“You’re standing alone at the entrance to the tunnel to an enchanting world, because you know something I can’t even put a name to. Something deeper and more ruthless than even I can understand.”
Béla Tarr films show evil like you've never seen it before. Possibly for this reason Hungary's and, arguably, Central Europe's, greatest filmmaker has been dubbed by the Film Society at Lincoln Center as "the last modernist." Which is funny, when you think of it: it makes European avant-garde filmmakers sound like a dying breed; as if Tarr has outlived his era, and stands alone, on the precipice of the new media age.
It is not uncommon for Tarr's fans to celebrate how long his takes can be, or how little action animates his scenes. However, it takes a film like Damnation, released in 1988 and falling in the middle of Tarr's career, with four features preceding and four following it, to demonstrate just how much can be happening when ostensibly nothing happens.
Damnation parades as a cool noir. Gaunt and dopey-eyed Miklos B. Szekely plays Karrer, the lonesome nihilist who must claw his way back to his lover's heart. Vali Kerekes plays his muse: a feckless, cold-hearted cabaret singer. She shows Karrer the door, plausibly out of guilt for having cheated on her husband; but then again, this is Tarr, so you never know, she might just be bored. Boredom is an important trope, particularly in a movie that functions as one enormous meta-construct: nothing is wasted, or meaningless. Boredom, and its twin, nausea, are the two most prevalent conditions that pervade the small mining town. This is a real periphery, far from civilization and its comforts.
Spurned by the singer, Karrer drowns his sorrows in a drink at the bar Titanik. Like the fateful ship, the name is a bad omen. But its ponderousness is also hilarious in an offhanded way, signaling to the audience that there is something artificial about this world. The bar's interior looks like an age-withered stage set; the opulence of fabric-covered walls (or is this communist-kitsch wallpaper, rendered lush by black-and-white film?) clashes with the scarcity of tables, and customers.
Karrer has a knack for making decisions by not making them, in a perfectly inverse logic. He is offered a business proposition by Willarsky, the bartender. Willarsky possesses a generous frame, an ample moustache, a Mephistophelian flowing robe, and a laugh that readily turns into a cackle. No mistake about the Doctor-Faustus aspects of his diabolical pact. Karrer, however, refuses the offer (it involves smuggling a package), saying that he would rather not leave town but has the perfect carrier in mind. The scene that unfolds, the eerie back-and-forth, makes sense only at the end of the film: everyone is playing some dirty game; the question is, who will be the fall guy?
While the exteriors are foggy, with soft, diffused light, the interiors are often shot in high contrast, with anything touched by the light giving off a startling shimmer. The velvety atmospheric blackness is as if lifted from the paintings of Édouard Manet. The cabaret visitors sit in arrested poses, like mannequins. Karrer, meanwhile, passes his smuggling gig onto the singer's husband. The couple is in financial straits, and Karrer proposes to stall their descent into financial ruin: "What is about to happen here is just one of the million forms of ruin, and a rather petty form at that." We get the first glimpse of Karrer's fatalism: "all stories end badly, because they are always stories of disintegration. The heroes always disintegrate."
The dialogue in Damnation can be baroque, at times. The grandiloquence stands out even more after the nearly silent scenes, where images advance the story. The lines could be grating if their delivery weren't so controlled. The characters' expressions are dull and their voices are monotonic. We are never so close to these people to stop judging them. As if to heighten this effect, the film's soundtrack includes not only music but also the grating of cable cars, at times oppressively amplified. Add the drumming of intermittent rains, evoking biblical floods, and the shots of gaunt stray dogs, scavenging for scraps, and the overall effect is quietly apocalyptic.
Nature almost always has a metaphysical dimension in Tarr, who constantly tests our notions of what is and isn't "natural." At the bar, the coat-check woman, who acts as the story's sage, warns Karrer: "The fog gets into the corners, into the lungs. . . . It settles in your soul." "The fog in the soul" sounds like a code for incurable melancholy; but it also suggests that both nature and humans tend to run afoul.
Since Damnation is also very much a noir, we must return to the original plotline, in which Karrer orchestrates the husband's departure, to vie for the singer's love. The singer will hear nothing of it: "I'm getting away from here," she tells Karrer. "I don't kid myself. I am alone." In a burst of unprecedented energy, and somewhat comically, Karrer declares his love: "You're standing alone at the entrance to the tunnel to an enchanting world, because you know something I can't even put a name to. Something deeper and more ruthless than even I can understand." We may ask ourselves what Karrer is getting at. Like the American writer Thomas Pynchon, Tarr is a master of ambiguity. Hinting at secrecy and menace, he carefully constructs a world in which Karrer acts at times like a secret agent. We see him constantly sneaking around, hiding behind corners.
Karrer prevails in his courtship. His lovemaking with the singer is slow and soundless, set to the grind of the cable cars that constantly pass outside her windows. The bed is reflected in a mirror, which softens but also distorts the image. The formal beauty of this scene hints at the original sin, but the coupling is too deliberate and eerie to suggest straightforward passion. As throughout the film, Tarr operates on many different emotional and visual registers: he offers us a highly stylized, noirish image, but he takes it one step further, rendering it strange, even surrealist. When Karrer falls asleep, the serene luminosity of his body, evoking black-and-white photographic nudes, is undercut by Karrer's vigorous snoring.
