Hungarian filmmaker Bela Tarr's latest, and likely last, film begins by recounting an anecdote from the life of Friedrich Nietzsche, German philosopher and philologist who taught that life is nothing more than will to power, and that the task for us is to face up to this without despair and resentment, without insisting that where there are no absolutes there can be nothing worth while, that without the security of certainties there can only be emptiness. I don't think Tarr wants to resolve that question, but certainly aims to provide a setting that provokes it. I don't know if there's an ultimate moral or message here, but there's certainly room for meditation on the differences between men and beasts, between life and the land it depends on, and on the kind of carrying on it takes to elevate a life towards something like dignity and meaning. It's a profoundly moving film, that's so beautifully shot, with the subtlety of its lighting and the intelligence with which the camera moves, that it's hard to look away. Still, with a film like this you have to be patient. In classical Hollywood style, every shot aims to convey a very specific bit of information and as soon as that information has been delivered it's time for the camera to move or cut. With a style like that of Bela Tarr, the camera moves very deliberately, but slowly and cutting is kept to a minimum and that means that either you'll be bored waiting for the next cut and the next bit of info or you are forced to slow down, and register as important details you might otherwise overlook, such as the intensity of focus with which the father attends to his daughter as she helps him with his buttons, since he has minimal use in one arm. Or the sounds, or the lighting, or the subtle variations of mood that barely register on the largely impassive faces of the man, his daughter and their horse.
The anecdote the film begins with is that late in life Nietzsche was living in Turin, and he witnessed a peasant beating his horse. Devastated by the sight, and in an apparent effort to stop the beating, Nietzsche threw himself upon the horse's neck and wept; he had to be led home and after that was silent for the remaining years of his life. We know nothing of what happened to the horse, and so this film imagines what may have taken place. The peasant farmer drives the horse along a weary road, the wind whipping the dust into his face; he is met at home by his daughter, who helps him lead the horse and cart into the barn, and draws water from the well. She assists him in taking off his jacket and boots and he lies down while she prepares a couple of boiled potatoes for a hurried and unsatisfying meal, that he eats with a painful urgency, burning his lips and fingers. They sit and look out of the window at the wind swept hills, and there is nothing more, and the next day, if they're lucky, it will start all over all the same and won't at least get any worse. It seems a simple life, and the film does confront us with lives stripped to the essentials, what we all face but forget by way of distractions, that enable us to look away from these essentials of toil and trouble, taking care of basic needs to eat, to sleep, to find a bit of solace in the company of another person. These two have lost the capacity to laugh, to show more than a casual care for one another in ways that seem like habit, as when he calls to her that there is no more to be done and she should go to bed. All through, the howling of the wind never ceases. Still, they go to bed expecting the next day to be much the same as this one.
One might think this repetition, day in, day out, offers a practical example of what's at the heart of Nietzsche's most famous image - that of the eternal recurrence of the same. He considers this to be his hardest teaching - that one can count a life as worth living only if one could want it to recur in exactly the same way for all eternity. There's a kind of fantasy element to the teaching as it is normally presented, but the real weight of the doctrine can be felt only when it's clear that in a certain sense, when you strip them bare of inessentials such as the fact that every day we have something different to eat and watch a different set of mindless television shows, and hear different stories on the news that are in all essentials the same, most lives in fact do amount to a kind of endlessly recurring set of habitual practices, and you could think of this film as depicting the life of everyone, who has to get up and eat and get to work and deal with some kind of incessant blowing of something or other. Then the question would be: seeing life in that way, what exactly does it take to want it to keep on going on as always?
Bela Tarr has said he considers the face to be a kind of landscape, and it's also true that his landscapes exhibit a kind of face. He is a master of setting, and this film is set in a landscape that is more unforgiving and stark than almost anything he's depicted elsewhere, where the wind blows incessantly and refuses to offer any sign of letting up. Yet it seems that these characters are incapable of letting go. They carry on, day after day, and at some point it no longer seems possible and there's nothing to be done but to continue. One might consider this film a sustained reflection on the very will to live; but then the horse refuses, and his refusal to eat, to drink, to move on command appears here also as both stubborn and heroic, the act of a noble animal who refuses any longer to live merely for the sake of servitude, and stands in contrast with the almost empty gestures of day to day carrying on on the part of the farmer and his daughter, not out of any deep sense of care for their own existence but a sense of habit. A neighbor stops by to borrow whisky and delivers a monologue that seems to come straight out of a secondhand Nietzsche, an effort to give some explanation, even a depressing one, to the desolation they all feel, and the farmer dismisses it as all rubbish. One senses a resistance on the part of Tarr to explain anything or accept explanations whether optimistic or pessimistic - there is just life and there are the conditions in which a life goes on and in the face of conditions that make life almost impossible, there is the simple determination to go on or to refuse that we can witness on the faces of the peasant farmer, his daughter and the Turin horse.
Note that this review is based upon seeing the film at a festival; as I understand it the dvd and Blu-Ray release comes with a new essay on the film by J. Hoberman, and a commentary track by Jonathan Rosenbaum. Definitely one to see from a Blu-Ray.