CERTIFIED WEIRD: Béla Tarr’s Sátántangó (1996) is a masterpiece

The seven-hour myopic, nihilistic, and dystopian Hungarian masterpiece from Béla Tarr, Sátántangó, captures a moment in time closer to the actual reality of the situation better than almost any other film in existence. It’s painfully long and exhausting, by design, and doesn’t take any creative liberties off the table. It’s a film with so much pessimism embedded into its code that any other line of thought is almost impermissible considering the circumstance and lack of authority. The shared apathy of the characters towards themselves, others, and their dire circumstance is a danger to all and Tarr explores this utter disconnect from the reality, a pseudo-reality showing people for what they are, not idealizing a piece of this story. It’s disheartening, cold in the depiction, constantly raining that never ceases to stop, creating an atmosphere of distrust and egocentricity that poison’s the town. It’s an impossibly cruel seven-hour watch and hard to imagine the film conceptually, but is the one film, outside of a similar project in terms of length and story structure, Masaki Kobayashi’s 9-hour masterpiece The Human Condition, that authentically conveys what it means to be human and the human disposition. It’s a towering achievement in storytelling and I’m incredibly happy art like this exist in the world.

Now, without further ado, here’s my notes from the entire watch. Detailed notes with opinions and quotes scattered throughout. Admittedly, it’s better to watch the film first before diving into these notes, but could be a good companion piece to the film as well. Either way, enjoy…

ACT ONE (The News is they are coming)

  • The cow dolly opening shot was magical, showing an empty world devoid of people
  • The extreme close-ups between interactions, especially when characters are concealing secrets is perfect. It felt extremely important without all the narrative context – the interview between the Schmidt’s and Futaki sets the stage for the entire experience
  • The ticking of the clock, the pounding of the rain on the ground, the slick paper being counted up to pay off debts…Belta Tarr has this world beating to the same rhythm
  • The tension is palpable. No one in the room is trustworthy and we can see that through their restrictive exterior, not revealing too much of what’s internalized in their character

ACT TWO (We are Resurrected) 

  • The establishing shots are one of a kind, long lingering static shots that fully immerse in the atmosphere of the shot. The sense of movement in everything BUT the characters or camera. It’s sensational
    • For example, the scene of the poet traversing the government building, signing official documents and moving through crowded, LOUD hallways
  • The blocking, mise-en-scene in both the visual and audio language of the film is flawless
  • The scene with the poet and the captain: “Outlaws” and “you are the law” were fascinating conversations
    • The captain actor delivered that scene with authority. It lingers over his face and doesn’t cut away for reaction shots. It’s all told through his exterior and what he’s trying to convey to the audience. 
    • It’s a cold moment as he’s asking the poet (Irimias) to essentially betray his upbringing in devious ways.
  • The wider man in a beanie (Petrina) and poet in the fedora hat (Irimias) have a strange bond, but a dynamic that makes sense – one is in awe of the other, but there’s a mutual respect. However, their disposition is frightening, as they clearly have no empathy
  • INCREDIBLE SCENE: The café where Irimias proclaims “we will stick dynamite up their nose” and the room is completely frozen in time – the dolly out had my jaw drop, and felt that moment unlike anything I’ve ever experienced
  • Irimias leaves town returning to the cattle farm, amazing transition scene on the farms in heavy rain

ACT THREE (to know something)

  • The adaptation from Tarr is perfect. He adapts the film medium, rather than adapting the material to fit the medium. It’s cinematic throughout but also drawn out, romanticized, in ways the novel had intended. Flawless adaptation without creative constraint 
  • The slow establishing shots through the binocular lense with the ringing bell sensation in the musical score, creates a damning atmosphere 
    • The binoculars peered into houses and observed people, while settling on a black sheep playing in wet mud. The intrusive nature of the cinematography is sensational. Each shot is incredibly detailed and amazingly executed. 
    • Completely awe-stuck by the visual element 
      • The shots back out of the binoculars to reveal a heavy set main writing notes, one of his notes in particular: “Futaki is terrified of something” and later, “Futaki is terrified of death” before starling himself
  • The man has detailed notes, with hand drawn sketches of the town,and reports on every single thing he happens to see out his window
    • “Futaki…quietly…slips….out of the wall…and crosses over to the stables…and hides….by the wall”
  • The way the camera captures the doctor, in medium shots that show his world that sits atop his belly to slow push-in close ups when he starts to doze off. The camera conveys how invested he is in the spying and obsessions
  • The doctor goes on a journey that leads to him being laid face down in the back of a wagon, barely enough energy to continue living.
  • I sense a great deal of resentment in the doctor character and unspecified rage towards people

ACT FOUR (The Work of the Spider)

