The end of pluralism in Béla Tarr s apocalyptic A torinói ló/the Turin Horse. Phil Mann - PDF

The end of pluralism in Béla Tarr s apocalyptic A torinói ló/the Turin Horse. Phil Mann Abstract Béla Tarr s final film, A torinói ló/the Turin Horse focuses on the struggle of a stableman and his daughter

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The end of pluralism in Béla Tarr s apocalyptic A torinói ló/the Turin Horse. Phil Mann Abstract Béla Tarr s final film, A torinói ló/the Turin Horse focuses on the struggle of a stableman and his daughter against the increasingly hostile environment. These elements slowly begin to consume their very existence, until ultimately they are cast into apocalyptic darkness. Tarr s movies have long been analysed through their very striking formal characteristics (András Bálint Kovács) or as universal studies of human degradation and struggle (Jonathan Rosenbaum) but are seldom examined with reference to national context. This lack of national context I find rather problematic and, as such, I propose to examine The Turin Horse as a Hungarian film with strong ties to national issues. With national specificity in mind, I will examine the film s descent into nothingness as an allegorical prophecy in reaction to the oppressive Fidesz government s controversial Constitutional amendments that have led to large-scale fears regarding the safety of basic human rights in Hungary. In The Turin Horse, Tarr strips his characters of their basic human rights. They are detained within their small farmhouse due to the ferocious and ceaseless gales and we focus on their immobility through long passages of stasis. I argue that this sense of forced containment can be understood as an allegorical representation of the Fidesz government s attempts to silence dissidents through the centralisation of Hungarian media that strengthens the power of the state at the expense of democracy and pluralism. Key Words: Béla Tarr, The Turin Horse, Hungary, Fidesz, allegory, pluralism, democracy, right-wing. ***** 1. Situating Béla Tarr as a Hungarian director. Over the past thirty-six years, Béla Tarr has emerged as one of the most internationally acclaimed auteurs in global art cinema. His work has been championed by prominent American scholars such as Jonathan Rosenbaum, David Bordwell and Susan Sontag, who all applaud the artistry of Tarr s work, predominantly focusing on the director s post 1987 output in which he established, 2 The end of pluralism in Béla Tarr s apocalyptic A torinói ló/the Turin Horse. what András Bálint Kovács describes as, the Tarr style. 1 This style is profoundly antithetical to the norms of commercial cinema. Through the use of long takes, deep focus photography and stark, low contrast black and white imagery Tarr presents a liminal world, one void of spirituality and sentiment. The use of elegant, lyrical monologues in favour of natural dialogue and heavily choreographed cinematography bestow upon his films a weight of existentialism. It is perhaps unsurprising, given this fact; that his work has been chiefly examined through the established canons of Bordwellian art cinema 2. Western academic interest in Béla Tarr, I would argue, demonstrates, what Paul Willemen describes as, projective appropriation 3, in which an assumed universality of film language 4 gains elevated status as a response to a lack of specific sociohistoriogtraphical context to situate analysis. For example, in his much cited article, A Bluffer s Guide to Béla Tarr, Jonathan Rosenbaum perceptively highlights the difficulties Western film scholars face when addressing Eastern European cultural production, stating: One reason that Eastern European films often don't get the attention they deserve in the West is that we lack the cultural and historical contexts for them. If Eastern Europe's recent social and political upheavals took most of the world by surprise, this was because most of us have been denied the opportunity to see the continuity behind them: they seemed to spring out of nowhere. The best Eastern European films tend to catch us off guard in the same way, and for similar reasons. 5 While Rosenbaum brings the matter of national context to the fore, he is quick to sidestep the issue, claiming: I believe that these problems are less serious than we tend to make them out to be; rather than pretend they don t exist, it seems more honest and useful to acknowledge them in the process of showing how and why they don t matter much. 6 Rosenbaum s article then proceeds to fall back on internationalist film scholarship, analysing selected Béla Tarr films as universal studies of human degradation. Willemen describes this form of analysis as evasive cosmopolitanism 7 resulting in inadvertent culture imperialism given the ascendency of Western, middle class scholars in the international field of film studies. In reaction to such universalism, I propose to address this socio-political void in the current literature on Tarr, examining his final film, A torinói ló/the Turin Horse (2011) in the light of significant social and political events occurring in Hungary at the time of the film s production, namely the 2010 media regulations and its impact on pluralism in Hungary. Phil Mann Tarr has, on numerous occasions, vocalised his belief that his films made in the Tarr style are indeed Hungarian, countering Kovács stance that there is nothing Hungarian in Tarr s films of the second period. 