TOP 1000 REVIEWERon 12 March 2017
The quotidian and prosaic are fancy words for the mundane and everyday, things the peasant feels and endures. Or the beast of burden. Drudgery and sameness are the peasant’s lot rather than boredom, as boredom suggests a state of reflection that may lead to dissatisfaction, alienation. Reflection can be dispiriting, so better to just get on with it, to accept and not think.
Hungarian director Béla Tarr explores this condition here. The film is slow, methodical, deliberate, dull, mirroring the life it depicts. It’s also starkly beautiful, filmed in chaste black and white. Lacking major drama, small acts are amplified: the sound of splashing water, the cry of the wind, the look of light on a window sill or the shadows cast by objects.
A father (perhaps 50 years old or more) and his daughter (perhaps 25) live in a rural stone house. The surrounding landscape is barren and dusty, the wind constantly howling and blowing. They are isolated, neighbours scarce. There is no indoor plumbing. Their water comes from a well. They live with their horse, who is kept in a stable in the stone barn. There is no food but potatoes, and only hay for the horse. Their only luxury is pálinka, a traditional fruit brandy, often made from apricots, that originated in the Middle Ages in the Carpathian Mountains.
The horse is special. He is connected, they say, to the famous German philosopher Nietzsche who went mad. One day in Turin in 1889 Nietzsche beat up a hansom cab driver who was savagely whipping his horse. The cries of the horse must have pierced Nietzsche, broken him somehow. His rage was incandescent, bestial. He assaulted the driver and could have killed him — would have had he not been pulled off by others. He put his arms round the neck of the horse and sobbed. The horse was a physical entity, a sentient being with feelings. But it represented something more to the philosopher. In that moment it symbolised agony and suffering, universal hurt and pain. Or such was the interpretation of many afterward. Nietzsche was hospitalised thereafter and never fully recovered his mental faculties. How the horse came into the hands of the peasant is not known or explained. We are only told of the horse through narration at the beginning of the film.
The film takes place over six days. It is winter, the skies grey, the trees bare. Wind from an oncoming storm rages, blowing dust and leaves through the sky. The only shelters are the stone house and barn.
The days of father and daughter are uneventful, or filled with many small mundane events. They sleep, rise, dress, eat, do chores, seldom speak. Night falls, they light oil lamps, eat, go to bed, sleep again. The three constants are routine, sun and wind. Night follows day and the wind blows through each. Constancy and relentlessness: sunrise, sunset, the wind.
The father sits in the horse cart when the film opens, the Turin horse pulling him across the open landscape, the trees largely stunted and bent by the wind. The horse struggles as he pulls the man and cart into the wind, his head down, his breathing heavy.
They arrive at the stone house. Inside the daughter is waiting. The horse is taken to the stable, his harness and bridle removed. Here there is hay for him and warmth away from the wind.
The man’s right arm and hand are permanently damaged. They are useless. So the daughter performs many tasks her father can’t do or has difficulty with. One is dressing and undressing himself. He has trouble with buttons and boots. So she is steadfast in helping him each morning and night.
The interior of the stone house is simple: kitchen table, wooden stools, two narrow beds, a wood-fired stove. There is no sink, just a large metal tub for washing one’s face. No bathtub or indoor toilet. No electricity (in the year 1889). All is simple, functional, necessary.
“It’s ready.” These are the first words either person speaks to one another in the film. The daughter is telling her father to sit down at the wooden table. The potatoes are boiled and ready to eat. Only potatoes. No spices, greens, butter. It’s their meal every day, day and night.
They sit and eat vacantly, wordlessly. Whatever there was to say has been said in the past. Now silence replaces words. The room is cold. We know this because steam rises from the potatoes. Also, they wear coats. There is no heating apart from the kitchen stove.
When they do speak, as occasionally happens, it’s usually a command from the father. Fetch this or that, do this or that. The daughter’s speech in return is usually to acknowledge she has heard the command.
(This review from this point on may reveal more than you wish to know about the story. If so, it’s better to stop reading now. If not, carry on).
On the second day back the man wants to take the horse cart into the village. He harnesses the horse and hitches it to the cart. But the horse won’t move. He is stubborn and resists. The man gets down from the cart, but unlike the hansom cab driver in Turin, does not beat the horse. Instead, he takes him back to the stable, gives up on the idea of going into the village.
On the third day the daughter puts hay into the horse’s trough but he won’t eat. He also won’t drink when she puts a pail of water before him. Is he ill? It seems so. That same day seven gypsies in a cart pulled by two white horses arrive on the man’s property. He is incensed and chases them away with curses and an axe. But not before they can take water from his well. Before departing they give the daughter a gift as payment for the water — a religious book that talks about the destruction of the world.
The following day, the fourth day, the well has run dry. It is empty. A gypsy curse? We cannot be sure, but odd things are happening. A dry well, the horse not eating, a strange book given to them. What can they do? The man decides they must go, move, but where? The horse is too weak or uncooperative to pull the cart. They have a hand cart. They can pack it to the brim with some possessions and set off with it, the daughter pulling, the man pushing, the horse tied up behind the cart, walking with them.
They reach the crest of the hill beyond the property. A lone tree stands there, silhouetted against the stormy sky. We see four small shapes in shadow up there: the man, his daughter, the cart, the horse. They disappear over the rise and the film seems to end. But, no, it hasn’t. They return. Why? Who can say? Whatever it was they were looking for, perhaps they couldn’t find it.
The following evening the oil lamps in the house won’t work. They are lit, but soon afterwards the flame in them flickers and dies. The father reprimands his daughter for not filling them properly with oil. But she protests: all three of them are full. Another mystery they cannot solve.
The night is pitch black without the lamps, and during the night — the night of the fifth day — the storm and its violent gales pass. The following day the daughter won’t eat. Her father says she must, but she won’t. No hay and sustenance for the horse, no potatoes and sustenance for the daughter. No water, either. Maybe the book the gypsies gave her is correct. Perhaps the world’s destruction is imminent.
The world of the father, daughter and horse at least seems doomed. We can’t be sure how they can carry on.
What does it mean? What did Béla Tarr wish to say? If it’s an allegory, I think it must be one of struggle and futility. Water may be in the well, but, if so, you have to keep going back for it, bucket in hand, day after day, week after week, and so on. If you don’t, you die. The days come and go, sustaining us. But eventually the light will fade, just as one day the well will run dry. The light in fact does not fade, because the sun goes on shining. Likewise, there will always be water on Earth, the water planet we happily call home. But a time is coming when you will not see the light, taste the water, so in effect they will no longer exist, at least not for you.
Finality — that’s where all our days are headed. And here in the daily routines and rhythms of these peasants we see theirs headed there too. Maybe dwelling on this is also what drove the sensitive Nietzsche mad. At least he cared for the well-being of sentient beings, horses included.