Gregor’s Bed – The Turin Horse

Recent Discoveries from the Realm of the Experimental and the Avant-Garde

Film: The Turin Horse (Hungarian with subtitles) (2011)

Directors: Béla Tarr, Ágnes Hranitzky

Cast: János Derzsi, Erika Bók, Mihály Kormos

Screenwriters: Béla Tarr, László Krasznahorkai

?Man is the cruelest animal.?

Friedrich Nietzsche

?Acquire, debase, debase, acquire. Or I can put it differently if you’d like. To touch, debase, and thereby acquire, or touch, acquire, and thereby debase. It’s been going on like this for centuries. On, on, and on.?

from The Turin Horse

?In Turin on 3rd January, 1889, Friedrich Nietzsche steps out of the doorway of number six, Via Carlo Albert. Not far from him, the driver of a hansom cab is having trouble with a stubborn horse. Despite all his urging, the horse refuses to move, whereupon the driver loses his patience and takes his whip to it. Nietzsche comes up to the throng and puts an end to the brutal scene, throwing his arms around the horse’s neck, sobbing. His landlord takes him home, he lies motionless and silent for two days on a divan until he mutters the obligatory last words, and lives for another ten years, silent and demented, cared for by his mother and sisters. We do not know what happened to the horse.?

Béla Tarr

The Dark Night of the Closed Heart

This film is a story about the hansom cab owner and his daughter. There’s a long sequence at the start in which we’re forced to observe a well-bred but thin horse pulling a heavy cart down a road in winter. The wind is blowing hard and the horse is wearing the shaggy coat horses grow in winter in cold countries.

The horse has been worked so hard that her hair is wet and matted. The image of the sweating, cold, thin animal, eyes rolling behind her blinkers as she trudges jerkily along, is grotesquely beautiful, and becomes more so as It’s dragged out to a haunting soundtrack.

The Turin Horse is no pleasure cruise. If, as Jacques Maritain says, to qualify as art a work must be significant, rational, and delightful, this flick is weighted almost exclusively on the significant end.

The two main characters are a craggily handsome widower and his daughter, a young girl with good physical attributes but not a speck of glamour or charm. She rarely speaks, and he never grunts more than a few dismissive words. It’s a bleak world, of silence, howling winds, ancient stone walls, and cracked plaster, plain and scarce food eaten desperately while still too hot, and clothing that looks damp and itchy.

Morning and night, Father sits or stands as his daughter dresses and undresses him. He stares at her the whole time, not uttering a word as she goes quickly and methodically about her chore. It’s an oft-repeated scene, disturbing on several levels. Thankfully he buttons his own fly.

Belief, custom, duty, and tradition all throw their shoulders against the door of experience and crumple. The noblest thoughts, the most sophisticated arguments, the deepest religious epiphanies, crash on brute reality. To survive they’re obliged to change. Sometimes they refuse.

The horse doesn’t respond when his master enters the barn, unusual behaviour for a horse. She does respond when the daughter enters. It’s clear they identify with each other’s misery as beasts of burden, though the girl exhibits flat effect and the horse’s face gives glimpses of a deep consciousness.

She’s not eating, the girl remarks, to which Pa growls in reply, She will. The daughter implores the horse to eat, but the horse is apparently too depressed to do so, too overcome by despair. It’s fitting that the film is named for the horse because in fact It’s the horse that registers the pain of existence here. The man and his daughter also live in despair, but their suffering does no more than stupefy them.

The quality of the black and white cinematography is phenomenally high, each scene pulsating with intensity and meaning. The soundtrack is a modal, tension-building force à la Phillip Glass, and this, along with the grey mists, flying dry leaves, and austere characters, makes the film deliciously dreary.

A group of raggle-taggle gypsies arrives, their aesthetic purpose being, it seems, to show the difference between their own happy-go-lucky poverty and the austere misery of the widower and his daughter. Their horses, in contrast to the scrawny, despondent mare, are spirited, beautiful, and obviously loved and well-fed.

The gypsies are laughing, chattering, and whooping it up. And as the man and his daughter drive them angrily from their well, they scream curses: ?The water is ours! The earth is ours! You’re weak! You’re weak! Drop dead! Drop dead!?

An imprecation like that might put a damper on someone’s joy, if they had any, but this father and daughter are so emotionally closed that in their world nothing can get better or worse. The film’s achievement is making something so intensely beautiful out of such a gloomy theme.

Wanda also penned the poems for the artist book They Tell My Tale to Children Now to Help Them to be Good, a collection of meditations on fairy tales, illustrated by artist Susan Malmstrom.