Spectacular Attractions Podcast #8

[Werckmeister Harmonies (Bela Tarr, 2000)]

Episode 8 of this series of podcasts is an extended discussion of Bela Tarr’s amazing Werckmeister Harmonies, and it’s intended to introduce key aspects of the film to viewers encountering it for the first time. The original post features a reading list and footnotes, along with images and links to other resources. Hopefully, together these will make the film more digestible, but they by now means finish the job of getting to grips with its mysteries.

There will be two more episodes in this “season 1” of Spectacular Attractions, and then I’ll take a short hiatus to fix the iTunes feed, take stock of what I’ve learned from these trial runs, before coming back with new material and a more professional (or at least practiced) approach. It’s been an interesting process learning how to record and edit these things, and I hope you’ve find them interesting and informative to listen to. Any suggestions for future episodes, or technical tips, would be gratefully received.

DOWNLOAD: Spectacuar Attractions Podcast #8

[Find more Spectacular Attractions podcasts here, or subscribe via iTunes here. Read the original article on Werckmeister Harmonies here.]

New Look, Old Posts.

I’m in a meeting. I’ll be back soon. Apologies for the relative lack of updates here at Spectacular Attractions. I’m entering a period of exceptional busyness which will keep me in meetings for the next week or so. The first casualty of gainful employment is blogging, apparently, so although I’m keen to share with you my current research on puppets, ventriloquism, motion capture, anime and bunraku, I can’t give it all the attention it deserves. Instead, I’m going on a brief hiatus.

To mark my absence, I’m testing a new look for the site (again). I may change it again, but this outfit should freshen things up a little. To see how the new theme sits with the archive of older posts (sometimes changing the furniture can upset the formatting of posts that were designed to sit in different places), I’m going to repost some of my old favourites which you may have missed. I hope you like them – most of them come from an earlier time when this place attracted far less traffic than it does today, so they may not have been noticed by more recent visitors. I’ll also repost, separately, my massive shot-by-shot analysis of Georges Méliès’ A Trip to the Moon, with updates, not least because it took me ages and I’m keen to get it noticed and to keep on developing it from your suggestions and comments. Thanks again for stopping by.

If you’ll excuse me lolling about on my laurels for a bit of self-reflection, here are Spectacular Attractions’ ten favourite posts:

2001: This Way Up?: Did the world really need another blogger’s opinion of Stanley Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey? Was yet another interpretation going to finally solve its mysteries? Probably not, but this is one of my most concise and cohesive bits of blogging and it would make me feel warm inside if more people got to read it.

Avalon: Analysis of Mamoru Oshii’s beguiling/maddening, existential cyberthriller, distinguished by some fascinating discussion in the comments section – thanks to all concerned. Includes updates following repeat viewings.

Jacques Tati’s Playtime: Modern Life is Noisy: It’s one of my favourite films of all time, and it just gets more fascinating every time I see it. It’s also one of my most valued teaching aids when it comes to talking about film sound.

Kind Hearts and Coronets: The Gentle Art of Murder: I wrote this as an introduction for some first-year students who weren’t sure why they were meant to be watching it. Hardly anyone has read it, unfortunately. It took me a while to put together. Sadness.

Nine Minutes of Cows: When I wrote later about Bela Tarr’s Werckmeister Harmonies, thousands of people at least glanced at it, and some may even have read the words, but next to nobody took a look at this, one of my first ever posts at Spectacular Attractions (and one of the early, funny ones). It talks naively about the opening shot of Tarr’s Sátántangó and could probably do with some sub-editing, but I’m a bit fond of it as a starting point.

Why don’t you send us a photo?”: Chantal Akerman’s News From Home: Against the odds, this film has quietly lodged itself in my mind as an all-time favourite. It’s a meditative, solemn experience, and most of my students object quite strongly against it, so I hoped that this post would go some way towards explaining its significance.

