By Michael Guillén
With The Man From London, Béla Tarr creates what David Bordwell might characterize as a "grave and majestic" portrait of a conflicted man gripped by a state of scepsis. Tethered to the mundane, Maloin (Miroslav Krobot) - as Tarr describes him - "lives simply, without prospects, beside the infinite sea, takes little notice of the world around him, accepts his slow and inevitable deterioration of life and almost complete isolation. Gradually his contacts shrink and become mechanical." And then something remarkable happens. Maloin witnesses a murder and retrieves a valise of stolen money. "The temptation of a new life of a different quality takes hold over him." But it is exactly a new life configured as "temptation" that thrusts Maloin into moral rupture, a questioning of all with which he has held faith. As Darren Hughes has suggested to me in conversation, the suspense inherent in The Man From London is precisely a question of faith.
Premiering at the 2007 Cannes Film Festival, The Man From London then docked on North American shores at the 2007 Toronto International Film Festival where I was offered the chance to speak with Béla Tarr. A reputed contrarian, I found myself uncharacteristically nervous on my way to meet him. I didn't know what else to do but to be upfront about it. I admitted to him that I was terrified of him; that I had heard he chewed up journalists like me for lunch and spit them out. His piercing blue eyes twinkled, and he laughed, put his hand on my shoulder and, in a warm, honey-thick accented voice, assured me, "Don't worry."
Béla, when I was a young kid, I was taught that it is in the performance of your everyday tasks that your radiance shines through. Your films demonstrate this repeatedly, specifically The Man From London. Can you talk about why revealing the eternal through the everyday is such an important theme for you?
I have to go back to the time when I did my first movie, which was about a social problem. In this re-creation, which was terribly concrete, I could find something that was a little bit more than the daily life. Since that moment 30 years ago, I have always been interested in the concrete situation; but, if it's too concrete, I'm really not interested. I've just always tried to find some cosmological significance in this micro situation. It's a kind of microcosmos. I like very much Bartók's Mikrokosmos; do you know this piece?
That's all. For me it's always important to tell you something and show something which is really eternal; but it's always happening. It's happening with us now.
It's intriguing to me that you would use that term "microcosmos" because the same person who taught me about radiance coming through the performance of everyday tasks likewise used the term microcosmic-macrocosmic correspondence - the Taoists say, "As above; so below" - to describe the human relationship to the eternal.
I've seen three of your films - Werckmeister Harmonies, Satantango and now The Man From London, which I found to be the most accessible of the three. In all three, I'm struck not only by the movement of your camera but the movement of your actors and how your camera tracks their ambulations. These are long track shots where the actors walk some distance - distances they're familiar with - and with which the audience becomes familiar, as if becoming accustomed to the everyday routes and routines of your characters. Route equals routine, in other words, and how the route varies signifies a change in routine. Further, this abstraction is compounded by the fact that the faces of your characters are nearly void of affect. They reveal little. Which serves to emphasize that underneath there is a lot of thought and emotion going on, a lot of internalization. It seems you try to remedy this through close-ups on the face whereby glimpses are shown of the internal activity, invariably through the eyes. You do this rather than having them act out anything that reveals what's within. Why do you take that taciturn approach?
That's really a part of the practical work. I know two kinds of directors. One who reads the script and is concentrating on the story line. That is something I never do. I'm always listening for the characters and the personalities of the actors. For me, the most important thing is to show you how they are living, how it goes for them in their real life, and how they communicate. Normally, it's mostly eye contact. If you watch someone's eyes for a long time, it's not necessary to use any words because you will begin to understand and will see what is happening. You can see what is happening inside because his or her eyes will tell you and show you. That's why I trust my actors and trust, of course, the situation because the situation has to be perfect physically, psychologically. At every point the situation has to be perfect and comfortable because, in this case, the actors are not acting anymore; they are just being. You can see the real life and you can see the real personality of this actor or the character. You can go with them. It's not necessary to tell and tell and tell. I'm fed up with this whole narrative thing because the movie - you know what? - without the narrative, the movie has a chance; you can show something. It's not necessary to tell. Do you remember the end take of the Werckmeister Harmonies? When the old man goes to the eye of the whale?
Nobody can ever tell you by words what is happening in this old man and in this sad eye of the whale. But I can show you and that's enough. I trust your eyes and I trust your heart and I trust your emotions. I really trust the audience.
Speaking of what's said with the eyes, in The Man From London there were two scenes that brought my heart to my throat. The first was when Maloin comes to take his daughter Henriette (Erika Bók) away from her abusive employer, the butcher's wife. Her anger, registered through her eyes, could have stopped a clock! Who is that actress and how did you come to cast her?
She's Kati Lázár. I've worked with her before in Werckmeister Harmonies. She was in the newspaper office and the post office. She played the woman who selected the newspapers. She's an actress in Hungary working mostly in the theater; but, I like her very much.
The other scene I loved was when Mrs. Brown (Ági Szirtes) realizes that her husband - "The Man From London" - has been caught up in something more than she can cope with. I don't know how you did it, maybe it's the sheer magic of the camera, but her tear as it wells in the corner of her eye glitters and sparkles. It is so beautiful and moving.
I told her, "You have to do this process." From when she gets the news to when she understands how she's been blackmailed. How they are pushing her. That was also important. One thing is sure, we are really doing movies about human dignity, which is always being destroyed throughout the day. The challenge becomes finding actors who can show you the dignity of the character. In such a situation, you can get real human reactions. That's terribly important for me; that my actors have a strong dignity.
There's a genuine momentum to your actors. Their actions don't appear staged. They seem to come right out of the situations they're in, from the storyline.
From the situation, not the storyline. We never talk about the story because it's not important. We just talk about the real situation, the physical situation.
In this situation then, where you're adapting a novel, which has its own narrative integrity, how do you work with your actors? Do you single out specific scenes or situations that have a psychological validity for their characters?
No, no. The script is written. László Krasznahorkai and I decide together how we want the script. I've worked with him for 25 years. Before filming, we decide what kind of situations are going to be in the movie and we write that down. On the other hand, we change things during the shooting. Several times we reduce the text, allowing more chance for the meta-communications than the verbal communication. It's absolutely necessary because several times the actors speak different languages. For example, Maloin was Czech, Tilda [Swinton] was Scottish, the daughter in the movie, she's Hungarian. You know, she was the small girl from Satantango? Now she's 22. I'm very faithful. I like to work with the same people.
I imagine they understand what you're going for better?
Tarr: Yes, it's much easier. I don't talk too much during shooting. Maybe just something like, "Louder. Lower. Faster. Slower." That's enough. Because if you have the right cast, if you have the right situation physically and psychologically, and if they are able to be, it is not necessary to direct. I'm not directing. It just looks like a conductor. If you have good musicians and a good musical piece, if you trust the whole staff, then in this case you just say, "Okay, now." That's enough.
Part of the artistry of your work, however, is that you have fully thought things out way ahead of shooting. You arrive to the set prepared. The sinuosity of your camera, your track shots, are amazing and require prolonged choreography. How do you set up that choreography? What's your relationship with your camera man? Do you try different things out?
No, no. First of all, you have to know I'm terribly autocratic. I have a very strong imagination about the picture and I know very well the whole movie before we start to build the set. They build the set for what I have imagined. When I hunted for the location, it was very important for me to find the geographical conditions for what I imagined. When I found the place, then we could start to build the signal cage and put in the train tracks and the train and the boat. We put everything together and then afterwards it was very easy to build the track for the camera and it was ready.
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