  • The bartender sits staring out the window. He yearns for something more than this. He listens day-after-day to the patrons spouting their nonsense that he’s heard day-after-day. 
    • The long dolly pull from a close up to a wide shot of the bar from the bartenders face is a thing of beauty
    • The ominous score is terrific and builds such an atmosphere.
    • We get another shot frozen in time that captures the entire room with the same music, a visual motif I fucking love with all my heart
  • The Bartender is scared Petrina and Irimias will take everything from him, as he starts to slam the broken glasses in his backroom. The rumor of them returning is starting to spread across the community like wildfire
  • It reaches Mrs. Schmidt in the bar, who I believe is still holding the money, who goes to the ground and touches the earth 

ACT FIVE (Unraveling) 

  • Act five is ALL visual, told through the perspective of a young girl, Etsika, as she and (presumably) her brother bury something in the woods (money)
  • The landscape shots are phenomenal with the whistling wind and the girl’s dejected stare
  • It’s a highly isolated section of the film. Depressingly, so. 
  • The girl is obviously troubled and spends many scenes torturing a small cat – it was hard to watch. Visceral reaction to something so cruel from a child and essentially a kitten
  • She’s the only one in every single shot. Horrible alienation. 
  • The circular structure of the episodics is wonderful — we see the girl come into contact with the Doctor, who we saw in the previous act and explains the situation where he ends up in the woods.
  • The troubled girl poisons herself, ending her sad existence 

ACT SIX (The Work of the Spider II, The Devils Tit, Satantango)

  • Act six returns to the bar, where most of the downtrodden town is meeting for the impending doom on Irimias and Petrina’s arrival in town. One man in particular decries their situation in an endless loop
    • Characters continue to talk over his loud shouting, or “plodding”  as he proclaims in his speech
    • His revelation is the reason Irimias and Petrina are coming but he never says the exact reason. We only get the sense that he’s nervous and terrified. It’s all a giant mystery holding the center of town together in what feels like fear
  • Long shot of Futaki sitting in the rain with a big eating out of the dirt. Static shot with full framing, that lingers on the pig even after Futaki is dragged inside by the bartender 
    • Tarr’s insistence on holding shot even after the subject vacates the frame is part of what makes this film so special 
  • “That I, who could live till the end of time, must go away from here, all the way down to the worms”
  • The Bartender shows the discontempt for Irimias, as if the entire village owes him their lives
  • “There’s an 8+ minute (if not longer) dance scene, the same dance scene we see in the previous act from the little girl’s perspective, but this time from inside the bar 
    • the changing perspectives is one of Tarr’s best elements of Satantango
  • “Tango, tango, tango” 
    • Now the scene and it’s importance makes sense contextually, this is Satan’s tango before the impending doom arrives. This scene in that context is everything and the midpoint of the film, as the town crier makes his plea while dancing: “Tango! Tango! Tango!” “Is my life…Tango!” 
    • The entire town falls asleep, drunk, all lifeless around the bar: leaning on tables, on the floor, hanging off a bench, glasses tipped over, and the slow dolly captures all the chaos. 
    • The camera movements in this film are immaculate, covering so much that seems inconsequential but tells an entire story in the movement. It’s either static shots with the characters, wind or some other factor moving inside the frame, or dolly shots of static characters that burns their memory into the camera 
    • The accordion stops, all we hear is the sound of dripping water, the tango has ended
  • “That was all” as he starts up the accordion in a deadened, silent room 
  • “Drawn out by the sweet sound of the accordion, the spiders in the bar launch their frenzied attack.”
    • Everything and everyone connected by the interconnecting spiderwebs. A perfect metaphor. The invisible network remains intact

INTERMISSION ACT SEVEN (Irimias Makes a Speech)

  • The small girl, from act four, lays sprawled out on a table with the entire town surrounding her silent – she has succumbed to the same poison she used on her cat
  • Cut to Irimias close-up, who is positioned behind the first camera shot, speaking to the townspeople: “I’m bewildered and shocked. Yet I pull myself together. I share in this broken-hearted mother’s agony. In a mothers constant mourning and sorrow. In the grief of losing the one who is dearest to our hearts.” 
    • “Your short sighted dreams are shattered”
    • He speaks to the breaking of communism and the farm, and how it’s broken these simple minded people 
    • “You thought a bird in the hand had two in the bush”
    • “This is weakness. Sinful weakness. This is cowardice. Sinful cowardice”
    • “Misery has remained misery” 
  • Irimias ask for “capital” to start a farm so that no one is powerless and the town comes one-by-one and donates to the cause, silently, without a single word uttered in response 
  • Entire scene is shot from the towns perspective, with close-ups of Irimias talking 

ACT 8 (The perspective, as seen from the front)

  • Mrs. Schmidt has a tryst with every single person in the town, including Irimias 
  • Irimias gives another speech: saying the towns people have given him confidence above all else
    • “Go ahead and think of the future” while telling them they’re all free
    • Again, the scene ends in silence from the people. Only Irimias speaks. As there’s a transition shot where they walk away slowly into the muddy fields
  • In the same scene, we see the town finally lash out. This time directed at the bartender
  • Futaki puts something in a knapsack and seemingly runs
  • Static wide shot of the town destroying a piece of furniture, angrily. The tone has changed drastically since Irimias departure. The shot is vacated by the actors slowly, as the camera, once again, lingers on the setting of the scene with no subjects.
  • It’s a mass exodus from the farming village, as a group hits the road
    • Long full shots of transition on a wet, dirty road
  • The Silence during this act stands out, as it’s a moment of despair, and the characters have little to say outside their exhaustion.
  • The unmotivated camera movements of the scenery and items tells the story more than the dialogue

ACT 9 (Going to heaven? Having nightmares?)