8 In an interview with Phil Ballard (2004), Tarr stated: Yes, we make Hungarian films, but I think the situation is a little bit the same everywhere. 9 Again, on the subject of his 2000 release, Werckmeister harmóniák/werckmeister Harmonies, Tarr affirmed: [I]f you watch this film and you understand something about our life, about what is happening in middle Europe, how we are living there, in a kind of edge of the world. 10 This is unsurprising given that Tarr s earlier, pre-kárhozat/damnation (1987) films, all displayed a sincere social-conscience, focusing on issues pertinent to contemporary Hungarian society such as the housing crisis and the failures of the socialist system. In spite of the stylistic developments made in the later 1980s, Tarr has maintained ties to his native Hungary and has become an advocator of art and culture therein. Such is Tarr s commitments to the integrity of Hungarian art cinema that during the 32 nd Hungarian Film Week (Magyar Filmszemle) in 2001 he refused to exhibit Werckmeister Harmonies in a multiplex. 11 Tarr has also aided the development of the next generation of Hungarian filmmakers, producing Johanna (Kornél Mundruczó, 2005) A halál kilovagolt Perzsiából/Death Rode Out of Persia (Putyi Horváth, 2005), the collaborative film Magyarörszag 2011/Hungary 2011 (various, 2011) and Final Cut: Hölgyeim és uraim/final Cut: Ladies and Gentlemen (György Pálfi, 2012). In 2010 Tarr was elected as President of the Hungarian Filmmakers' Association, a position he continues to hold to this day. His appointment roughly corresponded with the wide-scale restructuring of the media at large following the Fidesz government s electoral victory in 2010, on which Tarr has been unfavourably vocal. On January first, 2011 two controversial statutes came into law, namely Act CIV of 2010 on the Freedom of the Press and the Fundamental Rules of Media Content and Act CLXXXV of 2010 on Media Services and Mass Media. These controversial legislations have led to public protests and have incurred the disapprobation of the European Parliament and the OSCE: Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe, as well as non-governmental organizations such as Amnesty International, Article 19 and Human Rights Watch. What, then, was the precise nature of the new media laws that led to such wide-scale protest? Allow me to clarify. 2. Fidesz and the threat to Hungarian human rights. The controversy surrounding the media laws lies in what the bill s aforementioned detractors see as an infringement of basic human rights. As part of a radical overhaul of the media industry, the previously autonomous and individual broadcast, print and Internet media sectors have been amalgamated under a single 3 4 The end of pluralism in Béla Tarr s apocalyptic A torinói ló/the Turin Horse. regulatory system, the National Media and Infocommunications Authority (A Nemzeti Média és Hírközlési Hatóság, NMHH). Concerns over the independence of the Media Authority have come to the fore due to the fact that the NMHH s president is appointed by the Prime Minister, Viktor Orbán and whose members are elected by parliament, of which the Fidesz-Christian Democratic People's Party (Kereszténydemokrata Néppárt, KDNP) coalition holds a two-thirds majority. As Article 125 (1) of the Media Law state; [t]he President of the Authority appointed by the President of the Republic shall become a candidate for the President of the Media Council by virtue and from the moment of appointment. 12 This was another bone of contention given the fact that this government-appointed official resides over this Council whose remit includes enforcing media laws and granting broadcasting licenses. Human rights organisation, Article 19, voiced concerns over the Media Council, asserting that [t]he remaining four members of the Media Council are also persons loyal to the ruling party. All members were exclusively nominated and appointed by the Fidesz-KDNP MPs. 13 Another cause for concern has been the changes to the Hungarian Criminal Code, in which heavy fines and up to three years imprisonment have been sanctioned as punishment for the circulation of potentially defamatory broadcast or printed material. The OSCE Representative on Freedom of the Media, Dunja Mijatović said the following in response: These amendments to the penal code can further restrict media freedom. The penalties for publishing defamatory recordings are disproportionate and may lead to the silencing of critical or differing views in society. 14 Many of the new media laws raise questions over interpretation and are often indistinct. Article 14 (1), for example states: The media service provider shall respect human dignity in the media content that it publishes. 