When Hungarian filmmaker Béla Tarr says that filmmaking “is not like shooting a movie, it is a part of life,” the conviction in his voice is palpable. And yet to approach Tarr’s melancholy vision of reality there is truly only the work to guide us. From his films of the late 1970s and early ’80s (including Family Nest (1977) and The Outsider (1981)), with their vérité style of employing non-professional actors, improvised dialogue, and hand-held cameras, through to the magisterial distances of Satan’s Tango (1994) and Werckmeister Harmonies (2000), Tarr’s films follow simple stories in order to convey an experience of a situation, or an atmosphere; to create what he calls the “objective reality of the story.” And while much has been made by a few critics of the endurance factor of watching a later Tarr film—long, elaborate shots, immense depth of focus, and claustrophobic repetition are signature to his style—first exposure to his work punctures all conventional expectations of cinematic time and space.
My first viewing of a Tarr film, Werckmeister Harmonies, was a revelation. After a delay at the Canadian border en route to the Vancouver Film Festival, and a harried drive to arrive on time and take our seats, the camera’s eye opened upon the shambling interior of a bar in some remote outpost where three drunk patrons were enacting a solar eclipse—one the sun, another the moon, and the earth circling between—all under the wide-eyed direction of János Valuska, the village postman. That ten minute take cast an immersive, otherworldly spell that mirrors the rhythm of Tarr’s work as a whole—distinctive, ongoing, and resonant.
The opportunity to assess Tarr’s work has increased profoundly in the past two years: His early films—The Outsider, Prefab People (1982), and Family Nest—were released on DVD in 2005, followed last year by Almanac of Fall (1984), Damnation (1988), and Werckmeister Harmonies, and finally, this year, Tarr’s seven-hour masterwork, Satan’s Tango. This happy development is the result of Facets Multi-Media. Based in Chicago, Facets has played a crucial role in the meteoric rise of the DVD market for European “arthouse” films and increased the audiences for early films from Alexander Sokurov, Werner Herzog, Alejandro Jodorowsky, and many others. For Tarr, this has resulted in a much wider audience and a growing number of critics familiar with his body of work, as his reputation begins to morph from rebel outsider to venerable auteur—a reputation that was cemented by the Cannes premiere this spring of his first film in seven years, The Man From London.
The Man from London continues an aesthetic that Tarr insists is unbroken back to his first film. And despite the “Old Testament” plot—a term he wryly uses to describe his own films—and the usual grim circumstances looming in stark black and white, this latest venture seems to offer new directions for the 52-year-old filmmaker. For the first time the film’s central character is played by someone well known in Hollywood—British actress Tilda Swinton—and the script is a more or less faithful adaptation of a populist crime novel by Belgian author George Simenon. All indications—including Tarr’s own—are that the film more directly engages film noir conceits only flirted with in the past (most notably in Damnation). In short, The Man from London appears to inch Tarr toward an increased accessibility.
I spoke with Tarr on the telephone in December 2006, as he was preparing to return to Bastia, Corsica, for final shooting.
Fionn Meade You are in the process of finishing The Man From London. How is it going?
Béla Tarr We will finish shooting soon. We shot the first period in 2005; that was nine days in Bastia. Then in March 2006, we shot for eight days in Hungary. We will finish the movie, with 23 total shooting days, in Bastia.
FM The film has an unusual history; you had to overcome a lot of difficulties to make it.
BT Yes. Our French co-producer, Humbert Balsan, committed suicide just before filming began, which was terrible. He was a real friend of mine, and you know that if somebody commits suicide, it’s always a kind of betrayal. Also, his company wasn’t able to fulfill the production work. The bank stopped the cash flow. We had to reorganize. Then a new co-producer, another Frenchman who produced Werckmeister Harmonies, came on board, and he’s doing the French production work.
FM But the chances are good that it will show at Cannes in May?
BT I want to be ready. I promised the producers, the investors, and my friend Humbert who died; he wanted to show this movie in Cannes. I want to dedicate this movie to him and his memory. He was the first producer in my life who wasn’t a kind of enemy. The relationship between the director and the producer is always something of a fight, but I must say I never fought with him. I trusted him and he trusted me.