Unbreakable Patterns: Remember when M. Night Shyamalan was a promising talent who treated genre films with reverential care and a defiantly contemplative visual style? If not, I humbly hope this post about his classy, glassy superhero drama will jog your memory.

Two or Three Things I Reckon: Written as an introductory guide for some of my students to one of Godard’s trickiest, but most rewarding 1960s films, putting this together reminded me of how deliberately composed, how compassionate, humane and hungry his films were back then.

J.S. Bach – Fantasia in G Minor: I can’t get enough of Jan Svankmajer’s dense, incantatory short films, and maybe one day I will have managed a post about each and every one of them. There are four so far, but this discussion of his musical, montagist, puppetless masterpiece is the one most starved of readership to date.

Don’t Look Now: “Did You Really See Her?”: It took me ages to get the appropriate frame grabs to illustrate this analysis of Nic Roeg’s endlessly rewarding maybe-ghost story, and at the very least I want to repost it to check that the new theme hasn’t ruined the arrangement of pictures. If it picks up a couple of new readers, that can only be a bonus.

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“All a Man Can Do is Look Upon it”: What’s With the Werckmeister Whale?

[See also How to Watch Werckmeister Harmonies]

And so continues a period of whale-watching at Spectacular Attractions. Having finally made the time to read Moby Dick over the summer, along with Philip Hoare’s Leviathan (a personal account of his fascination with whales, retracing the influences on Melville’s book), I got a bit interested in whales. I’m about to watch Lloyd Bacon’s mad, fast and loose adaptation from 1930, and then I’ll have a go at the other versions, some of which I’ve seen before, none of them recently. There are currently two (count them!) new adaptations of Moby Dick in production, the first a TV mini-series due for broadcast next year. It’s a German production with a British director, Mike Barker, and an American cast including William Hurt as Ahab and Ethan Hawke as Starbuck. The second is one of those “re-imaginings” that can bode so badly for all concerned, but it might just be crazy enough to work. It’s to be directed, alarmingly (but tellingly) by Timur Bekmambetov, director of gun-fetish gravity-mocking action movies like Wanted, and has no cast attached as yet. I’ll offer some updates as and when I can find them.

Read on…

How to Watch Werckmeister Harmonies


[You can now download a version of this post as a podcast here.]

First of all a disclaimer. Despite the title of this post, I don’t want to suggest that what follows is a “correct” reading of Béla Tarr’s Werckmeister Harmonies (2000), or to foreclose individual responses to it: it’s an enigmatic film, and no critical commentary can seal it up or explain it away. I’ve put it on an introductory film module for my second-year students and, while I myself perceive greatness in it, I understand why many viewers, thrown into a screening room on a Monday morning, might find it a bit of a struggle, so I want to give a few preparatory remarks that might give them a way in to its marvels, or at least to its workings: students don’t have the same options as regular cinemagoers – they can’t just walk out if they find it dull, dour, opaque and frustrating, because they know I’ll be asking them questions about it and expecting some considered responses. You don’t have to like this film, you just have to think about it, but I hope that it can be more than an intellectual exercise, but rather an emotionally enveloping experience.

Why does it have a reputation as a difficult film? Well, it’s quite long, slow, and it doesn’t tell its story in a familiar way. Rather than subsuming all of the stylistic and formal elements of the film to the all important narrative, Tarr’s camera will often linger on incidental details and minor characters, and it isn’t always clear what relevance they have to the film. Sometimes he will hold a shot for longer than seems necessary – but that just assumes that the length of a shot is “necessarily” defined by its function as a unit of narrative information. Tarr’s shots sometimes go on for so long that you have time to concentrate on their other aspects. Some people find this style to be ponderously slow and boring, a failure to get to the point and tell the story succinctly. You can approach the film from this angle, comparing and contrasting it with Classical narrative cinema, films that economise on their shot lengths and deliver the narrative in a series of swift, contained scenes. Alternatively, you can consider Werckmeister Harmonies on its own terms, and suspend the expectations that you usually bring to the cinema. Once you stop expecting the story to unfold at customary, commercial speed, it should make a lot more sense: shots will last long enough for you to appreciate their graphic elements, their composition, their ritualistic build up to a crescendo or anti-climax, and you can take in the scenery: every shot is composed in a stately manner, and the speed of the tracking rarely changes. Even sequences of violence and destruction do not deflect the camera from its steady movement through space.


