The Slow Storytelling of Bela Tarr’s Sátántangó and the nihilistic outlook

The video above is a collection of establishing shots and transitions in Béla Tarr’s 1994 seven-hour, black-and-white masterpiece, Sátántangó. 

The establishing shot has become a mainstay of Tarr’s filmography. A sort of unexpressed realism, where he’s unafraid to show the journey, in its entirety, from one point to the next. He won’t cut away from the scene until the subject has safely reached their desired location. It’s not a reprieve for the audience or the filmmaker, it’s simply letting the action play out as it happened. At times, this type of slow-moving transition has thematic and narrative significance, but other times it’s meant solely to have the audience suffer alongside the character for extended stretches of time.

Béla Tarr has an odd relationship with the concept of storytelling, and even more telling his relationship with time: “I despise stories, as they mislead people into believing that something has happened. In fact, nothing really happens as we flee from one condition to another … All that remains is time. This is probably the only thing that’s still genuine — time itself.”

Even more maddening and inaccessible to audiences, is Tarr’s insistence on leaving contextual information out of his films, or doing the bare minimum to express a story beat. He has no interest in conventions and finds the utter notion exhaustingly meaningless. He doesn’t make a film based around three act structures because then the audience doesn’t have to grapple with the reality. Tarr is interested in the concept of human morality and formulates his films around the disintegration of society and the tensile limits of the human disposition. Thematically, his films all possess a nihilistic perspective and any grand expression of humanity is lost amongst a sea of nugatory.

The transitions, or establishing shots, is Sátántangó’s way of conveying his deep seeded resentment towards the notion of beauty and humanity. Tarr specifically focuses on these shots to show the mundanity and sadness of life. He takes bold wide shots of nature, usually with the help of a wind or rain element to give the frame movement, but holds the shot until there’s nothing new ro discover, nothing that attracts. The holding of a transition is how humans experience this in real time, but in our daily lives, these moments are fleeting and meaningless. We don’t take account of these transitional moments, and that’s the exact reaction Tarr wants to pull out of these four to ten minute transitions. It’s the fact that life, regardless of person, will be placed in a state of maddening ordinance by the nature of the world. He reminds us of existentialism in every single frame, as the storytelling commits to contemplation on the side of the audience, but not the filmmaker.

Furthermore, Tarr doesn’t identify with any religious body or see the ethereal world. As he states in an interview, he doesn’t see rain as a cleansing of morality for his characters, like legendary Russian filmmaker Andrei Tarkovsky does, but simply rain makes mud. Rain makes life more inaccessible and dreary. Rain is a truth that is unimpeded and immortal. It’s not the beauty of rain or how the sound of drops create rhythm, no, it’s that in Hungary that autumn rains are nonstop and constant. The meaning of the rain is meaningless, there’s no narrative reason it exists outside of it’s pure existence. 

It’s dystopian and absurdly rigid in the exploration of life. Tarr doesn’t make films to express depression or sadness, but that it’s a side effect of the human condition. That life, while wondrous and full of strangeness, can be unflatteringly senseless.

Now to understand Tarr’s disposition, we have to understand his surroundings and outlook. He comes from a world of famine and hardship, as all his films partially capture the fall of communism and the terrible effects it had on the Russian and Hungarian people. The toll it places on people and how that lifestyle unequivocally pushes the survivalist mindset on all it’s people. However, Tarr never makes any of these facts implicit, only through context do we learn these pieces of world building and story. In Sátántangó, it’s not till act seven or eight, where the bulk of the context is unearthed. And that’s nearly five hours of film without substantial story information to put all the pieces together, mirroring how humanity receives information in general. The apathy shared among the characters of Sátántangó is conveyed to the audience, as their nihilism transfers to the script, where no one feels it necessary to explain the situation at hand. We get a sense for the devastation over the loss of their communal farm, but it’s played as an afterthought because the characters are too busy worrying about their situation.

And yet, Tarr will continuously subject the audience to laboriously slow transitions. Over and over again. Some lasting ten minutes with no payoff and others in shorter bursts with story information embedded in the frame. There’s no formula that dictates how the shot should be handled, it’s not performing specific action because artistically it’s never been done or works for that scene. No, it’s Tarr shooting the scene according to the material and the reality of the situation. It’s never edited either, always uncut long takes that can be extremely boring or interesting or make you feel absolutely nothing. That’s what makes Béla Tarr one of the most unique minds in cinema and his slow moving cinema a joy to experience as a curious person.

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