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Öszi Almanach, 1984
[Autumn Almanac/Almanac of Fall]

Autumn AlmanacAlmanac of Fall opens to a bleak and resigned passage from Aleksandr Pushkin: "Even if you kill me, I see no trace, this land is unknown, the devil is probably leading, going round and round in circles." In a large, austere, and impersonal apartment, a middle-aged woman named Hédi (Hédi Temessy) recounts with detached acceptance the inevitable realization of an ill-fated relationship, as a dour and attentive man (Miklós Székely B.) listens on, consumed by thoughts of a similar dilemma in his own life. Later, alone in another room within Hedi's apartment, he listens to his lover, Hedi's nurse Anna (Erika Bodnár), remark with distracted and polite affection that she has always led an independent and unattached life. Perhaps subconsciously, Anna prefers to be unburdened by the responsibility of material possessions, but nevertheless is intrigued by the idea of performing the mundane rituals associated with leading a "normal" life. Yet even in her fanciful illusion of home and sense of normalcy, there seems little room in her ideal life for her insecure and emotionally dependent lover, even as he vacuously declares his innate need to be with her. This seemingly hopeless and insincere display of alienated affection will again resurface in another room of the apartment when Hédi has an emotionally violent quarrel with her irresponsible and resentful son (János Dezsi) who has returned home in need of money to squander on alcohol. Consumed with envy and self-loathing, her son defiantly declares his hopes for her death and threatens harm in order to get his way. Their relationship is further strained by his decision to allow a financially struggling teacher named Tibor to occupy a spare room without obtaining prior approval from Hédi, a living arrangement that becomes increasingly complicated when the lodger resorts to theft to settle his debts. Meanwhile, Anna attempts to gain solidarity from Hédi's desperate son by commenting on his mother's cruel nature, remarking "She is the happiest when you are desperate...She does it with all of us", even as she feigns compassion for the emotionally distraught Hédi. However, as the wanton and aimless residents perform their destructive pattern of alliances, betrayals, and violence, the apartment becomes an oppressive and dehumanizing dystopia of frustrated ambition, repression, isolation, and emotional cruelty.

Béla Tarr creates a visually sublime and provocative film on emotional cruelty, alienation, and moral bankruptcy in Almanac of Fall. Evoking the dramatic tension of August Strindberg's plays and the intensity of Ingmar Bergman's chamber works, Tarr uses highly stylized, artificially colored lighting, rigorous (and deliberate) formalism, minimalist setting, and protracted dialogue to create an atmospherically charged and disquieting environment. The film's pervasive sense of unnaturality and forced intimacy reflects the hermetic, violative, and inbred nature of the occupants' inhumanity and moral decay: the rampant duplicity and betrayal among the apartment residents; the intrusiveness of the unusual camera angles (Tibor's shave and subsequent attack); the unspoken and concealed acts of aggression perpetrated within the household (Hédi's physical confrontation with her son, and later, with Anna; Tibor's attack; Anna's rape). Inevitably, as the disingenuous and self-consumed occupants of the insular apartment alternately vie for Hédi's trust, allegiance, and control, what emerges is a haunting image of lost and aimless spirits, like the pallid, unreconciled ghosts of dramatic tragedies, drifting round and round in circles through the empty, soulless rooms of their stifling and claustrophobic corporeality.

© Acquarello 2002. All rights reserved.

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Kárhozat, 1988
[Damnation]

Kerekes/Szekely B.The occasional, labored sound of inertia and friction emitted by the motion of mining cable cars disrupts the unnerving silence of Karrer's (Miklós Székely B.) austere and sparsely furnished apartment, as the lethargic electric powered conveyances endlessly traverse along the overcast, desolate landscape, obscured by the density of the fog. Karrer abstractedly stares out the window before performing the ritual of his morning shave, his dour countenance furrowed by resigned weariness and unarticulated personal turmoil. Karrer leaves his apartment, descends through the dimly lit staircase, his footsteps resonating through the empty halls, and pays an unexpected visit to his estranged lover (Vali Kerekes), who unhesitantly drives him away, determined to terminate their meaningless affair and create a better life for her daughter with her devoted, but debt-ridden husband, Sebestyén (György Cserhalmi). But Karrer refuses to concede defeat and, despite the repeated cautionary advice of a pragmatic and well-intentioned cloakroom attendant (Hédi Temessy), continues his dogged pursuit of his emotionally elusive lover, patronizing a morose and tawdry bar called Titanik every evening, where she performs as a lounge singer. Capitalizing on Sebestyén's financially dire straits, Karrer proposes a mutually beneficial arrangement with a disreputable bar owner named Willarsky (Gyula Pauer) for Sebestyén to serve as Willarsky's courier, a scheme designed to create prolonged separation and marital division between the couple. However, as Karrer becomes obsessed with winning back the alienated affection of his aloof lover, he retreats further into the insularity of his profound isolation and personal despair.

