Damnation, 1988

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.

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