Somewhere toward the middle of the film, Tarr recasts Karrer as Samuel Beckett's Hamm and his Shakespearean prototype, Hamlet. "I have no fear of going mad," Karrer tells his lover. "I cling to nothing, but everything seems to cling to me, wanting me to take notice. To see the hopelessness of things." Like Hamm, Karrer speaks with a god-like detachment: "I have to watch the pitiful effort people make trying to speak before they drop into the grave. But there's no time, because they're already falling." Tarr sees language as a pathetic, though inevitable, diversion. Words can't change the end result (we all die). Echoing Hamm, Karrer sees himself as a player in an elaborate chess game: a pawn, he yearns to be the master but lacks the requisite guts. Like Hamlet, he comes face to face with the absurdity of human existence: "I'm supposed to go mad because of the irreversibility of life." The prince of Denmark and Karrer share the common trait of paralysis. Karrer professes his desire to change, but he knows that his character and his destiny are set.
Finally, like Hamm, Karrer is a sadist. He recalls watching his deceased wife in her "lacy nylon nightie," on their last night together: "I fell on her. I pulled it and ripped it, then stamped on it." He retells his wife's suicide with clinical detachment: "I never thought there'd be so much blood in that frail body." This is perhaps where the critics calling Tarr a modernist come closest to the truth: however indirectly, Karrer's nihilism and emotional violence nevertheless borrow heavily from Dostoevsky (Stavrogin's abuse of the crippled Marya Timofeyevna in The Demons). Dostoevsky's absurdist bend influenced Jean-Paul Sartre and the course of western literature. But where Dostoevsky's characters vacillated between hatred and remorse, in Karrer, almost all of the kinder impulses have been extinguished. It is refreshing then to see the singer's bored expression as she bites into a pickle and chews it, apathetically, while listening to Karrer's philosophizing. It is equally refreshing to hear her cut his love declarations short, by saying: "My husband comes home tomorrow evening."
From this moment on, Karrer sinks into an existentialist morass. "I'm a god-awful coward," he confesses to Willarsky. "All I do is make excuses for my cowardice through nausea." Willarsky responds curtly, "How about thinking about something but yourself for once?" It is a riposte that riffs on Hamlet — an existentialist character can only have one subject: himself. The barman tries to make Karrer understand that "there's order in the world, and you can't do anything to upset it."
All the threads and allusions are tied together swiftly. The camera pans, revealing the tableau of local residents, staring off into space. They stand frozen, grim but comic, like grotesques. Accordion notes resound in the background. Karrer enacts a parody of dancing, his feet thumping in a puddle, his clothes and face soaked from the rain. The camera pans again, splitting the frame in two: we watch two places and time frames at once, slowly shifting moods. At the dance hall, couples press against each other to crazed rock music. The singer and Willarsky dance, in a suggestive, sensuous embrace, the singer's husband too drunk to notice. The camera lingers on the dancing couple, as the coat-check woman taunts Karrer, comparing dancing to lovemaking.
While the singer and Willarsky leave together (we see her go down on him in his car), back at the dance hall, the festivities wind down. The dancers are by now so drunk that many have to be propped up. The coat-check woman watches sadly, her beautiful, creased face betraying a sudden impulse to cry. It is the most purely lyrical scene in the entire film — possibly the only one.
And Karrer? Now that he's lost his love, what's to become of him? We find him the next morning reporting a crime to an official, "accepting the consequences" (we can only guess he is referring to the smuggled package, whose contents are never revealed). Karrer is ultimately a snitch in this story; a demoralized lover, he goes after his nemesis with cold and calculated, albeit impersonal, vengeance.
Like a true tramp, he is then out in the world, soaked by the merciless rain, traipsing through the flooded meadows, down the muddied paths. Suddenly a black stray dog appears: it circles Karrer, barking viciously. Karrer gets down on all fours, bares his teeth and barks back. The standoff is more frightening than absurd; we sense that all dark powers are gaining force in Karrer. He is the fallen "demon" that the coat-check woman has prophesied. The dog whimpers and runs away. When it reappears, amidst the flattened landscape, Karrer passes it undisturbed, unhurried. Alone, he wanders aimlessly. The sound of rain is amplified, ferocious. The camera zooms in on a clump of dirt and the screen goes black.
The film makes a great impression, particularly in our current cultural and social climate, in which we are often encouraged to think that amoral behavior can be quickly pinned down to the system (our government and institutions), or biology. Behavioral science conveniently steps in to explain away afflictions through brain synapses and chemical imbalances. In this sense, Tarr truly is modern rather than postmodern: in his work, evil is inexplicable. Baseness is woven into the fabric of life more tightly than goodness. Temptation, apathy, betrayal, deadening of thought and emotion, are part and parcel of the human existence, perhaps the very essence of it; no amount of explaining or wishful thinking can expunge them.
For all the universality of Tarr's mature vision, some aspects of it remain local. In his interview with Eric Schlosser in Bright Lights, Tarr said, "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." Indeed, if you happen to come from that part of the world, once set behind the iron curtain, you will have no trouble recognizing the social and political dimensions of Tarr's work. His oeuvre is the very embodiment of the shabbiness, the psychological apathy and moral floundering, coupled with ruthlessness and a sense of uncertainty, that marked the last agonizing years of communism. Karrer may be a nihilist, but he is also a historically familiar and more contemporary figure: a gray, though intellectually superior, apparatchik; paying lip service to the ideas he himself no longer believes in; never eager to exert himself but always prepared to manipulate people and facts to his own advantage. A false prophet, in a land that will have no prophets.