The first collaborative project between Hungarian novelist László Krashnahorkai and filmmaker Béla Tarr (along with Tarr's editor and wife, Agnes Hranitzky), Damnation is a bleak and nihilistic portrait of isolation, emotional betrayal, and ennui. Using a near static camera, slow tracking shots, languid character motion, pervasive inclement weather, bleak industrial landscape, and a melancholic soundtrack by composer Mihaly Vig, Tarr reflects the desolation and spiritual lethargy of the directionless and morally bankrupt protagonists: the cloakroom attendant's hollow recitation of religious scripture to Karrer; the dispassionate act of intimacy between Karrer and his lover; the somnambulistic group line dance that recalls the opening image of the sluggish, automated motion of cable cars. As in Tarr's earlier film, Almanac of Fall (and subsequent epic work, Sátántangó), the inanimate and dehumanized dance sequence serves as a metaphor for the increasing faithlessness, hedonism, and moral irresponsibility of contemporary existence. In the end, Karrer's selfish and destructive quest for connection ironically leads him further into isolation, away from the artificial society of human interaction, reduced to the primal community of his oppressive and alienating environment.

© Acquarello 2002. All rights reserved.

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Sátántangó, 1994
[Satantango/Satan's Tango]

BokSátántangó opens to a languid, insidiously ironic shot of cattle traversing the muddy field of a near desolate, neglected communal farm in rural Hungary, as the cows concurrently attempt to mate during the process of migration. The clumsy and awkward episode is reflected in the fluidly tracked, change of perspective shot of a disheveled, sparsely furnished room where Futaki (Miklós Székely B.) and Mrs. Schmidt (Éva Almássy Albert) conduct a meaningless, illicit affair - their relationship summarily encapsulated in the indelicate image of Mrs. Schmidt cleansing herself after the sexual encounter in her lover's presence. With her husband's unexpected return home, Futaki withdraws to an adjacent room and overhears an underhanded scheme hatched between Schmidt (László Lugossy) and Kráner (János Derzsi) to abscond with the communal farm's cattle money entrusted to them for delivery into town, with the dream of establishing his own farm. Feigning to arrive at the Schmidt home, Futaki confronts Schmidt with knowledge of their plot and is offered a share of the money in exchange for his silence. However, as Futaki and Schmidt settle their disreputable alliance, Mrs. Schmidt receives word from Mrs. Halics (Erzsébet Gaál) that the near-mythical Irimiás (Mihály Vig) and his omnipresent assistant Petrina (Putyi Horváth), both presumed to be dead, have been spotted on a road leading to the village, heading towards the local pub. The news of Irimiás's unexpected reappearance is received with equal amounts of anticipation and dread, and gradually, the villagers' plight unfolds as a series of point-of-view episodes that explore the root of their anxiety towards the return of the town's prodigal son.

Béla Tarr creates a visually sublime, darkly comic, and understatedly haunting film on complacency, ennui, betrayal, and greed in Sátántangó. A collaborative adaptation of László Krashnahorkai's first novel, Sátántangó is intricately structured in twelve narratively overlapping, discontinuous chapters, replicating the visual rhythm of the tango. The inherent nonlinearity of the film's forward and backward episodic movements, particularly evident in the circular, repeated narration of Futaki's perceived detection of the tolling of nonexistent bells at the beginning and end of the film, underscores the banality and empty, ritualistic existence of the communal farmers. Resigned to a life of aimlessness, despair, and passivity, the film serves as a metaphor for the nation's inertial resistance to change and inability to adapt to the unfamiliar landscape of liberation and autonomy in post-communist Hungary. Moreover, the themes of self-entrapment and zero displacement are manifested in the delirious, floating tracking shot above the sleeping villagers that echoes an earlier image of nocturnal spiders that emerge to spin their imperceptible web on the unconscious patrons after their meandering, discordant, intoxicated dance - the titular Sátántangó witnessed by the deeply troubled, seemingly deranged girl, Estike (Erika Bók) - a reminder of the psychologically entrenched, moribund lives of the villagers on the collective farm.