FM The film is also unusual in that your frequent collaborator, the novelist László Krasznahorkai, did work on the script, but it is based on the novel L’Homme de Londres by Georges Simenon.
BT It’s a long story as to how I found this project. It was after the 1994 Satan’s Tango screening at the New York Film Festival. I got a letter from an American producer who wanted to work with me; he had sent a script that I really didn’t like, and I refused immediately. But he had another idea, a short story by Heinrich von Kleist, and I liked that very much, but it was an incredibly expensive project, so I proposed this Simenon story to him. I remembered only the atmosphere of the story from reading it nearly 25 years ago. It is a kind of film noir, really. I proposed it to him, and he bought the rights to the option. Afterward he left the production, but the story stayed.
FM In most of Simenon’s stories, including The Man From London, something unusual happens to a normal person that sets them on a different path.
BT What do you mean?
FM Well, in this case, one of the main characters is a switchman at a seaside railway station who witnesses a killing in the harbor below, and when the murderer leaves the scene, the switchman approaches to find that the suitcase left behind is filled with money.
BT It’s a very simple criminal story, but really not a criminal story, of course. This is a deep human proletarian drama.
FM You’ve described your films as beginning with social dramas that progress to ontological themes and, ultimately, cosmic stories.
BT I’m always doing social films. I have a social sensibility. In all of my movies you see poor, ugly, sad, and damned people. You have to understand, I was 22 when I made my first film [Családi tüzfészek (Family Nest), 1979]. I was terribly young and angry and I really wanted to change the whole world. So I didn’t knock on the door, I beat the door. What you could see in the theater or on the screen was fake, fake, fake! And I just wanted to show the real reality. That was my first experience in the cinema. Afterward, step by step as I did my movies, I discovered that the problems are not so simple—not only are there social problems, but problems that are more ontological, and now more cosmic.
But please, don’t split my life! (laughter) Don’t say that there was the social period and now it is a more existential one. No, I’m talking always about the same thing. If you want, you can say it’s always the same movie, but I’m going deeper, deeper, deeper. This is the difference. Of course, the style is changing, too. But you want to see behind things. You cannot tell the same thing in the same form. The form is always changing, but I’m always thinking about poor people and human society and the human condition, as in my first movie.
FM Do you feel as though your new film is connected to the last three?
BT As I told you, every one of the movies is connected. Don’t forget that I am the father of them. It is really, really stupid to split them.
FM William Faulkner said that he was writing the same book over and over again.
BT Yes, and I like his books!
FM Is part of being able to go further and deeper in exploring the human condition dependent on working with the same group of people: Ágnes Hranitzky, your partner and editor; composer Mihály Vig; and writer László Krasznahorkai? Is the continuity with your collaborators an important part in going further?
BT Yes, now we are four, Ágnes, Mihály, László, and me. This is a closed group. We are thinking together about the movie. But you have to know one thing: We never talk about art. We talk about concrete things, concrete events, what people eat, how they talk and move. We are thinking about the whole fucking real life.
FM And part of that is finding the right real places, as the locations are a main character in your films.
BT Of course.
FM And do you do that collectively? Do you discuss where the film needs to take place—for instance, the choice of Bastia in Corsica as a crucial location in the current production?
BT No, that’s my job, to find the location and decide the visual language. László is a really good writer with his own literary language, but the filming is my job, my responsibility.
FM And with the new film, you decided to shoot in this small harbor in Corsica, though the Simenon story is actually set in Dieppe.
BT I have seen all the harbors in Europe. (laughter) It’s definitely fact. And I have seen a lot of fishermen and the reality of these places. When you are hunting a location it’s not just the location—you always check your imagination, what is the true thing in a place, what stays with you after the visit.
FM You have to know when it feels right. You’ve described that when you start a film, you have to know the whole rhythm of it in your mind beforehand.
BT Yes, I know the whole movie before we start. I have to. We have a lot of people in the crew and we have to know what the work is. We have not a lot of time and not a lot of money.
FM Often, Mihály Vig will compose the music or part of it before you start filming. Can you talk about that choice?