I can summarise the plot quite quickly: in an unnamed Hungarian town, a circus act arrives, consisting of a giant whale and special guest ‘The Prince’. With it comes an ever-increasing, indefinable sense of impending disaster, as if it exerts a hidden power over the townsfolk and eventually compels them to a futile, destructive uprising. One man, János Valuska, observes the mounting tension as the whale attracts people from neighbouring towns, while others seek to take advantage of the situation to attempt a seizure of power: Tünde Eszter blackmails her estranged husband György into using his influence to gain support for her plot to restore “order and cleanliness” to the town, and János finds himself a helpless outsider to the ensuing chaos.

With its underlying aura of evil, social dissolution and masses motivated by abstract forces, it seems obvious to ascribe to the film a political allegory. After World War II, Hungary had been made a Communist state, ruled remotely by the Soviet Union, who maintained a military presence and enforced Stalinist principles of collectivisation. Following a popular revolt in 1956 against the repressive regime of Communist leader Mátyás Rákosi (which the Soviet Union put down with brutal military force), Hungarian socialism developed as a mixed ideology, a greatly liberalised approach to communism that held fast until 1989, when the collapse of communist control in Central Europe allowed a shift to a democratic government and a capitalistic market economy. If we see this as a film set at the close of one enveloping political ideology but prior to the establishment of another, it might be easy to find parallels in its depiction of an aimless populace primed for orders by a charismatic demagogue. But it might not be that easy to map an allegory onto the history. As Jonathan Romney suggests:

The film is dominated by a brooding atmosphere of apocalyptic unrest, though it is implied that the cosmic ‘evil’ pervading the town is the product of bourgeois paranoia. Tempting as it may be to relate the story to political changes in Hungary in the last days of Communism (Krasznahorkai’s novel was published in 1989), Tarr has insisted that his films contain no allegory. Yet the narrative is certainly one of anxiety about the breakdown of an old, enfeebled order and the explosive release of repressed popular energies.

It’s not easy to pin down such an allegory, even if we want to impose one, because the causes of the rising violence in the town are not easily identifiable. As Romney continues:

From the very start rumours are rife about the universal disruption heralded by the anticipated eclipse. But is any of it really caused by the arrival of the whale, or is the huge dead creature, with its glassy eye, simply the impotent witness to human destructiveness? Is the supposedly demonic demagogue Prince anything more than an impotent, robotic-voiced homunculus? The one truly identifiable centre of malevolence is Tünde, a reactionary opportunist exploiting superstition to gain power in the name of order. It may even be that her musicologist ex-husband Eszter, obsessed with the theories of 17th-century German composer Werckmeister, has himself contributed to disturbing the harmonic order of things by withdrawing from any active involvement; at the very least he is a representative of an enfeebled intelligentsia, vainly fiddling with abstractions while the world burns.

Tünde is having an affair with the chief of police, a stupefied, gun-waving drunk whose children we see enacting a disturbing scene of gleeful dictatorship: probably too much even for Supernanny, these two don’t just refuse to go to bed; they threaten Janos with violent reprisals if he interrupts their bed-bouncing, militaristic reverie. So, Tarr subtly indicates the connections between characters without trumpeting their symbolic function or their direct influence over events. Most elusive of all is the Prince, a phantomic presence who is never directly seen onscreen. We are told that his speeches are inciting the population to acts of rebellious vandalism, but we only hear him once, seeing a pictorial silhouette of his face cast in shadow on a wall as he spouts what sound like vague, pre-programmed slogans.

