Sunday, July 12, 2015

Sight & Sound Sunday: Satantango (1994)

*In 2012, Sight & Sound published its decennial list of the greatest films of all time, from critics and directors. "Sight & Sound Sunday" is a biweekly weekly feature that investigates the top 50 films from this list, exploring how they came to be regarded as classics.*

2012 poll rank: #35 (tied with Metropolis, Psycho, and Jeanne Dielman, 23 quai du Commerce 1080 Bruxelles)

When the Berlin Wall began being torn down on November 4, 1989, it signaled the end of an era for central and eastern Europe. Since the end of World War II in 1945, almost the entirety of the central and eastern parts of the continent had come under Communist rule, mostly thanks to the influence of the Soviet Union. However, the western part of the continent - allies of the United States - opposed the spread of Communism. As the United States and Soviet Union embarked in a "cold war" that would carry on for nearly 50 years, Europe found itself divided by the "Iron Curtain," a name given to the arbitrary border that divided Communist Europe from "democratic" Europe ("democratic" because many nations are constitutional monarchies rather than republics). This curtain ran directly through a divided Germany - West Germany was a democratic ally of the United States, while East Germany came under Communist rule and aligned with the Soviet Union. The Berlin Wall - dividing the United States-backed western side of the city from its Soviet-backed eastern side - became the physical symbol of that divide. On one side (the west), the city was rebuilding; if not exactly a utopia, it was at least developing along with Western Europe into a more prosperous world. On the other side (the east) was a world made stagnant by failed planned economics and oppressive authoritarian rule. The contrast could not have been more stark.

The fall of the Berlin Wall, then, was the most potent image of the fall of Communism in Europe in 1989. Because the wall was a tangible object, it could best be used as a symbol to be celebrated, the moment when re-unification became a reality for a deeply fractured nation whose wounds could never properly heal divided. But it was hardly the only major moment during that year. Revolutions in Czechoslovakia, Poland, Bulgaria, Romania, and Hungary all saw Communist rule come to an end in those countries, and Albania, Yugoslavia, and finally the Soviet Union would end their Communist regimes within the next three years, with the latter two nations dissolving to eventually create 21 new nations over the next two decades. And the trend kicked off events around the world, with Cambodia, Ethiopia, Mongolia, and South Yemen abandoning Communist rule as well (the 1989 Tiananmen Square revolution in China failed to spark change; China, Cuba, Laos, Vietnam, and North Korea remain the only nations under Communist rule today).

The fall of these Communist regimes sparked intense artistic reactions within those countries. This isn't surprising; in most countries, artistic expression - especially anything that could be considered critical of the regime - was severely limited. The fall of Communism, then, was met with a number of works across all mediums that examined the period that had just past, the future that lay ahead, and the damage that would need to be repaired (if such a thing were even possible). In most cases, these works were critical of the regime and lamented the shattered history that it resulted in. To say the least, the art of post-Communist Europe was pretty dark.


This is true of Satantango, Hungarian filmmaker Bela Tarr's magnum opus. Based on a novel of the same name by Laszlo Krasznahorkai, the film is set in a small communal farming village in an unspecified setting. Mr. Schmidt (Laszlo Lugossy), whose wife (Eva Almassy Derzsi) is having an affair with neighbor Futaki (Mikos Szekely B.), is conspiring to steal money from the rest of the village after the farm collapses. His plans are put on hold, however, when rumors spread that Irimias (Mihaly Vig) - long thought to be dead - is soon returning. Irimias indeed does return, but he bears a sinister agenda: he's worked out a deal with Hungarian military officers to manipulate the villagers into giving him all of their money, then destroy the village and everyone in it. Only Schmidt, Futaki, and a local drunk nicknamed the Doctor (Peter Berling) are resistant to the charming man's plan, but how can they hope to stop him when everyone else follows blindly?

At 432 minutes (about 7 hours 12 minutes), Tarr makes the film feel even longer thanks to his extensive use of long takes. However, it serves to create a potent allegory for life in Hungary under an authoritarian regime, utilizing the film's running time, symbolic imagery, and desperate narrative to produce a portrait that's remarkably bleak.

More after the jump.

