Catching Up with the Classics: SÁTÁNTANGÓ (1994)

Arbelos’ 4K restoration of Bela Tarr’s sumptuously slow seven-hour epic proves a rare and vital experience for cinemagoers

Film 58 of 115: SÁTÁNTANGÓ (1994)

To many, Hungary’s Bela Tarr is a director of slow cinema — a descriptor often given as much as a pejorative as it is a stylistic hallmark. Since 1987’s Damnation, Tarr’s feature films have been defined by their black-and-white tracking shots that often last longer than five minutes, usually featuring near-silent characters and a bleak world marked with urban decay and torrential weather. Spanning 172 shots in just over 7 hours, Sátántangó is the most notorious of the bunch — a holy grail for daring cinephiles seeking bragging rights for enduring one of the longest narrative films ever made. In 2019, Arbelos undertook the mammoth task of restoring this titan of Hungarian cinema in 4K, and over the past year they’ve slowly toured their efforts across the country. On November 24th, I eagerly joined a near sold-out crowd at the AFS Cinema for the day to seek out Tarr’s epic for ourselves.

Sátántangó follows a group of rural laborers after the collapse of their farm collective on the Hungarian plain. Their last wages finally in hand, some plot to flee with more than their fair share. Others try to eke out what familiar existence they can, even as their own livestock flee their farm en masse. From adultery to theft to boozing to animal torture, the farmers’ myriad, morally dubious goals and actions are united by a sincere hunger for control over their bitter lives. The arrival of the once-thought-dead Irimiás galvanizes the community; in the wake of unexpected tragedy, their old friend spurs on the promise of distant new work. But just as each farmer has their own interests at heart, so too does the manipulative and charismatic Irimiás.

It’s not that his films are slow — it’s that no other director prizes or prioritizes the weight of a moment more than Bela Tarr. In his films, what happens within a scene is irrelevant if the emotions they conjure are dismissed in the interest of time. As such, Tarr’s films take place almost outside of time and space. Though loaded with contemporary references to Hungarian society both during and after Communism, Tarr’s overall settings are often stripped of major historical signifiers in favor of timeless, uniform ruin. Each image is an immersive invitation into a bleak but beautiful landscape of immaculate frozen tableaux — moments, however, that go largely unnoticed by the films’ characters. One idea suggests that the bleakness of the world isn’t unique to a certain time or place, that things have always been like this; another suggests a hidden magic world destined to go unnoticed by those that populate it.

While on their face these are two unabashedly cynical ideas, they belie Tarr’s profound appreciation for the beauty inherent in both the natural world and in human behavior. Tarr’s elongation of certain moments allows us to stew in their thematic potency, and to experience a medium designed for quick emotional impact in a more real-time, realistic fashion — searing these moments indelibly into our memory. A child’s abandonment outside her home as her mother entertains a fellow townsperson is crushing — we feel as trapped and rejected as she is. This moment, though, is made even more heartbreaking later as the girl wanders to a local bar where she watches her mother and fellow citizens drink and dance themselves into a stupor while the girl remains trapped outside in the rain.

At the same time, though, Tarr revels in the liberating moment this moment is for the townspeople inside. While they may act like skipping records, repeating the same stories over and over to no discernible audience and indulging in the most boorish behavior, Tarr captures the life-affirming craziness that allows them to soldier on through the muck of the world waiting for them after this moment passes. It contextualizes an earlier speech given by a State official about the divinity of freedom, and how people cannot recognize the true value of free will within our short lifespans. The whole sequence in the bar allows us to marinate in their passionate frenzy — even more so as we share the point of view of someone unwittingly ostracized from sharing in this moment herself.

“We have to believe in order and freedom — we suffer from them both…but human life is meaningful, rich, beautiful, and filthy. It links everything. But we mistreat freedom, wasting it as if it was junk.

“The strange thing is, there’s nothing to fear from freedom…order, on the other hand, can be quite frightening.” — Százados (Péter Dobai)

It’s Tarr’s exploration of freedom and control through the whole of Sátántangó that justifies its mammoth runtime and makes it such a riveting watch. Much like his later works Werckmeister Harmonies, The Man from London, and The Turin Horse, Sátántangó follows its characters as they’re driven towards what means for control they can have over their bleak existence — often to fruitless ends. One moment in The Turin Horse sees its main characters flee over a hill in search of greener pastures — only to return as quickly as they left. Here, in Sátántangó, a similar moment sees the events of the film summarized in crude fashion by uncaring State officials, and their work placed in a cabinet of tons of similar reports — suggesting that such brutal events aren’t just occurring all over Hungary, but they’re alarmingly commonplace and government-sanctioned. Tarr’s lengthy, static shots are in themselves a form of this lack of control, boxing in and endlessly following his characters as they search for a means of escape or progress. As spectators, we’re left to watch these characters play out their lives in search of change — but without the deliverance of a cut, it feels like progression or change can never come. Control is perpetually out of the characters and audiences’ hands, and the world as a result feels unchanging and unending in its cruelty.

But despite all of this, there’s still hope for change. The characters of Sátántangó endure assault from all sides, be it the unforgiving elements, the harsh betrayals of other people, or the maddeningly slow passage of time. The characters aren’t pursuing dreams as much as they are constantly running from their fears, their lives constantly defined by indefinite misery, poverty, and apathy. And yet, these are people are willing to do whatever’s necessary — from uprooting their lives to suicide — in the hope of a better life, regardless of how in vain their efforts may be. Despite the cruelty of the world, and despite their petty surface motivations, it’s their instinct to strive towards change. It’s a belief that may be manipulated by others or suppressed by the State, but it always resists being snuffed out completely. Regardless of whatever new misery may await us at the end, we’ll still take the chance of walking the long road to freedom. To do anything less is to leave yourself at the whims of the universe — and as one in Sátántangó suggests, it’s that “dull inertia [that] leaves you at the mercy of whatever you fear most.” Tarr even describes himself as “just a big fucking maniac who believes in people.” While his films may feel like endurance tests, that’s the whole damn point — that we endure no matter what.

Sátántangó is a dance throughout time between disparate moments of human suffering and hunger for control, one that shows us how universally comic and tragic these experiences are. And that’s probably what makes Tarr’s cinema so vital and necessary no matter how intimidating his runtimes may be. Throughout, the audience doesn’t just watch, but experiences (now in glorious 4K) how exhaustingly grimy it can be to just exist. Within that, Tarr leaves us wholly cognizant of our own sense of control. He shows us how blind these characters are to these fleeting moments of connection so we can recognize them for ourselves. He deprives us of control to encourage us to seize it back. He makes every moment last to show us how much each moment matters.

Sadly, Bela Tarr retired from feature filmmaking in 2011 with the completion of The Turin Horse. As such, Arbelos’ new restoration of Sátántangó is a rare moment to see a Tarr film as intended: on a big screen, free from the ability to pause the film, where you can do nothing but surrender to the experience wholeheartedly.

Arbelos is currently touring their restoration of Sátántangó across the U.S., with a Blu-ray to follow in 2020. Theatrical Dates are available here.

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