The stark black and white image rests on a derelict farm, its dilapidated buildings surrounded by a graceless loch of muddied land. It’s a bleak canvas: barren, drab and stagnant until a group of cows enter the frame and slowly make their way screen left. The camera follows, almost imperceptibly, but is it simply charting the course of these roving animals or is it piloting to some undetermined point of interest? A central character, perhaps? An occasion of action or a backdrop of significance? Or is it leading to nothing at all? This opening shot lasts for more than eight minutes. It’s built on waiting and anticipating, but the pace and the rigor is uneasy. Like much of what follows in Béla Tarr’s 1994 opus Satantango, the stasis is rarely calm, rarely peaceful. It is, rather, quite unsettling.
Then a fade to black as an unidentified, omniscient narrator begins to speak about one of the Satantango’s primary characters. Futaki (Miklós Székely B.) has just awoken to bells ringing in the distance. The sound can’t have come from a nearby church. That bell tower was destroyed years ago during the war. Nor could the chiming radiate from town. That’s too far away. Maybe he’s imagining it, or maybe there’s something supernatural at play. The narrator also notes that recent rains have been so intense that the film’s setting, a remote slab of the Hungarian plains, has been effectively cut off from neighboring communities, a notion that lingers nervously as Satantango unfolds, suggesting concerted isolation and desolation. When the image returns from this darkened pause, it’s revealed that Futaki has been amorously engaged with Mrs. Schmidt (Éva Almássy Albert). She shares an unnerving dream she had, concluding, “We’ll go mad in the end.” Futaki adds to the concern: “I’m sure something’s going to happen today.”
When Mr. Schmidt (László Lugossy) enters the picture, a clearer outline of Satantango’s foundational plot develops. There’s talk of hoarded money, of secrets and lies amongst the villagers, and of plans to flee. Though left indistinct in their totality, these elements of conflict prove judiciously effectual, implying a concrete, existential orientation. Yet there’s also something more enigmatic. A title had appeared on screen just before the scene at the Schmidt house: “News of Their Coming.” The inbound individuals in question, it’s eventually disclosed, are Irimiás, played by Mihály Vig, Satantango’s composer, and his partner, Petrina, played by Putyi Horváth. Word of their impending arrival travels through the hamlet like a subdued tremor.
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The assumption, based a rumor circulated by a young boy in the village, was that the two men had been dead for more than a year. Their potential return is met with equivocal panic and downright fear. It’s said that one “can’t hide” from Irimiás and Futaki calls him a “magician.” Has the community wronged Irimiás somehow? Is he back for revenge? In any event, his influence is established well before he appears, and certainly before he engages in any on-screen feat to affirm or refute the tacit supremacy of his character. But in Satantango’s next chapter, Irimiás and Petrina are indeed introduced, the camera tracking them from behind as they walk down a windswept street of swirling debris. There is no dialogue, no context. A few scenes later, though, the two arrive in a café where Irimiás demands silence and seems to freeze the other customers in the process. Does he in fact have some paranormal facility? Was he resurrected? And what does he have planned for those who so restlessly anticipate his arrival?
Beginning with more questions than answers, Satantango is thus primed for drama and tension, induced, more than anything, by its unhurried uncertainty. Tarr hints at the long-gestating animosity between the villagers — with much else to emerge over the film’s 439-minute runtime — and he disperses just enough ambiguity to engender an inscrutable forward momentum. But the film’s languid stride stalls the rapidity of this development as well as its definitive resolution. It’s never forgotten what Irimiás may be capable of (his protracted buildup is echoed in Tarr’s 2000 film Werckmeister Harmonies, with introductory anecdotes about a carnival, a large confined whale and a mysterious figure known as The Prince), but his scheme, like the true motivations of the others, is left largely ambiguous. And it’s left that way for hours. Add to this the verified seclusion of the village, the conspiratorial mummers of its citizenry and the visual sparseness accumulated by Tarr — combining a forbidding scenic constitution, limited exposition and extended sequences of perceived inertia — and the potent machination of Satantango’s plot is firmly in place. But it’s a grind.
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For Tarr, it’s also a deliberate, masterful balance of pace and presentation, and his career had been heading in this direction for some time. The Budapest-born filmmaker directed his first feature, Family Nest, in 1977, and it, like his 1982 film, The Prefab People, was informed by bickering factions within a domestic milieu. The concentration of unsteady allegiances was then amplified in 1984’s Almanac of Fall, another film rife with ulterior motives, angst and an environment of stifling discord. Almanac of Fall was also significant in that it was the first Tarr film to feature a score by Vig, whose music, especially in Satantango, supplements the anxious arrangement of the narrative via its own droning, melancholic timbre. In terms of the film’s austere black and white aesthetic, Damnation (1988) was the key harbinger, and it was on this film where Tarr aligned with two other collaborators who would prove vital to Satantango’s comprehensive effectiveness: writer László Krasznahorkai and cinematographer Gábor Medvigy.