BT Yes, because the music is also a kind of protagonist. The music, the set, the landscape, and the actors work together. You cannot separate them. This is the rhythm.
FM Because the music is composed before the filming, to me there is a quality of memory to the sound in your film, almost as if it is guiding the story at times. As a viewer, it feels as though crucial scenes have already been dreamed and the music signals a retracing.
BT I don’t know. I never think about that. For me, it’s coming up together; you cannot split the problems of making a film. What is the process? First, we have a story—but we really don’t care about the story. I’m listening for the atmosphere. I try to find really good actors, a really good location, and the best music, and afterward I finalize the script, a precise breakdown for other people. That’s all.
FM It’s more of a situation that you create?
BT Yes, absolutely. I’m listening for the personalities. That is the main issue, the personalities of the actors, the personalities of the location, and the actual, real people living there. You know?
FM You’ve said that your films are efforts to have the presence of the actors’ real personalities come forth, but also the atmosphere of a real place.
BT Yes, that’s correct.
FM With János Valuska in Werckmeister Harmonies, you created one of the most memorable characters in recent film. With his silent film era naive looks and the camera’s focus on his gait as he makes his postman rounds, János connects the multiple narratives taking place in the town, and ultimately it is he who bears witness to the chaos and brutality that erupts in the film. His role is unlike the ensemble nature of your other works, as János is clearly the main protagonist. Did you know when you met the actor Lars Rudolph that you could then make the film?
BT Yes, and before, not. He was one of the biggest reasons we were able to make the film.
FM How did you know he was the character János?
BT I sensed it. When I saw him the first time, how he was sitting in the corner, I said immediately that he’s the right person.
FM It was the gesture of his physicality?
BT It was a feeling. Don’t forget, many times you decide something with your heart.
FM In The Man From London, you have cast some of the actors you’ve worked with before, like Erika Bók, who played the young girl Estike in Satan’s Tango—but you also have, for the first time, an actress with a Hollywood background, Tilda Swinton. What brought that about?
BT I really don’t care if someone has a Hollywood background or not; I listen for their personality. When I’m thinking about her, for instance, I’m never thinking about an actress. She’s an excellent actress, but I think of her. For me she is Tilda. We have a friendship, and I think about her as a friend.
FM You’ve said that you create a familial kind of atmosphere on your films, and sometimes actors haven’t been aware of what they’re entering into when they choose to work with you. The experience of the long take, for instance: a more experiential expectation than simply acting the story.
BT May I say that everyone is completely different. If everybody has a different cultural background, a different mother language, and a totally different life, the most important thing is knowing the differences.
I have to have a sensibility, and I have to feel the actors, how they say something, how they touch, how I can work with them. And the most important thing: they have to trust me. Because it’s as if someone is jumping out a window, and they have to be sure that I am down there and will take care of them. This is most important: They have to feel and know that they can trust me. And I never betray them.
Of course, I also trust them. I know that they are giving not only for me but for the movie and the audience. They have to open themselves; that’s how they show you. Emotionally they are totally naked on the screen. And that’s terribly important! You have to respect very much this situation.
FM There are moments in the films when characters are in very exposed situations. In Damnation Karrer gets down on all fours to confront the dogs in the industrial field; in Werckmeister János is watching the men storm the hospital building. From his hiding place he sees the rioters come upon the naked old man in the shower, and the moment is held suspended without any resolve. Or in Satan’s Tango where the young girl Estike tortures her cat before ultimately taking her own life. There are moments of naked confrontation that seem to connect metaphorically in your films.
BT I don’t understand, because you use this poetical word “metaphor.” You have to know that a movie is the most simple thing in the world. If you are a writer and you have an ashtray like the one I have in front of me now, you can write 20 pages about this ashtray, with metaphors and symbols, you can say a lot of theoretical things, because everything depends on the imagination of the reader.
But I am a filmmaker; I have just the concrete, definitive ashtray. And the question is how am I able to show you the ashtray. In this case, I’m able to develop emotions from you, but it’s always physical, concrete, and clear. I cannot use any metaphors. I cannot use any symbols. What I have are just some lenses, which are objective. I tell you and show you real things.