Nevertheless, András Bálint Kovács has made a very convincing attempt at outlining the socio-political significance of Tarr’s recent films:

The significance of Béla Tarr’s films in the 1990s—beyond their stylistic and aesthetic values—is that they offer the most powerful and complex vision of the historical situation in the Eastern European region over the last decade. His films reach but few viewers; still, it would be hard to deny that he speaks for hundreds of millions of ordinary European people in his universal and ruthless language, people who feel cheated and disappointed for wasting all the values of their previous lives in a matter of seconds, who fall prey to petty intrigues, who are led by petty, mean promise-mongers that talk of high ideals but follow their selfish power and financial interests. This feeling is born not only from the past, but also from the present experience; although the setting and certain characters may have changed, the same petty fights and intrigue still rule our lives; other ideologies are quoted, while the misery remains or even deteriorates in the former Soviet Union, Romania, or Yugoslavia. We cannot trust anyone; we cannot believe in anything, for all high ideals are but tools to abuse the helpless. We, Eastern-Europeans, are the tenants of the blocks of flats in Satantango and we desperately cling to all the promises of the promise-mongers who only take our money. We are the hopeless drunkards; our leaders are the alcoholic policeman, the clever smuggler, and the mafia-man inn-keeper. And we are Valushka, as well, who serves all above him with endless humility and looks the whale in the eye with terror, hoping for Mother Nature’s help. And we are the mob, too. In our helplessness we would like to break the windows of all luxury shops where they sell articles, of which we can only dream, and we would like to turn our anger against those who are even weaker and more helpless. All of this, of course, is an exaggeration—the exaggeration of great art.

Perhaps we can ask the director himself for his opinion on all this. Does he have any comments on what this film is about? Is it a metaphysical excursus on the nature of being?:

I just wanted to make a movie about this guy who is walking up and down the village and has seen this whale. And, you know when we are working we don’t talk about any theoretical things. We only ever have practical problems. And it’s the same with the writer. Mostly we just talk about life. How it’s going on the street. We never talk about theoretical things. We never talk about Chaos or existential things. We just talk about someone coming into the room and he wants something and the other guy who is sitting there doesn’t want these things. That’s all.

Thanks. That helps. Care to elaborate on the cosmic significance of your work, which many critics have tried to ascribe to it?

You know how it happens, when we started we had a big social responsibility which I think still exists now. And back then I thought “Okay, we have some social problems in this political system – maybe we’ll just deal with the social question.” And afterwards when we made a second movie and a third we knew better that there are not only social problems. We have some ontological problems and now I think a whole pile of shit is coming from the cosmos. And there’s the reason. You know how we open out step by step, film by film. It’s very difficult to speak about the metaphysical and that. No. It’s just always listening to life. And we are thinking about what is happening around us. […] I just think about the quality of human life and when I say ‘shit’ I think I’m very close to it. […] Everything is much bigger than us. I think the human is just a little part of the cosmos.

And what about the diffuse forces of evil that seem to lurk in this film? Does that come from the cosmos?

No. I think human responsibility is great, enormous. Maybe the biggest factor. You know, I don’t believe in God. This is my problem. If I think about God, okay, he has a responsibility for the whole thing, but I don’t know. You know, if you listen to any Mass, it looks like two dogs when they are starting to fight. And always, I just try to think about what is happening now.

[The above quotations come from an interview with Béla Tarr conducted by Fergus Daly and Maximilian Le Cain in 2001. I take no credit for asking those questions. You can read more of it here.]


I’m not sure that makes things much clearer. In other interviews, Tarr is more accommodating, as when he gave Eric Schlosser his summative aspirations for Werckmeister Harmonies:

I have a hope, if 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. That’s all. After you see the film, I think you know a bit better.

