The nine films made by Béla Tarr between 1979 and 2011 amount to one of the most powerful and influential bodies of work in contemporary cinema. Jacques Rancière, who has written a book about the filmmaker, sees him as a major artist of the “”after-time” (1) that followed the failure of the communist promise, whose long sequence shots offer something beyond the cycles of repetition by the quality of their attention to the still intact belief in a better life. Tarr has publicly stated that his ninth film,
The Turin Horse (2012), is his last. Emmanuel Burdeau spoke to him last fall when he was visiting artist at Le Fresnoy Studio des Arts Contemporains.
Are you still resolved not to make another film? Many filmmakers in your position have gone back on such positions.
I’m sticking to it. In fact, you were the first to know about my decision to stop filmmaking. It was in our interview for Cahiers du cinéma, about The Man from London (2008), that I first made that announcement: “One more movie and them I stop.”
It was difficult to believe you, at the time.
I knew if I could make the movie I wanted, it would be the last one. After Turin Horse, I think I had said everything about life, about people, about everything. Filmmaking is a kind of drug, I was addicted, it’s hard to stop when you are a junky. But I don’t want to repeat myself. That has never interested me. I developed my style, or whatever you call it, step by step. Each film raises new questions. Slowly I went up, up, up or down, down, down, doesn’t matter how you say it. I could make other films, I’m always getting offers: “Sign here and do what you want.” No, I’m not interested. I still have the desire to do things, but surely not a film.
With all that in mind, shooting The Turin Horse must have been a very particular experience.
When we made Turin Horse, we were joking all the time about how it really was the last film. The whole crew knew it was really the end. I said to them that we had to put the camera in the earth. For us it was
the funeral of the camera, the funeral of filmmaking. It was a strange shoot… Fifty days. The crew did not want to stop. And very complicated, too, because of the weather. Sometimes the sun was shining, which was not good for us, sometimes snow fell. I had a really good crew, we had worked together for many years. For instance, the dolly guy was always the same. The writer Laszlo (Krasznahorkai) was a key collaborator, too. Several of his novels became my films. My point of view and his were sometimes the same, but we never talked about art, only about life. He hated shooting and I think he came only once or twice.
What about you? Was that one reason why you wanted to stop? There are a lot more filmmakers than you’d think who hate shooting, who prefer to write or edit. ?
I like it. Hey, everything is created on location. The most important thing is to see how the characters react to each other. Sometimes it’s hard, yes, because we are crossing some borders. We do long takes, so there is nothing to do at the editing table. Sometimes a shoot is hard, when you go beyond certain limits. The main issue is, if you do a long take, you are actually editing in the set, and in the camera: you can start with a close up. Agnes (Hranitzky), who is the co-author— well, officially she was the editor, but she was on set, watching everything on the monitor, screaming with me sometimes…
Going from first to last, how would you describe the phases you went though film after film?
Honestly, I don’t know. There wasn’t any kind of sophisticated plan. Only the praxis.
You must get all kinds of requests…
People are always offering retrospectives. I had one at the Lincoln Center in 2012. I did not go there. I did not want to go and give my fingerprints to a fat half-fascist guy at the airport. If the United States are afraid of my 62 kilos and believe I can destroy the whole of capitalism, they are very weak.
You are done with fiction, but could you make documentaries?
No I’m too aggressive for documentaries. But I was always involved in reality. Reality is the main shit.
What was your relation to cinema in your early days, when you made Family Nest? How did you learn to make films?
