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Satan’s Tango

Béla Tarr

Hungary, 1994


Review by Ian Johnston

Posted on 27 January 2009

Source Facets Video DVD

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What is above all at issue in Sátántangó is time. How could it be otherwise for a film that asks so much of our own time, seven hours to be precise? But those seven hours - entirely worth spending, I should add, in the case of Tarr’s masterpiece - also raise the whole question of what it actually means when we talk of a “long” film. This is particularly so living as we are in an age when mainstream Hollywood is consistently producing bloated overlong genre pieces. Long gone is the age when a Richard Fleischer could give us something like The Narrow Margin, at 71 minutes lean, precise, and pithy; instead, two-and-a-half interminable hours is becoming more of a standard today, one where often narrative is stretched out to the point of meaninglessness. The contrast with art cinema’s famous “long” films - the likes of The Travelling Players, La Belle Noiseuse, or, here, Sátántangó - couldn’t be more striking. In these cases, Angelopoulos, Rivette, and Tarr all arrive at a fine calibration of what length is necessary for their films’ narrative, theme, style, and performance to come together to work as a coherent whole.

Sátántangó is a film that takes time, and this is no more apparent than in the film’s opening shot. For a full eight minutes a tracking camera observes the progress of a herd of cows through a dilapidated farming village. But to describe this as “observing” or even “following” these cows hardly begins to capture the feel of this extraordinary shot. For one thing, the tracking shot here, as is the case throughout the film, follows a trajectory that’s independent of the apparent subject (the cows) of the shot. The cows take one route, the camera another, and for a time the focus is on the broken brickwork of the line of buildings that we are tracking past before catching up with the cows again as they disappear in the distance. This is film of texture, sculpted out of the rain, mud, and crumbling buildings of the setting, out of the coarse features and unkempt clothes of the characters, and out of the elaborate camera movements and black-and-white cinematography that mark Tarr’s cinematic aesthetic.

But the texture of Sátántangó is above all derived from the length of the shot, the time Tarr is prepared to spend with one character or with a set of characters within a single shot. In one way it’s such a simple strategy - one that through length increases our empathy or understanding, or forces us to a deeper level of analysis - and it is in absolute opposition to the desperate, frenetic fast-cutting practised by Hollywood today that even extends to dramas of men-in-a-room like Frost/Nixon.

Tarr’s style of extended lengthy shots leads to amazingly productive results. In Sátántangó’s third section devoted to the doctor (we’re ninety minutes into the film and we still have no real sense of the “story” as such!) there’s one exemplary single shot which, with only slight shifts in camera position, to the side or forwards or backwards, shows us Mrs Karer, a kind-of housekeeper, arriving and conversing with the doctor at his desk; her departure; his slow getting up from the desk, locking the door, pissing in the toilet, flushing the toilet with a bucket, and returning to the desk; then selecting one of the many notebooks he keeps for his observations on the local inhabitants and starting to write; finally stopping and staring blankly ahead. There’s a richness and intensity of cinematic expression here, one that is for the audience a profound and rewarding sense of being with a character.

Sátántangó has been rightly acclaimed by the likes of Susan Sontag and Jonathan Rosenbaum. But I have the suspicion that this acclaim is also occasioned by the way Tarr answers a nostalgic need for the modernist giants of the past, serious filmmakers who married weighty themes with adventurous and challenging styles and technique. Yet, if we compare Tarr with his most obvious models in terms of mastery of the long take and the moving camera, namely Tarkovsky, Angelopoulos and Jancsó, we can see there are real differences. Above all, Tarr doesn’t believe, he doesn’t share the earlier directors’ faith in either religion/spirituality or socialism as an answer to Mankind’s moral, spiritual, societal or political dilemmas.

Tarr’s vision is a caustic, sardonic one, leavened only by a strain of black humour. The sodden landscape, the incessant rain, the mud, the crumbling buildings are the setting for the characters, a motley bunch of peasant farmers driven by greed, deceit, envy, and suspicion, stumbling around in a drunken ignorance that’s best expressed by the inebriated tango they perform in the village tavern. Right from the very first scene of the story as such they’re conspiring against one another, whether it’s Mrs Schmidt’s betrayal of her husband with Futaki or Schmidt’s plan to take off with more than his fair share of the money coming to the villagers. (According to one review I’ve read, this money is the proceeds of a communal cattle sale, although to be honest I never picked this detail up on the separate viewings I’ve had of the film.)

Probably the most iniquitous betrayal - simultaneously sordid, pathetic, and immoral - is when the teenage boy Sanyi tricks his young sister Estike out of a handful of coins that he tells her to bury in the ground so that it will grow into a “moneystalk”; he of course will come back later and dig it up. It’s in this light that Irimias’ larger scheme to trick the money out of the villagers comes across as some kind of poetic justice. Irimias is a charismatic, manipulative Machiavellian figure, morally suspect in both his scheming and his connections with the local police authorities, who he uses but (very much in keeping with Sátántangó’s world-view) use him even more.