Of course, if I am able to create a real, good situation that is human, and if I have good actors who are being in this situation, if I am able to develop some real human emotions before your eyes . . . in this case you can feel something that is a little bit more than the physical concrete reality.
FM By allowing the situation to be the story?
FM It seems like the idea of character in your films is not so much an idea as the shape of what happens.
BT May I say something about story? What we call “the story” is always similar.
FM You’ve previously called them Old Testament stories.
BT Yes, we have no new stories. All conflicts and all crime, everything that we are doing, we have done it in the Old Testament. But everyone does it differently. When you see a Shakespeare drama, when you read a Dostoevsky novel, the people are not the same; how they do the story is the big question. We do our old story in our way. In our way!
FM When did this understanding of story, that it is how the story is told and not what the story is, become clear to you? I know you did an adaptation of Macbeth years ago—
BT It was 1982.
FM Did telling that story play a part?
BT No, I had this idea nearly from the beginning.
FM Did growing up after the Hungarian Revolution, which had its 50th anniversary this year, affect you? Did growing up with an awareness of this silenced history play into your work?
BT I was born in 1955. The ’56 Revolution wasn’t a main question in my life. No, we lived our normal life. We went to school, and when I stopped to think about society, I started to think about the problems around me. It was something, when my brain and my heart started to work. I was nearly 16, and that was when I shot my first movie, an 8mm. It was at that time that I got interested in social problems. Not connected to history. Of course, I know history and I know what the Hungarian history is. But at that time, everyone in the young intelligentsia was a strong leftist.
FM What was the story you told in that first film?
BT It was about the Gypsy Workers Brigade. They had sent a letter to the General Secretary of the Communist party, János Kádár, saying, Please let us leave the country because we have no work, and we have no chance for a real human life. It was really strange to me, the style of this letter, like when the Russian muzhik would send a letter to the Czar. That impressed me, and moved me, and was the reason I started to do this short movie. It was only 20 minutes.
FM You found a situation that you had to tell.
BT Well, this situation was a little bit international and a little bit eternal.
FM The situation was eternal?
FM In Damnation Karrer wants another man’s wife, in Satan’s Tango Futaki and Schmidt plot to steal the farm collective’s money owed to the townspeople and run away. Is using a simple story important to you in order to focus on the atmosphere, or as you’ve called it, the objective reality of the story?
BT This eternity stuff is definitely very important for me. The days are passing, time is running; we will die, everybody has just one life. That’s why it’s very important how this life is going. The quality of this life. We are not in the church, where people are told lies.
FM I read that in Simenon’s case, he would write down the characteristics of people for a story. What they looked like, et cetera. He would write these on the outside of a manila envelope until he had enough characteristics, and then he would write the whole story, or novel, straight through in ten days. More of an experiential way of writing.
BT I don’t really care about his way. Everyone has a different way. We are filmmakers and we are working with real flesh and blood. You can’t imagine too many things. We have just reality. That’s what I told you, very simple.
FM But in a scene like in Werckmeister, where you have 600 people in one very long shot—that must take a lot of preparation and planning.
BT We did it in just one day.
FM How did you convey to or tell people in the film how you wanted them to act?
BT That is my secret, guy.
FM Your secret?
BT Yes, mine. Like when you have some secret recipes, you never tell to anybody. I have to keep it.
FM In Satan’s Tango there’s only one scene in a seven-hour film that’s shot with a hand-held camera. It’s in the forest, when Estike’s brother shows her the money tree.
BT Yes, because the steadycam guy was late. We had no time, darkness was coming, we had to shoot.
FM I was wondering if it was accidental or intentional. Satan’s Tango was something you actually wanted to make in the ’80s, but you had to wait an entire decade.
BT Yes, because they didn’t let me do it.
FM The State?
BT They said I couldn’t do it because The Almanac of Fall made them terribly upset. That was why they said, better if I don’t do. (laughter) After Almanac I couldn’t do anything. Finally, I helped found a small film studio in Budapest and I convinced them to do a feature film. So we did Damnation out of the system. I really had no chance in Hungary after The Almanac of Fall. There was only that one chance, to go out of the Hungarian film industry, out of the whole fucking system.