Even with the mammoth running time, Tarr doesn't waste a single moment, with every scene playing a crucial overall role in the narrative. And every scene itself can feel like a short film given Tarr's use of long takes. A long take is a shot that is uninterrupted by cuts, usually lasting significantly longer than an average shot. In modern cinema, the average shot runs approximately three to seven seconds, depending on the type of film that it is. Action films, for example, tend to have shorter average shot lengths (ASLs) because the pacing is quicker, giving the film more tension and urgency. Dramas, on the other hand, tend to have longer ASLs so that the viewer can be more immersed in the lives of the characters. Including a long take is usually meant to add a variation on the film's editing rhythms; to cite a famous example, in Alfonso Cuaron's Children of Men (2006), the ambush scene is shot as a long take to make the jolt of violence feel more visceral. The long take of the Copa in Martin Scorsese's Goodfellas (1990), on the other hand, is meant to provide the viewer with a lot of visual information at once.

In Satantango, however, nearly every shot is a long take; the film boasts an ASL of two minutes and thirty-three seconds. Several of the film's long takes extend well past that mark, reaching the ten-minute mark and beyond. Of course, long takes are a staple of Tarr's filmography; his version of Hamlet (1982) has an ASL of fifty-nine minutes, and every single one of his films are shot mostly in long takes. But here they add a significant element to the film's bleak narrative: a sense of oppression. As each shot stretches on beyond the audience's comfort zone, there's a feeling that Tarr is attempting to punish the audience through the sheer length of the film. The camera, in effect, becomes an all-seeing eye, a shadowy figure that's always gazing on the characters. Though the cinematography never explicitly mimics the look of surveillance, Tarr nonetheless implicates the audience in watching the unfortunate fate of these characters unfold. It's a subtly accusatory stance to adopt, equating the audience with the world that failed to help the Hungarian people fight back against their oppressors.


That being said, Tarr hardly paints these characters as noble heroes being broken by forces more powerful than themselves. Even before the charming Irimias has arrived, the villagers have conspired to commit a number of wrongs against each other, and the village itself is already in shambles as the film opens. A number of significant figures in the film are drunks, louts, murderers, or thieves, and Tarr insinuates that the village's ruin was the consequence of the inhabitant's actions. One crucial sequence involves a young girl by the name of Estike (Erika Bok) who is duped by her brother Sanyi (Andras Bodnar) into planting a "money tree." Vowing revenge, she is ridiculed by the Doctor, poisons a cat (a memorable shot that follows her for several minutes as she drags the cat through the woods), and is neglected by all of the village's residents. Her own mother, even, ignores her when she arrives at the local bar where most of the villagers are dancing in a Nero-fiddled bacchanal of drink and Spanish music. She poisons herself, but even at her funeral, there's little in the way of righteousness as Irimias takes advantage of the situation to take money from the villagers.

For Tarr, there's nothing but darkness in this world. There was nothing the villagers could do to fix their regression, and thus they were easily preyed upon by a power-mad authoritarian who's only interest was in himself. Tarr's statement is nihilistic: Communism took hold in Hungary because the Hungarian people were already weak and corrupt, making it easy for authoritarian rulers to exploit them and thoroughly destroy them (Tarr had originally intended to make the film in 1985, but, naturally, was met with resistance by the regime). His outlook is even more bleak. In the film's final scene, the Doctor returns to the village and doesn't even notice it's in ruins until a madman begins ringing what's left of the church's bells. In response, the Doctor returns to his home and draws all the curtains, blocking the world out completely and sitting in pitch blackness. Tarr's message is clear: there is no hope for his country of recovering from the wounds of Communism.

Of course, history has shown that Hungary has managed to recover, if not exactly prosper. History has also shown that Tarr is a nihilist by nature; even his 2011 swan song, The Turin Horse, was an oppressively bleak allegory. But despite this knowledge, Satantango has maintained its power as a post-Communist parable that captured the atmosphere of Europe in the early 1990s. There was a brand new world order, with little precedent of democracy, and populations broken by decades of oppressive rule. The film can be difficult to sit through, but that's purely by Tarr's design. Through its massive running time, potent symbolism, and pitch-black narrative, the film cuts deep, opening a wound that will likely never fully heal.

On the next "Sight & Sound Sunday:" Jeanne Dielman, 23 quai du Commerce 1080 Bruxelles (1975)

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