Wednesday 11 October 2017

We Don't Go Back – Guest Post: The Turin Horse (A Torinói Ló) (2011)

So it's Guest Post Week, and the second post of this week comes from esteemed colleague Daniel Pieterson who wrote this fabulous piece on Bela Tarr's 2011 The Turin Horse (A Torinói Ló).

The heaviest burden: “What, if some day or night, a demon were to steal after you into your loneliest loneliness and say to you: ‘This life, as you now live it and have lived it, you will have to live once more and innumerable times more; and there will be nothing new in it, but every pain and every joy and every thought and sigh and everything unspeakably small or great in your life must return to you, all in the same succession and sequence—even this spider and this moonlight between the trees and even this moment and I myself. The eternal hourglass of existence is turned over again and again—and you with it, speck of dust!’”
– Friedrich Nietzsche, The Gay Science
One of the great challenges with Folk Horror is defining the genre’s boundaries and this is precisely because it is a genre composed of boundaries; we think perhaps most immediately of the liminal lands that separate town and country or the chronological conflicts between tradition and the modern but there are more metaphysical boundaries, too, and they are perhaps the most relevant of all.

Béla Tarr's 2011 film The Turin Horse (A torinói ló, in Tarr’s native Hungarian) is perhaps not the most obvious inclusion into the folk horror canon, yet it is a creation of boundaries and the grey areas that lie between them. It is not a horror film in the traditional sense of the term, there is nothing here that is frightening or monstrous, but it is suffused with the deep horror that pervades the everyday. The Turin Horse’s boundaries are not the simply geographical, although landscape plays a major role in the film, but are ones which lie between hope and despair, sanity and madness. They are, ultimately, the boundaries between life and death.
The film opens with the narrator’s disinterested voice, Béla Tarr himself, recounting the possibly apocryphal tale that is reflected in the film’s title. In the first days of 1889, in the Italian city of Turin, the German philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche witnessed a horse being flogged by its owner in the Piazza Carlo Alberto. This sight precipitated a breakdown in Nietzsche who ran to the horse, flung his arms around it and fell into the void of a complete mental collapse, one he would then be lost in for the ten long years until his death. I remember reading this story as a philosophy student in the late 90s and being struck by the conflict between the image of this stern, Teutonically-moustached thinker – all ubermensch and will-to-power – and the empathy that would allow you to take another’s pain into you, to absorb it to the extent that it killed you. I realised, over the course of some years, that this episode outlines the conflict in Nietzsche’s thought, the conflict he believed was at the core of humanity; the desperate striving of the already-mentioned will-to-power and the suffocating concept of the eternal return, encapsulated in the prologue to this essay. We are driven to succeed even as we fail, even as we know we will fail again. It is a line of thought that has fuelled my own inner dialogues, and those of many others:
Estragon: I can't go on like this.
Vladimir: That's what you think.
– Samuel Beckett, Waiting For Godot
Whether the horse we see in the opening shot of the film, dust-smeared and ill-treated, is the same horse and the grizzled old man, one arm withered at his side, is the same owner is inconsequential. We must remember that the link is not literal, but metaphorical. There is not one Turin Horse, but many. One for each of us.

The film itself tells the story, such as it is, of the life of the old man (who is named only once, by the narrator, as Ohlsdorfer) and his daughter across six days. It shows us, in great and repetitive detail, their poverty; the material poverty of their isolated and dilapidated farmhouse but also the spiritual poverty of their mechanical, monochrome lives. Strangely, by dwelling intimately on this poverty – the taking off and putting on of threadbare clothing, the fetching of water, the chopping of wood – we are drawn into the hardship and the film never romanticises nor criticises their lot in life; it simply is. I begin to think of my own repetitions - the commute to work, staring out of the rain-smeared window – and how they confuse when interrupted, when they are broken down into nonsense.