FM And that led to a shift in style, did it not?
BT I didn’t think about that, but just the next step. Afterward Ágnes and I went to Berlin and stayed there until the wall fell down and the world changed after.
FM Then you were able to come back to Hungary?
BT We had a new system here and I could start Satan’s Tango.
FM The film you really wanted to make. In Satan’s Tango there’s no singular narrative, like in Werckmeister where we follow Valuska’s path. There are differing points of view that tell the story and repeat scenes from different perspectives. How is the new film structured?
BT You want to know too much. I would like to surprise you.
FM Okay, that sounds good. Is Mihály Vig composing the music?
BT Yes, Mihály, and Ágnes, and the DP is Fred Kelemen. He was my student in Berlin in the early ’90s, and we have known each other for years. I like his movies, and I just called him to come and help with the film.
FM With Kelemen directing his own well-received films like Fallen and Nightfall, and György Fehér, a past collaborator of yours, making stark films like Passion, do you feel as though your cinematic language has directly influenced the filmmakers you know?
BT Yes, but not only them. György Fehér produced Satan’s Tango and I worked on two of his movies. We have a friendship, that’s all.
FM A lot of people have tried to ask you about your influences. The only one that seems really clear to me is the work of Miklós Jancsó, who is from an earlier generation in Hungary. Do you feel a connection to his work?
BT Yes, when I was young I really liked his movies. I respect him very much. He is the most important Hungarian filmmaker, and one of the most important European filmmakers, because he was the first Hungarian filmmaker who had his own language. The others in Eastern Europe were dependent on the politics. They always identified in relation to the political. Many Hungarian films now are totally empty as a result of the tension from the early ’60s in Hungary, when the film industry was strong with political movies. After, when the political situation changed, we had no fathers. And no longer dependent on the politics, they are lost sheep now. No father, nothing to rebel against. And they didn’t listen enough to get their own language, their own style.
FM Your language is the pacing, the rhythm, and the sound.
BT For me the movie is not the story, it is mostly rhythm, camera, pictures, sound, noises, and the human eyes.
FM In the use of sound, you often have an extreme style. The conductor in the dance scene in Satan’s Tango repeats over and over in every possible variation that Irimiás and Petrina are returning to the town to collect the money from the farm collective. Some of these scenes seem improvised, yet at the same time very specific and exact. How much of it is improvised?
BT Again, it is totally different. Some people like very much when the text is written down. But others, they can give more if I don’t—
FM Determine things.
BT Absolutely. If I don’t lock them, I have more of a chance. But everyone is different. And you have to always work with a different key.
FM You’re the own who knows which key to work with?
BT I have to feel it. That’s what I told you. If I have no sensibility, I am lost.
FM You’ve talked about the audience as a partner in your films.
BT Because I am working for them.
FM What does that mean to you?
BT When I’m making a film, directing a scene, on location, working with people, I really don’t listen for the audience. But I never forget, I have to tell the truth. What I really think.
FM So, it’s more an issue of trust.
BT Yes, I trust very much my audience. I am always sure the audience is more sensible than me, and more intelligent than me, and much more clever than me. That’s why I’m one hundred percent sure that I have to do my best. Because if I don’t do my best, they will leave me. It’s not about the story. I have to tell them the truth or I will be lost.
FM So far you have been lucky in this respect; your films have a devoted following that only seems to be growing.
BT Yes, I am lucky, but it is not only luck. It is a kind of mentality.
FM That sort of agreement between you and the audience?
BT Yes. I have to always be fair. If I’m not fair, in this case, I have to go to hell.
FM That makes me think of the phrase “The sound of the bells does not reach here,” the town where Satan’s Tango takes place.
BT No, no. You’ve started to talk again about some metaphor. (laughter) Don’t be too intellectual, okay? When you watch my movies, please don’t speculate. Just trust your eyes and listen to your heart. I’m always telling this to the audience, don’t think too much, just listen.
FM Just listen?
BT Just listen for the details . . . And the main issue, of course, too.