From life. Everything always comes from life: situations, how people treat a concrete situation. I Page de gauche/ page left: « Le Tango de Satan ». 1994. “Satan’s Tango”
Ci-contre/ right: « Le nid familial ». 1979. “Family Nest”
just watched it and decided to shoot it. Where do you put the camera? This is a moral decision. This is all what I can give to the students. In 2013 I opened the Film Factory in Sarajevo. I always try to make students aware of this question. We have to respect and serve human dignity. You cannot really teach this, but may be you can help someone to develop it. I made my first feature, Family Nest, before film school. I was twenty-two, I did not want to knock on the door, to be polite, I wanted to kick the door and say fuck off. I loved cinema and what I saw at that time was fake, far from life or people. This was in 1977, already the end of the NewWaves of the Sixties. Film language became industrial, everything was predictable. The Béla Balázs Studio gave me five shooting days, a 16 mm camera, two lamps and one sound guy and that was all. I made Family Nest with that. Later, I had a really good professor, who saw I knew what to do and told me to go and shoot my second film straight away. I shot two features while at film school. The Outsider (1981) and The Prefab People (1982). A proper film school should protect the students from the capitalist system, give them the chance to shoot what they really want, give them freedom. This is what I do [in Sarajevo]. I’m a mentor. I try to understand them, their visions, their point of view. And I’m their father, their brother… You need all your empathy to understand what they have in their head. The Film Factory is unlike any other school, though our concept is a little bit like the Bauhaus, mixing experienced guys and beginners. Teaching art is impossible, in my opinion. All you can do is give young people a chance to discover life, the world, and react to it. I can be proud, because of what we have
« Le cheval de Turin ». 2011. “The Turin Horse” done in three and a half years. But the program is expensive and we don’t get support from anywhere, so the school is closing. It may open again somewhere else. For me it’s a bit like a traveling circus. Students can be poisoned by art. They believe they’re artists. I tell them no. To be an artist is a kind of award, a prize, a decoration. You are a worker. If your work touches people, then you can say you’re an artist. It’s not your decision. They have to go back to life, that’s the main issue—not only everyday life, but life at every level: nature, conflicts, social tensions, everything.
What cinema did you admire when you started out?
My god was Godard. Everything he did, politically, artistically, the way he thought touched me. I had the chance to meet him in Rotterdam [film festival] once, 1982 or 1983. I was very young and stupid. I wanted to know his secret. He had his cigar and said: “I don’t know, I don’t remember.” I was disappointed then, but now I understand what he was doing, he was refusing this admiration, because it bored him. Now that I am myself in a sort of legendary position, I understand him. There is no secret. One day I showed the students Satan’s Tango. It’s almost eight hours with the intermission. The next day we had a four-hour discussion, I explained everything about each take, but I wouldn’t like to give them a sort of recipe. Later I discovered Fassbinder and Cassavetes. Don’t forget, I grew up in a Communist country: many things I didn’t get to see until much later. The biggest “shock” was when I saw my first Ozu. I was already a filmmaker. The biggest “shock” of my life was my first trip to Japan. I was invited there to show Almanac of Fall (1985). My guide was a 90 year-old professor. I saw a picture at an exhibition he took me too: everything was white, except two black points. He said to me: “As someone from a Western country, I am sure that for you the real story is the two black points. For us, it’s the white.” I was already thinking about Damnation (1988) at the time. This trip convinced me: okay, I can do what I want. No border anymore. I have to listen to the white. He had a lot of influence onme, which of course you don’t see when you watch Damnation, but it’s there.
Youmentioned Satan’s Tango. How did you manage to carry off such an extraordinary project?
Four years, it took, for the whole production. One year I was just travelling up and down in the Hungarian lowland, the modern half of the country. I got to know it like the palm of my hand, each house. First of all we had the novel, I had read the manuscript. The author [Laszlo Krasznahorkai ] trusted me to make a film. He showed me the original locations and the original characters. It was totally wrong for a film, no style, nothing, the people were just ugly. It was his fantasy that created a universe out of this nothing. The reality, in this case, wasn’t strong enough. I realized I did not want to do an adaptation. An adaptation is a stupid thing. Film is one language, and literature is another language. You cannot translate, you have to transform! Slowly, with all the driving up and down and sleeping in stupid hotels I began to understand what the writer had done. I realized it was no reason to write any script. We had the [twelve] chapters [of the novel] and we decided to make like twelve short movies. I hate scripts, we just wrote something in one week—for the banks. I knew every film by heart, from the first frame to the last. Before shooting it. I never opened these scripts afterwards. The second year we organized everything. The whole story is only three days in autumn. I only had a photo-camera with me. Afterwards I went back for my photographer, Gabor. We had 120 shooting days but we could shoot only in early spring and the end of autumn, just before the winter. So we had to shoot over two years.
What about your plans? I’m working on an exhibition for the EYE Film Museum in Amsterdam.(2) But I’m not going to tell you about that. You’ll have to come and see.
Adaptation/translation by C. Penwarden (1) Le temps d’après (the after-time) is the title of an essay on Béla Tarr by Jacques Rancière (Editions Capricci, 2011). (2) The exhibition, Till the End of the World, opened on January 21 and ends on May 7.