Béla Tarr and "This Process of Making"

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By Jay Kuehner

"We all have a background in reality."

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.

A shadow.

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