The Turin Horse (A Torinói ló) is a Hungarian/Swiss/French/ German co-production co-directed by Béla Tarr (Damnation and Werckmeister Harmonies) and his wife Agnes Hranitzky. Tarr has claimed that this will be his last film and that it is the summation of his work bringing together all his techniques, themes and preoccupations, but has this demanding but fascinating filmmaker bowed out with a bum note?
The Turin Horse is 154 minutes long and composed entirely of only 30 shots, a typical Tarr device. Aside from the beginning, an anecdote told in voiceover about Nietzsche’s mental breakdown after seeing the cruel whipping of a stubborn horse, the film follows the daily routines of Ohlsdorfer (János Derzsi) and his daughter (Erika Bók). We see them on six apparently consecutive days as they get up, dress (Ohlsdorfer’s daughter dressing him as he is lame in one arm), saddle up their horse, eat, clean up and stare expressionlessly out the window at their bleak and wind torn land. We see these activities repeated several times though each time with slight variations in camera angle and point of view. Eventually, and for no apparent reason, their horse refuses to work and then to eat and drink, which is the beginning of the end for Ohlsdorfer and his daughter.
Apart from one awkward sequence involving a visitor from the town, the wider world is almost entirely absent. Apart from the opening shot, a staggering long take that circles around the horse as it drags a cart across a twisting and rocky road, the camera barely leaves the house, only travelling as far as their nearby shed and well. Throughout the film, their house is being constantly beaten by an almost cataclysmic gale. Ohlsdorfer and his daughter are isolated in their house, constantly acting out their daily routines and silently trudging through the daily grind. When their horse refuses to co-operate, their slow decline into destitution is horribly detailed and movingly inescapable.
The film is a grim, slow and thematically complex work, revealing Tarr’s tendency towards symbolism and philosophy, but one that is thoroughly engrossing and visually dynamic. Nietzsche’s breakdown haunts the film, though it never impacts upon the film’s slight plot, creating instead a sense of the darkness, desperation and futility of life. The world outside is a void and the film often hints at what might be a coming apocalypse, especially as water and even light begin to diminish. At one point, Ohlsdorfer and his daughter attempt to escape only to be driven back by what are apparently even worse conditions just over the hill. When they return, they never speak about what they have seen. The film is almost entirely hopeless, ending with a harrowing shot that is eloquent of loss and the acceptance of the end despite being, like the rest of the film, incredibly muted.
However, the film is not entirely devoid of hope. In fact, the film is deeply rewarding, acting as a reminder that the basic essentials of life are so all consuming yet so simple. This is revealed in the relationship between Ohlsdorfer and his daughter. Their silence may initially seem cold yet, as the film progresses, it becomes clear that their relationship is strong yet simple, almost transcending words. In the performance of their daily tasks, they move silently around each other, one picking up a task just as the other has completed the one before it, in a way that is vaguely reminiscent of a choreographed dance number. Similarly, their treatment of the horse seems initially to be merely functional, almost cruel, until we see the daughter in particular regard it with a lot of sadness and tenderness. The camera too treats the horse with respect, particularly in the harrowing opening shot which details the horse’s ordeals and when it frequently frames the horse in soul-searching close-ups just as it does Ohlsdorfer and his daughter. Ultimately, the film is deeply compassionate – although it does not entirely partake of the characters’ desperation and sadness, it does regard them non-critically and sympathetically.
Similarly, the film often lingers on some staggeringly beautiful images, all composed with the utmost care and skill, yet with the appearance of a remarkable spontaneity and deeply evocative of an almost mystical world. It is hard to be entirely depressed by a film of much frequent beauty. In one startling moment, Ohlsdorfer’s daughter stares out of the window at us, her face morphing into that of her father as the image is obscured by the debris of the roaring gale. At another moment, Ohlsdorfer and his daughter paused during their dinner to contemplate a sudden and eerie change in the sound of the wind, which powerfully evokes a malign force just outside their window. Coupled with these images, and many others also, is the sense that the film works entirely subjectively on each member of the audience. The film is deeply rewarding, becoming almost a personal and solo journey through the film’s long running time, where each feeling raised is due more to one’s own preoccupations and insights than those of an all-seeing director.
The Turin Horse is a beautifully realized and poetic film and it is a deeply fascinating and involving work. The film’s performances are brilliantly evocative despite the film’s lack of dialogue. The film may not have many encouraging things to say about life, but it does reveal much that is worth living for, if only to see a great work of art by an artist who has a highly evolved and thematically complex voice and a genuine dedication to their chosen medium.