“Bela Tarr is a film-maker of space…..but his limitation is that he makes space into an idea”
Sátántangó begins with a shot of cows in the distance leisurely filmed by the camera. Placed at a distance, the camera has a life of its own as it documents the movement of the cows. Tarr seems to argue that, to start with, cinema is a spatial medium. This construction of space resembles a Hegelian view of History in which Nature produces an a-temporal existence. The Nature-History binary is developed throughout the film with the telos of characters that occupy space.Storytelling as Symbolic form occurs in between the binary between Nature and History. The elements, especially the wind and rain, give this binary a sensorial immanence.
Space is structured according to the everyday and therefore does not decipher between sacral and profane. The opening sequences of the film, emphasise the vulgar excretory postures the characters inhabit to represent an equi-distant instant (the Deleuzean any-instant-whatever) in which the privileged pose is systematically destroyed. Time, in these early sequences is an element of space as it is structured around rhythms on the soundtrack. Very often, Tarr moves through space with the dollying/tracking camera to uncover a space on the other side of darkness. Light represents a fleeing from ignorance, literally represented by the use of white to signify an I-am-awake state. The dark spaces in between lit tracking shots emphasise the unmanifested image; on either side of which is manifestation. The pure image is the unmanifested. The interior is a space for occupation, with windows serving as a sign without a signification. The public spaces each have a logic of their own and function according to their extant intensities and speeds. The public-private split in Sátántangó is emphasised by the transactional nature of the public space.
Mihály Víg’s music transforms the pauperised post-Glasnost Hungarian landscape to an aesthetic sublime i.e. one where the shot resonates with the whole of the film through its duration. At this point in the film, cinema is as yet a spatial medium, with Tarr differentiating between the symbolic narrative-space and the immanent location-space. The perceptional consciousness is invoked through point-of-view tracking shots that give nature a duration. The image is denotational in the sense that it embodies space as Idea. This Hegelian view of Historicism is precisely the negation of History by Nature so that the emptiness is embodied by the Symbolic form of the narrative.
In the opening thirds of the film, Tarr produces chunks of film that function as pillow-shots. The consciousness of the spectator as thought is projected onto the film to produce thinking matter; whilst at the same time the characters and spectator achieve the same objective i.e. to occupy space. When the Doctor watches Futaki slip out of the Schmidt home, we notice the double iris (binocular vision) that transforms the perception-image into a gaze. This leads to the chunk with the doctor who records the events before him in the notebook.
It is precisely in the sequences with the Doctor that the Hegelian view of Historicism is transformed into a Heideggerean one.The Doctor engages his authentic sense of Self i.e. one of a profound boredom with the object of dwelling in space. The time-image has two sides: an actual and virtual. In the case of Tarr, the actual image is the totality of matter in the frame (the hyle) whereas the virtual image is constituted by the voice inscribed into text. This is not an inscription onto the unconscious; as Tarr is only interested in History as Consciousness. The Heideggerean discourse on dwelling produces a collapse in the sensory motor system of the Doctor to make him the Outside of the story. Watching the Doctor lie on the floor is pure Thought, that Outside that the Hegelian binary of Historicism and Nature would not allow us to engage.
The block sequence with Estike and her cat transform the approach to location-space. Space now becomes territory with the potentiality of excavating an image (the burying of the money). Money in the film is the MacGuffin as well as the vulgar representation of production. Instead of producing a radical revolutionary film, Tarr comments on the aspirations of those behind the Iron Curtain and their hopes for liberal capitalist ideas of “success” through “perseverance.” The relationship between Estike and the cat emphasise the agency of the human who is world-forming and the cat who is poor-in-the-world. The cat is subject to the affect of Esther’s violations. This transformation from location-space to territory makes the earth itself potent with desire, making the image a manifestation of sensuous matter; inspite of the reality of the dreary landscape itself.
We are directly taken to Irimias’ speech after Estike’s death. She has died consuming rat poison. The present moment has three dimensions of the past coming into the present and going into the future. Most good films do not play in the present-present. Tarr’s films play in the present-future causing philosopher Jacques Ranciere to pronounce his cinema The Time After. The responses to Estike’s death refer to a sinning against the Self i.e. ignorance. To avoid ignorance through cinematographic practice Tarr must create a film form about knowing rather than darkness.
The diegetic use of sound creates a pathos in which dancing is a method of sublimating the failure of post-Communist Hungary. There is an out-of-the-frame in the film suggested via sound.The diegetic soundtrack becomes what I call a “diegetic image” in which the source of light is in the image. The extended sequence of characters sleeping establishes their authentic nature once freed from personality. Unlike Alexandr Sokurov, who creates a sleeping spectator, Tarr is happy to make use of the tracking shot to film characters sleeping i.e. free from personality. This would be an interesting objective to cinema: to free characters from their personality so that they can realise their Self.
The first sequence at the city center shows horses who have escaped the slaughterhouse. Although they obviously represent a line of flight, they are essentially symbols of technology that reflect the nature of cinema in which the part and the whole produce movement. This is reflected in the process of film-making itself which relates the part to the whole through the taking of the shot. The police report emphasises the operation of technology in the bureaucratic machine.
In the last third of the film, the meandering concerns of the location-space with Tarr’s approach to History, Space and Time, are directed towards the achievement of the narrative space. The editing is much more denotational with characters reacting to one another i.e. the transformation of the non-dramatic into a drama. The capitalist endeavour in a pauperised socialist country only produce traitors or tricksters.
The concluding sequences of the film at the church suggest a possible Islamophobia, as the mad man states “the Turks are coming.” Although Tarr appropriates the subject as hysterical, it could possibly signal an Eurocentric approach to the cinematographic subject, with or without delirium. The closing sequences shut out all sources of light so that Tarr can record the unmanifest image i.e. darkness; with the manifestation of sound that are merely suggestive.