on Earth, Abel Ferrara, 2011) and multiplexes (Seeking a Friend for the End of the World, Lorene Scafaria, 2012). An apocalyptic comedy, This Is the End, (Evan Goldberg, 2013) is being promoted as I write. As Curtis says in Take Shelter, “it’s in the air.” Maybe even those big dumb blockbusters about comets and zombies and the Mayan apocalypse are symptoms of some unconscious recognition, as even the stupidest jokes reveal our most deeply buried fears. Just as the alien-invasion cycle of the 50s coincided with the Cold War and Red Scare, and the superhero cycle (ca. 2002-present) reflects 9/11 and War on Terror fantasies of omnipotence and moral certitude, this current cycle of apocalyptic films seems like an expression of some pervasive anxiety that our present society can't possibly last.Of course it’s easy for a critic to connect any arbitrary dots to form some portentous constellation. And artists aren’t necessarily any more prescient, or less prone to alarmism, hysteria, or crackpot theories than anyone else. People in all eras have proclaimed some great crisis or reckoning imminent; it’s perversely cheering to believe that we live in some exceptional, crucial historical moment, even if it’s the End Times, rather than that we’re just ordinary people occupying another unremarkable corner of existence, soon to be forgotten. But I would just suggest that, when a lot of a society’s best artists start urgently signaling, independently of one another but in disquieting concert, that something awful is coming, that we need to change course or die, that we are doomed, we should probably, at the very least, pay attention.
You might read these films together as a sign, like a flock of birds moving in unison, inscribing a cryptic but deliberate pattern in the air, as if they were trying to tell us something.