Tarr is fascinated by everyday details, the grooves, wrinkles and stubble of cold, sour faces and the roughness of every surface, but he doesn’t do this naturalistically or in the service of any other form of social realism. At least not entirely. The lengthy tracking shot of János walking through the town square, between the silent, hangdog faces of the men standing around reveals many expressions in turn, granting each an individuality that belies their position as part of an accumulating mass. They remain almost entirely voiceless throughout their progression from bystanders to destroyers, in contrast to the Prince, who remains a disembodied voice throughout the same period. We see the locations in a palpable, unvarnished form, and this provides a kind of insight into life in “middle Europe”, but those naturalistic elements are folded into an ineffable sense of something larger or something less concrete.

In another interview Tarr confirms his realist focus by once more refuting the allegorical complexity of his work and insisting that the film speaks for itself through its surface syntax:

If you are listening to the film, and simply watching, you will find there is little reason for speculation about the film’s meaning. This is why I have said: No allegories, no metaphors, no symbols, nothing…

It seems extraordinary for Tarr to claim that there is no higher purpose to his film, and I can’t help thinking that he relishes playing games with us. He must know that his films are enigmatic, never obvious in their storytelling. The lesson here may be that the director’s statements about a film, even the director’s intentions while making it, are not necessarily the most helpful pieces of information. Ultimately, you are alone with the film, and you will find things in it that might not occur to the person sitting next to you in the darkness. Even if Tarr might deny any intended allegory or metaphysics, many viewers seem to bring the weight of those ideas to the films for themselves, as if they, like János, are gazing at something that meets their gaze and holds it.

Let’s talk about shot length. The plot outlined above might sound like a great opportunity for a political thriller, with spies and intrigue and betrayal and riots, but Tarr slows the proceedings right down and allows the story to seep out of the setting and the characters rather than manouevring them into a tight sequence of storytelling elements. This is all signalled in the opening shot, a ten minute mini-masterpiece in which János uses the assembled downtrodden drinkers in a bar to orchestrate a celestial dance. Making each one represent a different heavily body, he demonstrates that “even simple folk like us can understand immortality” by explaining the workings of the upcoming solar eclipse, as if to forestall the superstitious doom-mongering that might be smuggled in on the back of cosmic phenomena. His attempt to give these men a sense of their own significance in the cosmos can be seen to have failed later on when they are seen submitting themselves to outbursts of senseless violence, unable to defy the inexorable march of a primed, prompted mob. This is a beautiful opening, with a magnificent incongruence between the grubby, sozzled men and the solar system they obligingly mime. It’s darkly comic but utterly beguiling with its insistent, repetitive rhythms, plaintive score and those graceful camera movements that iron out the stumbling awkwardness of its participants and turn them into a poised summary of a harmonised universe. Then they all get turfed out onto the street at closing time. Everything after this point is a departure from that order, and János is never again shown to have such omniscience, insight or influence. But we’re ten minutes in, and we still don’t know what’s going on? Hurry things along please, Mr. Tarr…

Why do we need to see very long takes of a figure walking down a road into a vanishing point? Surely we just need a brief shot of them walking away from the camera and, because we’re clever people, we can just assume that they’ll continue heading in that direction? Why do we need to see the marching crowd marching for so long? We get the point that they’re heading somewhere, and that they mean business, after just a few moments? What’s the point of extruding the shot for what seems like an unnatural and unnecessary duration? These are all good questions, to which there is no simple answer, unless we just turn them around and ask why we insist that shots must serve only a narrative function? But I’d rather you try to engage with these shots and think about what we’re supposed to do with them. Where do you look, and what are you to understand from the shots that you couldn’t understand if they were much shorter?


To use the example of the marching mob, this is a shot whose extended duration could be understood in realist terms: we see them marching for as long as it takes for them to reach their destination, as if to reinforce the inevitability of their mission, the undeflected solidarity of their group. The continuous rhythm of their stomping feet becomes an empathetic noise, conveying the mindless hypnotic state that seems to have gripped them. The next shot is of the mob’s ransacking of a hospital, a sequence of wordless violence (and all the more unsettling for not being backed up with slogans, chants, shouts or screams) that culminates in a moment of devastating poignancy, an image of individual frailty amidst the bludgeoning force of the crowd that turns things around in an instant. We could see these two tracking shots as the build-up to this pay-off, and it seems all the more powerful for the way it overrules in a matter of seconds the march that has lasted for so long. I won’t give away what happens for those who haven’t seen it yet, but if you try to imagine this sequence cut down to a fraction of its length, you could get the same story information from it, but not without depleting its poetic power.