Irimias is a larger-than-life figure, something that Tarr emphasises with the magnificent shot that introduces him, a long track that follows behind Irimias and his subordinate Petrina as they stride forward, trash whirling dramatically around their feet in gusts of wind. But Irimias is also a parodic Messiah figure, reported dead and now viewed by the villagers as a potential saviour. “Everything will change now,” says Futaki. “You see we’ll have a great life”—which Tarr’s camera immediately undercuts with its view of the empty village street in the teeming rain.

Of course, nothing in effect does change. The villagers are convinced by Irimias to pool their resources - that is, give their money to him - to finance a model farm, the site of which turns out to be a ruined, crumbling farmhouse. But any sparks of revolt are quickly countered by Irimias as he talks the villagers into his “scattering plan”, whereby separate groups are sent off to different locations to await his further instructions; the implication is that these instructions will never come.

What characterises the villagers above all is their passivity, whereby their vague stirrings of hope for a better world are quickly stilled by their acceptance of what life metes out to them. If anything, these characters most resemble the cattle we see in the film’s opening shot, stumbling around in the mud and the rain, blinkered by their petty ambitions, their prejudices, and their inability to see beyond the limited confines of their immediate world. This makes the film sound like a misanthropic take on the brutish nature of humankind, and yet the sum effect of Sátántangó is anything but. Again, this comes down to the question of style, the long mesmerising takes that generate the sense of empathy and feeling for a character or a group of characters through the time the film makes us spend with them.

Furthermore, there are two significant characters, the girl Estike and the alcoholic doctor, who provide outsider, critical viewpoints on the events unfolding around them. The section devoted to Estike (the fifth of the film’s twelve titled chapters) is heartbreaking in its own quiet, despairing way. Estike, in spite of living with her mother and brother, is a lonely, abandoned child, victimised, emotionally abused, and neglected. In all of Sátántangó perhaps the most horrifying aspect to Tarr’s dour vision is the way that she then reacts to all of this by herself abusing the only creature to hand more vulnerable than herself—a cat that she proceeds to torture to death. (The “actor” was Tarr’s own cat, which came to no physical harm, although animal lovers might be perturbed by what is still done to this cat in the name of art.) But Estike finds no release through this, and she remains symbolically excluded from her community, standing in the dark outside the tavern, watching the drunken tango performed by her mother and the others. And her final obsessive march forward, dead cat under her arm, leads to only one despondent conclusion when she administers to herself the poison she gave to the cat.

The doctor is in some respects a surrogate director figure, a link between the audience and the world of the film. He’s an obsessive cataloguer of his neighbours’ activities, recording his observations in a vast collection of individual dossiers. His view of the world outside, through binoculars or framed by the window panes, resembles that of a movie camera. But at the same time Tarr reminds us how much more limited the doctor’s vision is than his, for what we see through the doctor’s eyes we’ve already seen - structurally, Sátántangó repeatedly circles back to re-view events from a different perspective - through Tarr’s own far more expressive moving camera.

The final section of the film returns to the doctor and seems to promise some kind of mystico-spiritual epiphany in keeping with Tarr’s Tarkovsky influences (for example, the scene where Mrs Schmidt squats down to wash herself and the setting where Estike lies down to die are strikingly reminiscent of Stalker and Nostalghia respectively). At the very beginning of the film, the voice-over narrator tells of Futaki being awoken by the sound of bells although the only chapel in the area has neither bells nor bell tower. Now, close to seven hours of film-time later, the doctor also hears the bells and sets off to investigate, reluctant as he is ever to venture outside.

But Tarr not only fails to supply the expected Tarkovskian spiritual climax, but he wilfully strips it of meaning. All the doctor finds in the ruins of the chapel is a crazed old man banging away and repeating a chant of “The Turks are coming! The Turks are coming!” The senselessness of this, the inability of the doctor - and of us - to derive meaning from this, is precisely the point, one that the doctor acknowledges by locking himself away from and locking out the world. Nailing wooden planks across the windows, he plunges himself and us into utter darkness, muttering a reiteration of the film’s opening narrative of Futaki until it too is drowned out by the electronic hum of Mihály Vig’s score. “The Circle Closes” this final chapter is called, the final circling of a narrative that has continuously circled back upon itself, like the vague wanderings of the cows in the prologue, like the futile to-and-fro struggles of the peasant farmers to break out of the circle of their constrained existence, like the drunken tango at the centre of the film. With the doctor, we now sit, plunged into darkness, with no escape.

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