Krasznahorkai’s distinctive writing style is a fascinating complement and contrast to Tarr’s adaptation, which he wrote with the novelist. Known for his avoidance of punctuation and his elaborate sentences (some lasting entire pages), Krasznahorkai’s written expression yields a breathless stream of textual discovery, which, in Tarr’s hands, translates to increasingly long shots that survey the action, or inaction, in conscientiously calculated detail. From there, though it is slow going, Tarr and Medvigy manage to generate considerable weight from this systematic tempo and the moments of photographic opacity. The camera will leave its ostensible emphasis as unexpected pans and dollies drift away from a given protagonist, or it will obscure a clear view of the central focus, denying the viewer particulars of consequence. When stationary, frustrating the narrative thrust on another level, the imagery can also be profoundly immersive. Whether he’s staging a scene in wide, inhospitable exteriors or in cluttered, claustrophobic quarters, Tarr extracts an honest harshness and, often, a barefaced crudity, stretching the time spent with characters as they wash, grunt, eat, sleep, sit or walk for what seems like an interminable duration. The result, in all cases, is a penetrating, restless familiarity, a mesmerizing individual progression that is by turns despairing, ominous and haunting. And although there is a forward trajectory to Satantango overall, its structure, based on the steps forward/steps back of its namesake dance, prompts an episodic chronology that repeats action from varying perspectives, thwarting straightforward resolve and extending the strain.
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The first instance of this is when Tarr switches to the point of view of a doctor (Peter Berling) as he spies on what happened at the Schmidt house. More than merely adopting a new, voyeuristic vantage, the relocation shows the old man as he jots down his observations and speculations and fosters an expanded degree of intrigue concerning those who may have a stake in what occurs and those who are simply prying. A similar instance occurs when Tarr introduces a young girl, Estike (Erika Bók). Satantango sticks with the wayward child for a substantial amount of time, following her dejected journey amongst the adults and, at one point, holds on her gaze as she’s transfixed by a lengthy barroom dance sequence, which will later be shown in full (replete with inebriated ramblings) and depicts the elders occupied in an unnervingly repetitious revel. It’s almost absurd in its drunken excess. Are they having a good time? They seem to be in some cases. But why then does it feel like an apocalyptic last hurrah? Estike consumes the instability of their behavior, as she had in scenes prior, yet she too is just as erratic and unpredictable. Despite moments of prolonged, thoughtful motionlessness, she lashes out when alone, imposing her distorted distress on an ill-fated cat and, finally, when she has had enough, on herself. It’s easily Satantango’s most disturbing segment, and it confirms the violence that has infected the entire population, from the oldest to the youngest. It’s also representative of how Tarr’s penchant for long takes emboldens performance, particularly when single characters are seized tightly in the frame, lending a visual tautness to their inert bodies and expressive routine (Vig similarly benefits from the strategy when Irimiás gives a speech at Estike’s makeshift memorial, chiding the villagers for their sin, guilt and neglect — it’s easy to see why he’s so convincing).
As Satantango’ nears its conclusion and the villagers embark on a seemingly preordained exodus, at the behest of Irimiás, their tentative departure is scarcely more defined than their prior existence. Left with little choice but to be together, there is the semblance of solidarity in their plight, but it’s fleeting at best. It’s already been shown how any one of them could turn on another at a moment’s notice, especially when driven by such desperation. Besides, while they have differing opinions about what lies ahead — “What will become of us?” asks one; “We have great prospects for the future,” declares another — they are still indebted to Irimiás’s monetary and psychological dominion. For his part, Irimiás’s intentions remain blurred. He speaks with a procurer about explosives and guns but confesses he is “only the servant of a greater cause.” Having observed his collaboration with governmental authorities, reporting on the villagers’ deeds and character quirks, his endgame remains mutable. Will he deliver promised salvation or unleash irrevocable annihilation?
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Although it still contained many of his formal hallmarks, Tarr demonstrated with his 2007 film The Man from London that he had the pronounced ability to provoke relatively conventional suspense. Satantango is something different. The suspense here is not born from some explicitly stated plot point, but by a disquieting amalgamation of painstaking pacing, pictorial discomfort, atmospheric foreboding and a finely tuned psychological rendering that communicates unspoken depths of despair and hopelessness. Satantango invites political interpretation, as a commentary on post-Communist society, and it clearly supports a religious allegory, from Irimiás’s divine sway and the impression of cosmic entrapment to a brief mention of the Book of Revelations, which underscores the notion of inescapable reckoning. More than that, though, there are the variances in perspective that inspire distrust and doubt, while the pessimistic overtones, the betrayals and the forlorn visuals suggest a world on the brink of nihilistic envelopment. Satantango becomes an almost transcendental experience, illustrating fissures in a civilization constructed by an inimitable, sublime design. The ultimate tension then derives not only from what transpires, but from the ways in which Tarr dictates the drama and from the questions that remain, one of which persists even after more than seven hours: What does it all mean?
Jeremy Carr (@jeremyrcarr) teaches film studies at Arizona State University and writes for the publications Film International, Cineaste, Senses of Cinema, MUBI’s Notebook, Cinema Retro, Movie Mezzanine, Cut Print Film and Fandor’s Keyframe.