  • The inverse of the previous act, where we start directly after Irimias speech, when the two parties diverge from one another. The farmers go one way, Irimias goes another. Perspective driven filmmaking
  • “Our time has come”
  • Irimias nationwide cobweb that has trapped people, relating back to the theme of spiders, and their current predicament 
  • The long transitions through the Kremlin and government buildings, with horses coming in and out of the frame, and the characters in a small corner of a wide shot.
  • “because everything has its place, far away from reality. There it has its place, where it will always be, the only authentic place” – Irimias 
    • Irimias clearly toiling with his decisions and heresy towards the farming village
  • Payar is awoken out of bed by Irimias and his colleagues to ask for explosives, the exchange is quick but slow in the delivery
    • “Don’t take me for a liberator. Think of me as a tragic researcher, investigating why everything is as terrible as it is.” – Irimias 
  • Irimias falls asleep after Pauar leaves and the act comes to an end

ACT 10 (The Perspective, As Seen from the back) 

  • The men start to question what has happened with their money given to Irimias, angry with the world and turning on one another
  • Irimias returns and detest what they’ve become – calling them ungrateful piglets. The angry men sit in silence, Irimias controls them
    • He says the plan needs to be put on hold, stating certain groups with vague intentions can’t submit to the idea 
    • He goes on to say observe and report rumors that involve them and stay out of things that don’t concern them, the farmers want to know how they’ll survive 
  • All close-ups, never showing the full room or reaction shots. The stationary editing is essential to telling this story honestly 
  • First time Irimias receives push back, calling them without honor or preservation, as he gives some money back decrying their pleas 
  • The villagers eventually give in and Irimias tells them “I’ll try and forget this disgraceful event” and then leaves
    • The exchange is full of outright hypocrisy and his intentions are clearly not in the best interest of the town 
  • Again, the transition shots of solely their faces in the rainy truck, a real sense of depression and lifelessness, set to the sad sound of the keyboard/accordion musical theme
    • It never stops raining in Bulgaria, apparently. A dour type of rain. It never gives the characters solemn, always being crushed by dropping pellets of rain 
  • Irimias hands out 1,000 forints to the villagers to make them comply with his demands
    • Irimias takes them for fools and dolls out enough to keep them preoccupied while needing sworn allegiances 

ACT 11 (Nothing but Work and Worries)

  • Two government officials type up an official report from Irimias spying on the villagers, calling them vile names
    • The two spend five minutes in a static shot eating afterwards
  • Irimias states the villagers are “extremely stupi,” “a cross between crude insensitivity and chillingly inane emptiness in a bottomless pit of unbridled dark,” “innarculate complexity,” irreconcilable anxiety stiffened in the dense darkness of an inconsolable being”
    • Of course, the officials condense the existentialist into palatable government messaging 
    • “He looks like a withered cucumber and his mental ability is low” and says the Schmidt will choose self-destruction 
    • “Weak and sentimentality” and “sexually immature” 
  • “Is it raining again” “yes”
  • The end of act narration makes clear how this village altering event is just another day at work for the two government clerks, nothing out of the ordinary
    • A meaningless job for a meaningless life. Irimias and the entire story of Satantango has no apparent meaning other than the sense that none of it matters, and life will go on

FINAL ACT (The Circle Closes)

  • We return back to the doctor, 13 days after he fell in the woods and Etsika (the young girl) passed away, he struggles to readjust himself
  • “Cosmic economy” 
  • He returns to an utterly barren wasteland with no signs of humanity
    • The slow shot of a muddy puddle, with isolated church bells ringing in the background, show a disconnection from reality
    • He has no earthly understanding that all the villagers have vacated and he is left totally and utterly alone
  • The next shot is that of a man banging the church bells in a psychotic state, not seeing the world but only the bells, yelling “the Turks are coming”
    • It’s the same bells Futaki hears at the very start of the seven hour journey
  • “I’ve mistaken a common bell for the great bell” – Doctor, back at his home 
  • He begins to board up his windows, further isolating himself and taking himself away from the spying from earlier in the film
    • He boards up so much of his window that the screen turns to black. The final image of the Sátántangó is the doctor boarding up his home
  • “One morning, near the end of October, not long before the first drops…of the insufferably long…autumn rains…fell on the parched, sodic ground…on the western side of the estate when…the mud of the sticking bog…makes the roads…impassable…cutting off the town…until the first frosts…Futaki Woke…to the sound of bells”
  • Film ends in the same place it began, as the doctor reads his narration.

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