One of the key threads of the film, a very folk horror thread, concerns itself with what happens not when humanity encroaches upon nature, but when nature rejects humanity; an Anti-Genesis where Creation is undone, day by day. The farmhouse and lands around it are battered constantly by a fearsome gale that whips up great curtains of obscuring dusts and whirls dead leaves around like flutters of ash. It whistles in through holes in the walls, under ill-fitting doors, and sweeps tiles from the roof. The nameless daughter struggles against its assault as she staggers back from the well, laden with buckets of water. It is as if the very air has turned against them and that is, of course, because it has. Equally, the pair subsist on meagre meals of the only thing that seems to grow on their land; gnarled and rough-skinned potatoes, boiled and salted. In fact, we only see the daughter retrieve potatoes from a storage hopper. Perhaps nothing grows there any longer. Has the earth, taciturn brother of the mercurial air, also turned against them?
Their near-silent cohabitation is broken by that most well-used of horror film tropes; a scratch at the door and a turning handle. Yet, it is only a neighbour come to ask for some pálinka, the fiery fruit brandy that sets our tale firmly in Béla Tarr's Hungary. A neighbour from where, however? We see no other houses, no sign of human habitation at all. The old man and his daughter seem indifferent to his presence even as he launches into a monologue, a weirdly apocalyptic counterpoint to the nonsensical logorrhoea of Waiting For Godot’s Lucky, explaining why he came to them (the nearby town has “blown away”, he claims) and that “it’s been going on like this for centuries. On and on”. He continues, decrying the existence of God and gods, to claim that there can be no change in the world as “this change has indeed taken place”; there is nothing new, it is, as the man portentously announces, all “burnt out, extinguished”. Then, as suddenly as he arrived, he shrugs and departs. Again this sense of Anti-Genesis resurfaces as garrulous, opinionated Humanity leaves the worn-out Adam and Eve alone, in silence.

The next day sees another visitation, this time from a group of gypsies who come down from the surrounding hills in a cart and take water from the water. Ohlsdorfer’s first and only thought is to drive them off, which he does by brandishing his hatchet, but it is curious to think that this group are the only ones who exhibit any sense of joy. They are happy to find water, dancing and laughing as they pull the sloshing bucket from the depths, and they laugh maniacally as they flee the old man’s feeble attempts at violence. Later the daughter finds the well to be dry. Have the gypsies cursed them, they claimed riotously that “the water is ours”, or has water itself followed its elemental siblings and turned against the pair?

The disappearance of their water supply galvanises the old man into what for the film is a frenzy of action; packing supplies and belongings in preparation to leave their farmhouse. Their world, meagre but full of utility, is condensed down into a singularity. Their horse has long since abandoned any pretence of obedience and stands motionless in its stall, as if held in stasis or lost in despair, so the pair load their handcart and head up, out of the valley. Yet it is futile. They disappear over the brow of a hill only to return moments later. No reason is given for their return, it is never mentioned, but the implication is obvious; they have become ghosts. This is not meant literally, there is no indication that they are dead, but they are trapped in a life that is little more than silent and impotent repetition, bound inescapably to their environment. They have crossed that great liminality, the boundary between the soul and soullessness. This is the other thread of the film; the point at which life becomes mere existence. Ohlsdorfer and his daughter have lost everything, even the animalistic reassurance of repetition. Even their horse, no longer included to eat or drink, understands the futility of the cycle of work and rest without progression or evolution, but the old man and the young woman persist like automata in an ornate clock.

Here, the film descends into its harrowing and utterly bleak final act. The light outside, which has always been present through cracks and holes in the walls, fades to nothing. “What is this darkness?”, queries the daughter. It is, of course, the Darkness that came before the Light; fiat tenebrae. She lights the sparse hovel’s lamps with a spill from the fire. They burn, sputter, gutter and then go out. Another spill is taken from the fire but the lamps won’t take, despite being freshly-filled with oil. “Even the embers went out”, says the daughter as the fire dies down to nothing. Now even fire, perhaps the most human of the elements in its voraciousness and fragility, has turned from them, from all of humanity.

They sleep, then wake again into darkness. Darkness and silence, as even the once perpetual wind has died. They pick at raw potatoes, no water to boil them in and no fire to boil the water. “We have to eat,” says Ohlsdorfer although he does not. The pair, silent and immobile, fade into the darkness.
It is the sixth day and at the ending there were no words. It is without form, and void.

The Turin Horse is a bleak film, inescapably bleak. It is a film in which, to many extents, nothing happens but, because of this, it allows everything to happen. It is full not of sadness but of something beyond sadness, something from before sadness was created. An emptiness. Yet I don’t find it a depressing film; Ohlsdorfer and his daughter never wallow or bemoan their circumstances although, admittedly, they also do not fight them.

As the screen fades to the deepest black I can’t help but believe, pulled by the will-to-power into the eternal return, that something new will emerge from this condensation of everything old. Maybe it will be different, maybe it will not but it will be.
Ghost light. Ghost nights. Ghost rooms. Ghost graves. Ghost ... He all but said ghost loved ones. Waiting on the rip word. Stands there staring beyond at that black veil lips quivering to half-heard words. Treating of other matters. Trying to treat of other matters. Till half hears there are no other matters. Never were other matters. Never two matters. Never but the one matter. The dead and gone. The dying and the going. From the word go. The word begone. Where else? Unnoticed by him staring beyond. The globe alone. Not the other. The unaccountable. From nowhere. On all sides nowhere. Unutterably faint. The globe alone. Alone gone.
– Samuel Beckett, A Piece Of Monologue