By Jay Kuehner
March 6, 2006 - 9:56 AM PST
The following interview with Hungarian director Béla Tarr was conducted at the 2001 San Francisco International Film Festival, which presented Tarr's seventh feature, Werckmeister Harmonies (2000). While Tarr's films may warrant timeless consideration for cinephiles, the belated publishing of our conversation owes considerably to the ongoing caprices of film distribution.
If Tarr's monumental Sátántangó (1994) had a seismic effect on film discourse in general - and film practice in particular - in spite of its scarce public screenings, it is that much more lamentable that Werckmeister Harmonies, a film of more modest proportion but equally resonant, should have languished without wider release. Correcting the undeserved fate of an acknowledged master's oeuvre, Facets Multimedia has released the film on DVD as part of a campaign that has included Tarr's earlier films, Family Nest (1978), The Outsider (1981) and Prefab People (1982), with Damnation (1987) and Sátántangó apparently in the works.
Tracking down Tarr proved to be necessarily funny, as our appointment coincided with a festival party in honor of Bruce Weber. Instantly recognizable in his long leather coat and silvered mane, Tarr cuts an imposing figure more in theory than in conversation. We were joined by actor Lars Rudolph, and invaluable translation assistance was provided by Joseph Kish.
In a post-screening discussion with the audience, you defended your film against too much speculation.
If you are listening to the film, and simply watching, you will find there is little reason for speculation about the film's meaning. This is why I have said: No allegories, no metaphors, no symbols, nothing...
Meaning, you've designed the film to have no explicit political context, or that it's just difficult to pinpoint? I'm reminded of Kafka.
No, Kafka is cold. And this film is very warm. If you don't believe this, perhaps your heart isn't working. I want you to see a movie full of emotions. I want to convince you to love these people. Love Janos Valuska (Lars Rudolph), love Mrs. Eszter (Hanna Schygulla), love the 600 unemployed workers, because I am in all of them. I know, it sounds like a declaration from the 60s, but unfortunately, it's true.
When we started shooting, we never thought that it would take four years to make this film. There were several times during the shoot when we simply felt that we could not continue. We had no money, we had nothing. Maybe, I thought, it was not necessary to make this movie. But I would look at the rushes and tell myself, we must make this, because I absolutely love the people in this movie. So it's very personal.
If anyone in the film seems to love everyone, it's Valuska.
I hope so. He likes everybody because I think he understands them. He's innocent. He walks from here to there, says hello and goodbye. Yes, he's very innocent, but he's a little worried.
So maybe he doesn't understand what he's seeing when the hospital is sacked?
That's the breaking point. This, and the explosion he sees. A revolution has started, but for him, it's over. By the end, he's in a mental hospital.
That's an ambiguous scene, Valuska sitting motionless on his bed. There's light coming into the room. It almost seems... comfortable?
No, it's not comfortable. It's cold. He looks like a blocked angel, you know? There's light, but he can't move. He may never move. He's out of society, out of the system. Everything is now over, but maybe you can be happy as you leave the theater, because you have something. Valuska is left with nothing, but you still have something to give you power. He's a sacrifice.
I'm wondering, then, if György, the musicologist, is renewed from the sacrifice? He goes out to see the whale, he's walking.
No, he just goes to recognize it, then return home.
He says that the whale will be just as captivating tomorrow. But there's no telling the future in this film.
I must tell you about this whale. It was there in the 60s. They brought this fucking whale around Europe, showing it in Germany, Poland, Hungary... It was 1961, I think, and I was just a kid. Allegories? Metaphors? I don't know, but I think the whale is just a whale.
For the people in the film, there are certain facts, certain sensations. A poster on the wall announces a circus; there's a giant whale, and there's this prince, who weighs just ten kilograms, has three eyes, you know.
Unfortunately, you don't get to see him. But I wonder, if you could see him, maybe you would want to follow him. Is it best that we can't see him?
But the whale, first glimpsed secretively, is ultimately all we can see. Its eye is looking out at us, into us. You shoot this in a way that's transformative, cathartic even.
I don't know what it means for you. It is just one single thing, but it makes you feel that there is more. I hope that it is powerful. It was a lot of work!
This is difficult work. I must remember that it is a job. Like if you are a woodworker making a table; it's a practical issue. I'm not sure I know much about filmmaking.
Yet you are often mentioned as an influence on other filmmakers.
