To see / 5 March 2019

Road Apples

On Béla Tarr’s Rotten Potatoes

In Germany, they’re called Linda, Laura or Sieglinde, and their discoverers moved from Spain to Italy before slowly spreading them all over the European mainland. From the middle of the 16th century onward, colonisers took them everywhere. Later they found their feet and started to classify them into categories like russet, red, white, yellow, blue, purple, fingerling or petite. One can blanch, boil, roast or fry them, and due to a huge variety of recipes, they’ll taste fairly different every time. Eaten by millions of people each and every day, potatoes were credited with the potential to feed the world – but not so in Béla Tarr’s epic drama The Turin Horse (2011). The potatoes eaten by his protagonists seem to be rotten from the very beginning; the act of preparation, however, has an existential taste.

Everything starts with a low-key-lit and high-angled close-up. A horse’s face appears in the first scene of The Turin Horse. A text insert suggested earlier that this horse had to be the horse ‘we do not know anything about’. In contrast to its secret admirer, who’d hugged it in Via Carlo Alberto half a century earlier, the animal opening Béla Tarr’s movie doesn’t have a prominent history. Before his mental breakdown, followed by the words ‘Mutter, ich bin dumm’ – ‘Mother, I’m stupid’, Nietzsche was that horse’s last witness. Motivated by an untold story, an idea continuously takes shape. Béla Tarr’s narration represents the time elapsed since Nietzsche’s mental derangement, related to the slapping of the horse, and the apocalyptic blackout at the end of the film. Despite the final fade-out the empty time in between doesn’t seem to end. The last event inThe Turin Horse isn’t even an event; it’s theevent of all events, signified by the total disappearance of light. It happens within the same scene in which a female stops eating. She’s become as desperate as her horse, which refuses to eat from the outset. When the woman realises that, she starts doing just the same. 

The Turin Horse takes place within the sparsely-populated landscape of the Hungarian puszta, covered by fog and threatened by a raging hurricane. The story not only occurs in the middle of a place that literally means nothing, it also circles around that Nothing. In The Turin Horse, nothing really happens, except for therepetition of daily routines. This repetition means repetition of the same scenes in almost the same way: Getting dressed and undressed, making fire, mucking out the stall, turning on a gas lamp, boiling water, cooking potatoes, and pulling up water from the well. Even in the midst of apocalyptic circumstances the two characters, a father and his daughter, carry on with their everyday activities. The difference in between appears only on a very small-scale level, not generating an illusion of teleology or the potentiality of a final resolution. This is the reason for temps mort turning excessive inThe Turin Horse. The plot progresses without any suspense: nothing is envisaged, nothing added, the characters still go nowhere.

On a formal level, Tarr’s narrative is divided into six days, and on each day the same things happen: A man changes this clothes, assisted by a woman; a woman makes fire and boils water; a man and a woman are sitting at a wooden table eating potatoes with their bare hands; a woman drains a glass of pure alcohol after a man has done the same; each of them are alternately sitting in front of a closed window. Each of these scenes is constantly repeated. From time to time, another window pops up without opening a new perspective: The view of the black, starry sky always stays the same, even if three exceptional moments hold the potential to turn everything around that has already happened. 

In one of these scenes, a foreigner visits the stone house, asking for Pálinka, a high-percentage Hungarian alcohol, while another one depicts the advent of the cigány with their horses and carriages. Their offers to escape the misery of Hungarian puszta – ‘Come with us...! Come with us to America..’.! – aren’t followed by a kind reply: ‘Fuck you, sons of bitches! Get the hell out of here! [...] I'll rip your guts out, for fuck's sake! Dirty rotten gypsies’! Persecuted by local landowners, travelling families were expelled from their territory –even if father and daughter still seem to wait for those who could help them out of their situation. When they decide to take fate into their own hands, Tarr’s protagonists fail profoundly: After going over the hill, they soon return with their mountain of belongings. In The Turin Horse, one seems to emigrate only to immigrate again. By integrating such unpredictable events into the rigid scheme, the illusion that things could eventually turn is temporarily created. But nothing changes in the end. 

With The Turin Horse, Béla Tarr has created a materialist fairy tale of ancient character. It is a parody of Genesis, a reverse narration of a demiurgic kind: There’s not something but nothing, and on the seventh day, there won’t be light, but eternal darkness. Instead of creating a world, the director takes it back into his mind. For this reason, Tarr’s woodcut characters are not the ones that evoke empathy. They’re at the mercy of their circumstances, and these circumstances have no mercy for them. Reduced to a raw state of material existence, they’re neither able to act nor to articulate themselves. No one really speaks, and so the viewer is not informed about their inner state. Communication consists of commands, and coexistence is reduced to a utilitarian level, dominated by the needs of the father using his daughter to fulfil them. The viewer is confronted with human existence in its pure, precarious form. This is also demonstrated by the last sentence, when the father says to his daughter: ‘One must eat’.

With The Turin Horse Béla Tarr has created an existential drama, which is the drama of existentialism, too. Within these conditions life is limited to survival and, as a result, the pathetic gesture of existentialist self-confirmation turns into parody. If there’s anything that exists, then it’s a potato; whether to consume it or not – it wouldn’t make anyone human. As a consequence, the director’s mission is limited to the documentation of dull, but existential acts of repetition. For the protagonists, the everlasting return to the ever-same becomes substantial. It bans the threats of the absurd surrounding them: ‘What's it all about, papa?’ ‘I don’t know’ / ‘What is it?’ ‘What?’ ‘The woodworm: they're not making any noise’. ‘I've heard them for 58 years... but I don't hear them now’.

In refusing to do what has to be done – ‘One must eat’ – a subtle and silent way of resistance is announced by the female protagonist of the film, but it lacks any defiant form of objection to the conditions she has to live under. What remains is the feeling of complete alienation – without showing the process that has caused it. What is, is immanence. There’s nothing else except a man, a woman and a horse. Not their lives are at stake; rather, the question is to die or to die. About thirty years before poststructuralist philosophy proclaimed the death of the subject, a French immigrant with Irish roots found a literary form for expressing the consequences of this thought. His characters draw their sovereignty from the admission of their ridiculousness, and they’re constantly wondering about the fact of being human. Instead, Béla Tarr presents a darkness in which even this is no longer possible. The attempt to understand his Fin de partie is the attempt to understand an uneaten potato. One can call it Linda, Laura or Sieglinde; or take it to be synonymous with an absurd existence that no longer deserves this name. 


Barbara Eder

is an author and journalist, currently living in Vienna. She studied social sciences, economics and philosophy in Vienna, Frankfurt and Berlin and spent several years in Hungary and Armenia, writing texts for newspapers, books and anthologies,