That’s an easy example. Why, though, do we need to see so much walking, so much food preparation, so much standing around in the fog? David Bordwell addresses the question of long takes in Tarr’s later films, such as Werckmeister Harmonies and his seven-hours-plus masterpiece Sátántangó, arguing that they “don’t present a beginning-middle-end structure”:

We simply follow a character walking toward or away from us, pushing into a stretch of time whose end isn’t signaled in any way. This becomes especially clear in those extended long shots in which a character walks away toward the horizon and the camera stays put. Traditionally, that signals an end to the scene, but Tarr holds the image, forcing us to watch the character shrink in the distance, until you think that you’ll be waiting forever. Likewise, the diabolical dance shots of Sátántangó, built on a wheezing accordion melody that seems to loop endlessly, are exhausting because no visual rhetoric, such as a track in or out, signals how and when they might conclude. Early and late, Tarr won’t hold out the promise of a visual climax to the shot, as Angelopoulos does; time need not have a stop. […] Like Tarkovsky, he shifts our attention from human action toward the touch and smells of the physical world … [He] employs “dead time” and landscapes to create a palpable sense of duration and distance.

Tarr was also asked about the long takes by Eric Schlosser, and gave the following reply:

You know I like the continuity, because you have a special tension. Everybody is much more concentrated than when you have these short takes. And I like very much to build things, to conceive the scenes, how we can turn around somebody, you know, all the movements implied in these shots. It’s like a play, and how we can tell something, tell something about life… Because it’s very important to make the film a real psychological process…

I said at the beginning that I didn’t want to stop you having your own personal responses to this film, but that shouldn’t really need saying. At the risk of sounding pretentious, it’s not a film from which you can just gather the plot details and leave it at that. In those long stretches where little seems to be happening, or the same thing just continues to happen in the same way, you have time to think and to feel, to marvel at the graphic beauty of a shot supremely achieved, or to immerse yourself in another time and place – by not haranguing you with the next piece of narrative information, Tarr pushes you into confronting the passage of time, to feel the weight of stasis as opposed to formulaic forward progression. Perhaps the question should not be “why is Werckmeister Harmonies so slow?” Rather we should ask ourselves some serious questions about our customary relationships with film, and why we expect it to move at a particular pace and provide packets of entertaining rewards at regular intervals: without ever resorting to cosmic or abstract imagery, Tarr has made a film about free will, evil, death, violence, and humanity’s place in a universe of imponderable patterns and structures (hence János’ urgent attempt to get his barfly planets to share, and thus master their trepidation about the scale of things around them, to see themselves as part of a a greater harmony). This may also give us a clue to the significance of György the musicologist’s musings about the musical/universal disjunctures caused by the work of Andreas Werckmeister, whose theories on counterpoint were connected to the arrangement of the planets in the Solar System (I’d appreciate any elaboration on this point from anyone who has the specialist knowledge to explain it to me…). Given all this, why on earth would you want it to hurry up? Did you have something more important to think about today?


See Also:

Nine Minutes of Cows

What’s With the Werckmeister Whale

More stuff to read:

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Nine Minutes of Cows.

During a conversation with a friend recently, I found myself trying to describe Bela Tarr’s Sátántangó, which I ended up summarising as “seven hours of poor people walking through mud.” Remind me never to look for a job in marketing. This dour but droll, slow but gripping film is a hard sell, not least because its running time will put a big dent in your day and requires considerable investment. My attempt to encapsulate the greatness of Tarr’s film got me thinking about exactly why it exerts such fascination.