And I am asked which filmmakers have influenced me! But I am less influenced by filmmakers. It's more about this process of making. I study a location and speak with the people there. I notice their lives, I spend time with them: just sitting with these people. In the Ukraine, in Romania, in Hungary, everywhere we shoot, I watch the people and begin to understand something about their lives, and I include something from this reality.
With the camera, then, I know that Valuska will come from here and continue walking. It's not something from the movies. Later, after shooting, when I am editing with Ágnes (Hranitzky, Tarr's collaborator and wife), we can begin to organize certain elements. It does not help that we have a background in film - we all have a background in reality.
When we shot this scene among the 600 unemployed workers, we did it with five people. There was very little assistance. It was on a more personal level, with personal communication, even though we spoke little, and the set was quiet. We were well-organized, and had few problems. It was a big event in my life, to work in this international sense - a German actor, a Hungarian cameraman, and so on - and everyone understood each other. Because we knew just one thing: we don't want to lie. The reality wasn't ours, the filmmakers'. It was coming from them, these 600 people, and we were responding. But to do it with no big organizations, no police, nothing - what an amazing event. That's a different language for a filmmaker: if you can forget for a moment that you are a filmmaker, you might get a little closer to reality.
Another director who had seen the film commented to me that it felt like a dream. I think it's a good description because it looks like a dream. It's a story like any other, but the effect can be real. For me, I need to show something that is true: a real voice. The world is silent, but you can always hear music.
The melancholy score of Mihály Víg, is this the music you hear?
No, not just Mihály Víg. But I began working with him eighteen years ago. I would go with him into the studio. But now I tell him about the movie, and he goes alone into the studio, and I trust him. This is the best way. Later we can decide what to use, but it's best that I don't give him instruction. This is one way I want my films to be different: to leave the people free during shooting. They will do better. Leave the composer, the actor, the camera person to work with less instruction. I don't know if it's working, but...
Lars Rudolph: The movement of the story we trust to Béla. I hadn't seen Sátántangó, and I didn't completely understand these long takes. I mean, why not just cut the short reels together? Well, now I know. Look at the screen and you know. It's an honor to work with Béla. At a time when so many are working in bad television - sure, everyone has to find their own enjoyment - I found Béla. Now I'm some inncocent angel, a postman, always looking... [laughs]!
So, there's a sense of apocalypse. Rather, a sense of foreboding because maybe the apocalypse isn't coming?
Apocalypse? What is this? Sure, I've read something in the Bible. Maybe we are in it, who knows?
Is this why the film takes place at no discernible time? "The eclipses will come, and they will pass."
Valuska says this. But now, he's in the hospital. He doesn't have any other choices. I can not say beyond that.
"All I ask is that you step with me into the boundlessness," says Valuska, orchestrating his drunk cosmic theory. But it sounds also like an invitation to experience your film.
Well, why not?
The prince in the film says that our will to knowledge comes from our fear. What do you think we're afraid of?
More than anarchy, I think order can be terrifying. In the film, there is chaos. These hundreds of unemployed workers, they are hungry, they have little chance of changing their lives, and they are waiting for something, anything better. They are waiting for one word, for someone to just say one thing to them, because no one has said anything to them, and they are waiting, like many people around the world. What is keeping these people from turning to violence, from destroying the world? This prince comes - a typical demagogue - and of course a demagogue can use people who are restless.
Most important to me are the faces of people as they are marching. If you see this, you understand the film more than if I talk about the prince.
The faces of these people, they don't seem particularly... happy. In fact, no one seems happy in your films.
Are they really unhappy? Maybe you, in a theater, can laugh, or be happy.
Maybe Valuska is happy?
Yes, but he changes. The moment he witnesses this disaster is the moment he understands something. Once he sees the world falling apart, he can't go back. He understands nothing that the prince says. He's polite, trying to live a normal life. He wants to see this whale, and he's happy then. To him, the people in the square are kind people. He's just delivering mail, and maybe he has a more eternal connection. But when he begins to feel helpless before this horrible reality, it's too much for him.
But early in the film, he seems to have the keenest sense that "everywhere is an impenetrable darkness."
It's more simple than that, more objective. You see him at the beginning of the film, we introduce him, and you know that maybe he's a strange guy. Because normally, no one does this in a bar! But these drunks, they know him. For Valuska, it's a ritual, and it makes him happy. It is late, the bar is closing, and they all just want one thing: Please don't close this fucking bar!
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"We all have a background in reality."
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A Seattle-based freelance writer, Jay Kuehner contributes frequently to Cinema Scope magazine.
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