15 Likewise, Article 16 maintains that [m]edia contents shall not violate the constitutional order. 16 The ambiguity of these laws discourages confrontation resulting in [i]ndependent media outlets conduct[ing] self-censorship as a result of unclear regulations. 17 In this brief assessment of some of the changes to the Hungarian media laws what becomes evident is the considerable threat to media pluralism. The Hungarian film industry, too, was bound to the laws of the NMHH, and restructured in the light of the monopolistic Media Authority, creating a schism between the Hungarian Filmmakers' Association and the newly established cinematic infrastructure. 3. The effect of the Media Law on Hungarian cinema. Under the wing of the NMHH, the Hungarian National Film Fund (Magyar Nemzeti Filmalap, MNF) was established in 2012, replacing the long-standing and self-governing Hungarian Public Film Foundation (Magyar Mozgókép Közalapítvány, MMKA), dissolved by government in Conceived by government appointed commissioner, Andrew G. Vajna, the MNF claims to support both art and entertainment-oriented cinema via finance raised through tax revenue from the National Lottery. Through its continuous submission Phil Mann system, development and production finance is allocated on a selective basis. However, due to the centralisation of the system fears have raged over political bias in the allotment of funds. One such detractor is Béla Tarr, who claims the MNF was established by sheer political will and without referring to representatives of the field 18 and as such, is both unacceptable and illegitimate. 19 The MNF has also sparked fears that the autonomy of film art will be compromised under a structure more closely resembling a streamlined Hollywood studio than the artistic workshop approach that governed the industry in the past. 20 The anxieties of Hungarian filmmakers and industry personnel are not unfounded and since the formation of the NMHH there has been a visible lack of state support for the industry, practically driving production to a halt. The extent of the decline in film production is made evident in Hungary Produced by Tarr, the film consists of a series of shorts made by an assemblage of Hungarian filmmakers. The necessity of the anthology format is directly linked to the current state of the Hungarian film industry. Hungary 2011 is a compromised response to silencing of cinematic art through the withdrawal of state funds. Tarr had the following to say about the film at Berlinale In the situation that evolved around Hungarian film we see no other possibility to prove our existence than with the help of a video series calling the viewers attention to the fact that we are still capable of working and expressing our thoughts, reflections and feelings. These films are produced on virtual cents. The creators accepted to work without receiving any kind of payment and to use the most inexpensive technique possible. 21 The effects of the government stranglehold on the national film industry are not just visible on the production side. In 2011, the Hungarian Film Week was initially cancelled due to exponential parliamentary budget cuts. The festival was resurrected in May only to show films predominantly released the previous year. The 2012 Film Week saw films no longer competing for prizes because of budgetary limitations as the 43 rd annual national film festival was no longer backed by the state. Yet, as an act of solidarity, Tarr and his associates made sure the event took place, albeit in skeletal form. The 2012 Hungarian Film Week defiantly demonstrated, as Tarr himself proclaimed, that Hungarian film is alive. 22 Unfortunately for Hungarian cinema, the 43 rd annual Hungarian Film Week of 2012 was, as of this date, the last time the event took place. In both 2013 and 2014 the event was cancelled because, as Tarr himself declared: THERE IS NOTHING TO SCREEN! THERE IS NOTHING TO CELEBRATE! 23 (author s capitalization). Perhaps the most infamous example of the challenge to pluralism in Hungarian cinema was made evident following Tarr s Jury Grand Prix success at the Berlinale in Having won the Silver Bear for The Turin Horse, Tarr was interviewed by 5 6 The end of pluralism in Béla Tarr s apocalyptic A torinói ló/the Turin Horse. German daily newspaper, Der Tagesspiegel. When questioned about the state of the arts in Hungary Tarr stated that Hungarian artists were in the midst of a culture war 24 with the government. Tarr was quoted as saying: the government hates intellectuals because they are liberal and oppositional. It has insulted us as traitors. 