The following notes on Béla Tarr’s Sátántangó were written by Tim Brayton, PhD candidate in UW-Madison’s Department of Communication Arts. A new 4K restoration of Sátántangó from Arbelos films will show in its complete, uncut version at the Cinematheque on Saturday, February 1 beginning at 1 p.m. Our screening will be shown with one short intermission and a 90-minute dinner break starting at 5:30 p.m.
By Tim Brayton
The reputation of director Béla Tarr’s Sátántangó undoubtedly precedes it. If there’s one single fact you likely already know about the film, it’s the extraordinary length of the thing: seven and a half hours, jam-packed with as many long takes and scenes of human suffering as you could hope to find in a Hungarian art film. And you are certainly meant to feel the weight of those hours: unlike most of the extraordinary long films out in the world, such as Jacques Rivette’s 13-hour Out 1 (1971) or Claude Lanzmann’s 9.5-hour Shoah (1985), Sátántangó was designed to be screened in one uninterrupted sitting (fear not – Cinematheque is following the common practice of splitting it into three parts, including a 90-minute dinner break. Your stomach and your posterior are welcome).
It’s certainly a film to approach with all due trepidation, but the rewards for braving Tarr’s dance with the devil are considerable. Almost from the moment of its premiere, it has been an object of great critical adoration. Jonathan Rosenbaum of the Chicago Reader has written about the film several times, praising its sarcastic wit and declaring at least once that it was “in many ways, my favorite film of the 1990s.” In The New York Times, Manohla Dargis praised the “beautiful framing and richly gradated black-and-white tones to find beauty in every miserable and mundane corner.” The film tied for #35 on Sight & Sound’s 2012 poll of critics to find the best films ever made, making it the highest-ranked film of the 1990s on that list, and it enjoys a 100% fresh score on the website Rotten Tomatoes. As daunting as the film is, it offers aesthetic pleasures fully equal to the work it demands of its viewer.
The film was adapted by Tarr and László Krasznahorkai from a novel the latter published in 1985 (they had previously collaborated on the screenplay for the director’s Damnation, from 1988). It preserves the novel’s unique structure, twelve chapters that overlap each other and proceed in only a ragged chronological flow. The chapters are divided into two halves, six steps forward followed by six steps back, copying the shape of a tango. This pattern unfolds slowly, over the course of a small number of extraordinarily long takes (several of them reaching to nearly eleven minutes, the maximum length of a single reel of film), each of them seeming to slow time down to a standstill.
And yet, the film never drags. It trains us how to watch it right from its first shot, a seven-minute tracking shot of cows gathering in the muddy streets of a small town. Eventually, they start to walk off to the left, and the camera rotates exactly 90° counterclockwise, at which point it starts to track left while the cattle meander through the street; frequently, buildings obscure the cows from our view, and at one point, a cow that came up right alongside us moos irritably as it hustles down an alley on the Z-axis, to rejoin its fellows. As the shot progresses, it somehow becomes impossibly thrilling: the disorientation of losing sight of the cows and the relief of finding them again; the sudden pile-up of details in Gábor Medvigy’s detailed grey-scale cinematography, teasing out variable textures in every object and surface, daring us to absorb them all. Everything in the next seven hours of the viewer’s life is packed into this first shot: the sharp geometrical precision of the pans, the tactility, the camera as a conscious being moving through environments. Most importantly, it introduces us to the unique magic of slow cinema, the transformation by which lingering stillness exaggerates and intensifies our response to any change that comes into view. The smallest details become magnified in their impact, making every one of those long takes paradoxically gripping.
If the tango of the title is the film’s structure, Satan is Irimiás (played by Tarr regular Mihály Víg, who also wrote the film’s moody, accordion-heavy score), who returns to the dying town where the action takes place after a long absence. He’s a darkly charismatic figure, who seduces the whole town into obeying his will; unsurprisingly, this does not go well for them. The story has been taken as symbolic of the death throes of Communism, or as a parable of people embracing authoritarianism as a means of giving some kind of shape, even a bleak and miserable one, to an aimless life. Throughout Sátántangó, we see characters struggle against their lack of power (particularly in the film’s most notorious scene, in which a young girl tortures a cat to death, the only creature in town more miserable and weaker than she is), or give into nihilistic hopelessness, seeing nothing in the world beyond an infinite plain of lifeless mud. The film’s conflict is a bleak one, offering a choice between an apocalyptic landscape or accepting the false hope of a Satanic figure. A happy ending is off the table from very early on.
Even so, Sátántangó is never an excuse for cynical art film misery. It’s a complex work of art cinema, intellectually stimulating in its elaborate system of narrative overlaps, and the visual elegance with which it depicts joyless, stalled lives creates a troubling, productive tension between beauty and suffering. It’s a challenging work, perhaps one of the most challenging films ever created. But the reward for facing those challenges head on is experiencing a cosmic and human vision that’s rewarding far beyond mere bragging rights.