Through repeated allusions of the charismatic, mysterious Irimiás as a messianic figure, Tarr further illustrates the spiritual desolation, gullibility, and moral bankruptcy of the villagers: the static, close-up shots of the inexpressive Irimiás that emphasizes his abstracted, seemingly benevolent gaze (reminiscent of Johannes' framing in Carl Theodor Dreyer's Ordet); his figurative return from the dead; his inexplicable compulsion to kneel before the ruins of an abandoned building as fog momentary rolls in and obscures the view; his redemptive speech that galvanizes the villagers into subscribing to his unrealized vision. Like the elusive Godot of Samuel Beckett's Waiting for Godot, Irimiás represents the ephemeral: hope, redemption, sense of purpose, salvation. But inevitably, the model farm proves to be a barren reflection of the villagers' own existential limbo - a bleak, stagnant, and inert wasteland festering in a hopeless, meaningless, and soulless world.

© Acquarello 2002. All rights reserved.

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Werckmeister harmóniák, 2000
[Werckmeister Harmonies]

Rudolf In the late hours of the evening, the owner of a local tavern attempts to scuttle his lethargic, inebriated patrons out of the establishment in preparation for store closure, only to be derailed by their request to allow an inquisitive and obliging young man named János (Lars Rudolph) to illustrate the process of a solar eclipse through the dynamics of the moon's geocentric orbit in relation to earth's simultaneous heliocentric orbit, a rare phenomenon of celestial alignment that has historically caused confusion and uncertainty - and irrational sense of ominous, apocalyptic inevitability - among its discomposed, naïve witnesses. The foreboding image of intersecting light, obstruction, and shadow projection carries through to an extended take long shot of caravan headlights as the lumbering, heavy tonnage vehicle projects a slow, ethereally sweeping swath of light onto the façades of the town's unilluminated and seemingly depopulated buildings on its way to the main square. A posted flyer on an electrical pole reveals the reason for the curious spectacle unfolding before the slumbering, unsuspecting town: a traveling circus that boasts the appearance of the world's largest whale and an intriguing, seemingly prophetic personality known as the Prince.

At daybreak, János attends to his ailing uncle György (Peter Fitz), a music theorist who has been researching the tuning system developed by Andreas Werckmeister in the belief that the German composer's flawed scale has led to the proliferation (and standardization) of impure musical harmonies. Unable to elicit the attention of his uncle, János decides to head to the town square alone to view the attraction before heading home, and is soon visited by György's estranged wife, Tünde (Hanna Schygulla), who enlists his assistance in goading György to obtain signatures on a petition for her nascent political movement in the hopes that his respected social standing will encourage other prominent townspeople to support her cause. Increasingly drawn into Tünde's covert machinations and the surreal presence of the whale, János returns to the town square at twilight, where the fusion of alien carnivalesque spectacle and indigenous political agitation contribute to a volatile concoction of ignorance, restlessness, and displaced anxiety that leads to an evening of chaos and violent upheaval.

Adapted from the novel The Melancholy of Resistance by author László Krashnahorkai in collaboration with Béla Tarr and Agnes Hranitzky, Werckmeister Harmonies is an elegantly composed, seductively lugubrious, and haunting cautionary tale of moral ambiguity, lawlessness, petty self-interest, and inertia. From the long take opening sequence depicting the orbital singularity of a hypothetical eclipse, Tarr establishes the parallel for the townspeople as self-contained microcosms behaving according to inherent, pre-programmed natures that, when particularly aligned according to a prescribed set of circumstances, will collectively result in chaos and uncertainty. Visually, Tarr employs images of fire, directed light (most notably in the night-time arrival of the circus caravan that transitions to a shot of János' sun-bathed morning walk and later, in the raid of an institutional housing), and obscured, expressionistic shadows that reveal an intrinsic polarity to human nature. Through György's research on the seeming propagation of false harmony in the development of music theory, the film provides an incisive allegory for the corrupted evolution of an ideal that, not only serves as an analogy for the failure of Soviet communism, but more broadly, the systematic estrangement from the pure ideal caused by the flawed (or perhaps intentionally perverted) application of theory (note György's assertion that the imperfect tuning has irretrievably moved musical composition ever further away from the harmony of the gods) - a blind and autonomic allegiance to seductive false idols (such as the charismatically maniacal Prince or the messianic Irimiás in Sátántangó) that lead to intolerance, barbarism, and human cruelty. It is this ephemeral implication of following a detracted path to a tragic and inevitable conclusion in the absence of true enlightenment and existential purpose that is captured in the surreal parting shot of the immobile whale in the town square that, like the dismantled statue of Lenin on a garbage barge in Theo Angelopoulos' Ulysses' Gaze, represents a lost, decontextualized idea - a curious, dislocated relic rendered irrelevant and obsolete by the erosive tide of repression, inhumanity, cultural isolation, and spiritual desolation.

© Acquarello 2005. All rights reserved.

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