25 As a result of this public statement, Mokép, Hungary s national film distributor, now under the control of the MNF, cancelled both the Hungarian premiere of The Turin Horse and the film s nationwide distribution. In response to these actions, Tarr was forced to disassociate himself from the interview. Yet in another interview conducted in 2014 Tarr stated: The situation in Hungary is horrible and I feel that democracy is in danger We re fighting a losing battle. If people want to make films they have to compromise with the system The Turin Horse and the end of Pluralism Tarr is somewhat exempt from the compromises that bind fellow Hungarian filmmakers due to his global reputation and established network links with international production companies. The Turin Horse was a co-production by Tarr s now defunct production company, T.T. Filmmuhely, along with production companies from Switzerland, Germany, France and the USA. The Turin Horse is a minimalist film focusing on the struggle of a stableman and his daughter against the increasingly hostile environment. Over the course of the narrative s six-day structure, unprompted events slowly begin to consume their very existence, until ultimately they are cast into apocalyptic darkness. The film opens as Ohlsdorfer (János Derzsi), the stableman returns to his daughter (Erika Bók) at their remote farmhouse on the back of a horse and cart. The wind howls ferociously, kicking up leaves and other debris as the pair silently return the horse to its stable. The daughter precedes to undress and cloth her father before preparing their meal consisting of a solitary boiled potato each. This opening scene serves as an indicator as to what will follow. Over the course of the preceding five days we see the daily routines of the father and daughter repeated in unflinching detail. These scenes are meticulously depicted, drawn-out to highlight their minimal existence. On the second day, the horse refuses to move, prompting the first of a number of unknown external forces that ultimately lead to the apocalypse. What follows is a series of unexplained and unprovoked happenings that includes the sudden drying of the well, which necessitates they leave their home and find refuge elsewhere, their mysterious return to the farmhouse as a result of the relentlessly harassing environment and finally, the apocalyptical darkness; the ultimate vision of containment. This sense of forced containment and stasis can be understood as a metaphorical representation of oppression. The lack of freedom the stableman and his daughter endure as a result of these external factors mirror that of the Hungarian film industry, whose freedom of expression is compromised by the external force of Phil Mann the Hungarian media laws. The spontaneous nature of these strange occurrences offers parallels to the sudden and unforeseen nature of Fidesz s media amendments, which had not been part of their 2010 election campaign and was thus not offered for public consent. The lack of diegetic dialogue in the film is particularly striking. Gone are the lyrical monologues synonymous with the Tarr style and instead, protagonist interaction is kept to a minimum serving mere function. The silencing of the poetic dialogue has obvious connotations to the stifling of art, as the new media laws threaten to do. This lack of expression is echoed through camera movement. Kovács acknowledges a marked decline in the rate of motion in comparison to previous work. 27 When examining the films of the Tarr style Kovács highlights the fact that the camera is in motion for no less than sixty percent of the time. This figure drops remarkably to under thirty percent in The Turin Horse. Immobility, like silence, functions as a metaphor for government oppression of cultural articulation. On the second day the farmhouse receives a visit from Bernhard (Mihály Kormos) who wishes to buy some pálinka from Ohlsdorfer. This scene is noteworthy for having the only diegetic monologue in the entire film, and significantly, Bernhard s monologue is key to understanding the film s agenda. When asked as to why he didn t go into town Bernhard replies the wind has blown it away. Bernhard goes on to blame a nameless they, stating: everything has been debased that they ve acquired and since they ve acquired everything in a sneaky, underhand fight, they ve debased everything. Because whatever they touch and they touch everything they ve debased. Bernhard s rant is, for me, a condemnation of the legitimacy of the Media authority, which, as Tarr has publicly proclaimed, acquired control of the national media in a similarly underhanded manner. Bernhard then goes on to declare: Because for this perfect victory it was also essential that the other side That is, everything that s excellent, great in some way and noble should not engage in any kind of fight. There shouldn t be any kind of struggle, just the sudden disappearance of one side, meaning the disappearance of the excellent, the great and the noble. Such a statement can be read as a criticism of the unethical process of centralisation, which eliminates political debate and public discussion by eradicating the opposition; Fidesz s 2014 supermajority election victory serves as a prime example of this. 7 8 The end of pluralism in Béla Tarr s apocalyptic A torinói ló/the Turin Horse. On the fifth day, as Ohls
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