Tuesday, 24 January 2012

#23 Hungary — Damnation (1987)

Why I chose this: I'm sure I've mentioned Bela Tarr a number of times in this series so far. Some of you may have picked up that he is one of my favourite directors. Having only seen Satantango, Werkmiester Harmonies and The Turin Horse, I jumped at the excuse to watch another.

The best way to watch a Bela Tarr film is with equal amounts of patience and Prozac. No-one else makes films which are quite as long, slow and depressing as Tarr. His 1994 masterpiece, Satantango, consists of around 150 shots where very little happens. It also happens to be seven hours long. The Turin Horse tones it down a bit, restricting itself to 30 shots and a measly three hours. It's a good thing that as well as the languid miserablism, his films are among the most beautiful, hypnotic, subtly absurd and intelligent you will find.

Damnation's themes are dense and numerous. Human absurdity, emotional and physical connections, obsession and relationship roles all feature.  devastating bleakness hangs over everything. It is present in the rain, the faces of the characters and the black-and-white images. The scene which I think ties all of these together and has the most emotional impact is the main character talking about his previous relationship with a joyous girl, which ended in her suicide. His descriptions created vivid, colourful pictures in my head, where the colour slowly faded as the happiness fell from their relationship.

The photography is outstanding, consisting of very long shots which track over space at a crawl. Often, the camera would start facing a wall, or the ceiling and I would try to guess just what it would do next; I was almost always wrong. The lighting is stark, striking and effective, evoking film noir at its best. The glacial pace of the shots and editing allow the viewer to drink in every detail of the frames and bask in the atmosphere.

Mihaly Vig's music is as excellent as in his other films (although his genius in The Turin Horse is perhaps the pinnacle of his achievement). It switches between ironically upbeat folksy tunes and melancholic melodic meanderings. The jet-black humour and ultra-bleak tone are both strengthened by its presence.

Tarr's film world is, as ever, unplaceable. It seems to at once exist in the past — a mix of 50s clothes and 70s hairstyles perhaps? — and some future circa the apocalypse. This adds to the absurdity and bleakness of the film and creates a truly unforgettable setting.

Many of the details are left to the viewer's imagination, so everyone's interpretation of certain elements will be different. For example, who is the poetic old woman with the umbrella who pops up every now and again? For me, she seemed like a remnant of a God who has long forsaken this land (hence the title). Others may think I'm talking rubbish; I'll let you decide.

If you have watched a film and thought that it was "too slow", this film probably isn't for you. If you want a well developed story, look elsewhere. But if you are patient, appreciate deep thematic exploration and want an unique experience, then Damnation and it's sister films are near unparallelled.

Also recommended from Hungary:
All other Bela Tarr films
Miklos Jancso (The Red and the White, The Round Up)
Marcell Jankovics (Feherlofia)


  1. Damnation is my favorite Bela Tarr film of the four that I've seen. It's nice to see it getting some love, because it is so often in the shadows of Satantango and Werckmeister Harmonies. Damnation is a masterpiece of atmosphere. I've watched it three times, with more to come, and I'm not sure I could ever get tired of the opening shot that spends minutes looking out at the coal bins moving on the cable line.

    1. Yeah, while I was watching the film I was thinking "So why don't people talk about this more?". I love the opening shot as well, and the first song in the bar could have gone on forever and I wouldn't have minded.