I’ve been pressed into thinking about it because I’ve been re-working a core module on film form, and we begin the course with three weeks on ‘Image and Editing’, looking at three pairs of films that illustrate different types of shots, composition and montage. One week, for instance pairs up Man with a Movie Camera with a Godard film which I haven’t fully decided on (Vivre sa Vie has served perfectly well in the past, but I fancy a change this year). It’s all a bit breakneck in its coverage, but the aim is to teach the basics of formal analysis across a range of film texts. In a slightly brave/foolish bit of scheduling, I’ve opted to couple The Bourne Ultimatum with Tarr’s Werckmeister Harmonies. I want students to be transfixed by it’s hypnotic sense of absorption and delay, but I know how they’ve kicked out against ‘difficult’ films such as Bresson’s L’Argent in the past, and I’m looking for a vocabulary that can offer a way into the pleasures of these films in order to reduce the impact that challenging films can have on new students. I hope that doesn’t sound patronising – they might be ready for a challenge, but I’ve stopped being shocked when introductees struggle to get a handle on films which cinephilic orthodoxy cherishes (I’m looking at you, Ozu). Rather than turn my nose up at the apathy of youthful viewers, I’d prefer to get them to feel inspired and flattered by the way ‘difficult’ films can reward committed spectatorship. It’s easy to tell people what to watch, harder to tell them what to see. If I can turn them onto Tarr, I will have done my good turn for cinema this year.

Sátántangó begins with one of the most extraordinary shots imaginable. Nine whole minutes of some cows. Doesn’t sound riveting. After all, if you live near some cows, you can probably go and look at them for as long as you like. Perhaps you could even treat yourself to ten minutes of bovine gawking if you really want to push the boat out. Working out just what makes this opening sequence so hypnotic, so unforgettable, is key to understanding the appeal of the whole film.

Sátántangó follows a group of characters in an agrarian collective that is failing at the end of Communist rule in Hungary. They await the return of the charismatic figure of Irimias, who has already defrauded them once and will likely do so again, and they cling doggedly to the belief that he will turn out to be their salvation. The slight story is a pretext for an extended portrait of the disenfranchised townsfolk who find themselves at the blunt, dull end of communism’s collapse. The shot of the cows doesn’t introduce any of these characters, offers no dialogue, and we don’t return to the cows later to see how they’re getting on.

The start of the shot is an empty yard, establishing a dramatic space, a vacant stage for some action. The cows mooch out of the barn and into the mud in their inimitable cowish manner. One of them attempts a frisky mounting. The camera pans to the left slightly, but otherwise remains static. One cow approaches the camera, but it’s unlikely that this is in preparation for an explanatory, scene-setting monologue.

Let’s face it. There’s something a bit silly about cows. Despite being similarly-sized quadripeds, they have none of the elegance and inscrutability of horses. They look kind of stupid, and their over-laden, meat-bearing frames make them unnaturally awkward when trying to go anywhere in a hurry. They’re surely easier to direct than chickens however, and pretty soon their casual milling about becomes a more organised movement off to the left. The camera tracks laterally to follow them, picking up a steady speed. All the time, a deep rumbling noise, non-diegetic but seemingly machinic adds an indefinable sense of … is it menace?

Much of the drama, if I can call it that, seems to derive from this dynamic coincidence of the camera’s very deliberate, pre-destined motion and the more random excursion of the herd. The cows seem to know where they’re headed, and their journey is allied with that of the camera (one might also suspect that it is the camera which is compelling them to head off); maybe it is this vague sense of pre-destination that leads critics to assign a cosmic significance to Tarr’s mise-en-scene in this film, but it certainly creates a gripping union between the shot and its contents – to what extent is the movement “motivated”? What does it contribute to our understanding of the scene? The ambiguity, the sense that this might be significant, stems from the powerfully assured camera movement that converts it from an observed scene to one which has been transformed by the intervention of the cinematic apparatus.

One of the things I like about Tarr is his refusal to engage in the hermeneutic exercises his films provoke in their awed viewers. He’s an irrascible interviewee. In response to a question about the existential terror and chaos of his Werckmeister Harmonies (2004), he said: “I just wanted to make a movie about this guy who is walking up and down the village and has seen this whale.” This is not to invalidate the kinds of interpretive filler you might want to stuff into the wide open spaces of Tarr’s long takes and sparse frames, but it does remind you that interpretation is your job, not a simple following of a crumb-trail of signifiers towards a logical conclusion.

There’s a more practical consideration that always interests me when talking to other viewers of Sátántangóhow do you watch it? First of all, how do you find the time to watch a seven-hour film from start to finish? Does it hurt? How do you sit? Don’t your eyes wander from time to time? Is that OK? Granted, I’ve known people who don’t think twice about marathon viewings of favourite TV shows such as 24, so it’s probably not a physical impossibility for a lot of people, but that kind of episodic narrative, with its evenly placed climaxes, cliff-hangers, hooks and action scenes is altogether less demanding on the attention span – however fiendish the plot of Lost might get, you quickly get comfortable and familiar with the formulaic structure of flashbacks, character profiles and multiple narrative threads, and you usually know how to interpret the information contained in each frame. Tarr’s cows are a conundrum.

OK, the explanation for the shot may be this simple: it’s an establishing shot that expresses the dour tenor of the place where the rest of the story will take place. The discomfited cows leaving the yard and trotting into the distance represent metonymically the failure of the farm and its subsequent dissolution. Simple. There are other ways to do this – with a dialogue over a gate between a couple of farmers, for instance – but Tarr’s approach is to hold the shot. Initially, and I’m analysing my personal response here, the shot holds the attention because it has a privileged position at the start of the film – something must be about to happen. As with so many of the shots in Sátántangó, though, this immediate sense of anticipation gives way to a very different experience of cinematic time that provides few cues about how long a shot will last. The average shot length of this film is 2.5 minutes. For comparison, Michael Bay’s Transformers has an ASL of 0.25 seconds (alright, I’m exaggerating, but you get the point). In most narrative films, a shot will last for as long as it takes a character to deliver a line of dialogue that moves the story a few more paces along the path to resolution. Here, the temporal cues are lacking, and the effect seems to be to force an engagement with the space and place that is being presented, and to upset the standard patterns of editing and narration. Now, it’s probably reductive to imply that Tarr is defining his aesthetic against the codes of fast-cut mass cultural entertainment cinema as a reactionary strike at hegemonic Hollywood: unless the director is being entirely disingenuous in interviews, he couldn’t care less what is going on in other movies. But I find it hard to avoid noticing that one of the exciting things about watching a film like Sátántangó is the realisation that years of honing my visual acuity on Georges Méliès, Shaw Brothers and Robert Altman have not fully equipped me for grasping the significance of a herd of cows getting spooked and wandering off.

I don’t want to sound glib – make no mistake, Sátántangó is one of the most extraordinary experiences you can have with a film. And I mean “experience”. Watching it takes time – it will knock out a whole day, and then haunt you for several more. It will make the films you watch in its wake seem frivolous and tepid. Maybe the point of the long takes is that they will lodge in your memory like light on long-exposure daguerreotypes. But the demand for contemplation, the deferral of gratification, the ambiguity about the form that gratification should take, and the sense of weighted time that infuses films like this make for a particular viewing experience that takes a while to appreciate. I came to that appreciation as an undergraduate, tentatively raiding the library for films I had been told were important and baffling myself in the process of trying to connect that supposed importance to my own responses. I found myself watching them through the clutter of other critics’ analyses and the sheer force of their canonical freight. I probably forgot to enjoy them or to really let them speak to me directly; the confidence to do so took some time. Hopefully, my own students will find that Tarr’s films cut through that resistance by their restful, enveloping pace that is harder to intellectualise and instead urges a surrender to the image. You have no choice but to watch and wait. Keep watching the cows.

See Also:

How to watch Werckmeister Harmonies.