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Karrer plods his way through life in quiet desperation. His environment is drab and rainy and muddy. Eaten up with solitude, his hopelessness would be incurable but for the existence of the Titanik Bar and its beautiful, haunting singer. But the lady is married and Karrer is determined to keep her husband away... Written by
Although he made a number of feature films previous to Damnation, this is where Bela Tarr found his trademark style. It was also his first collaboration with novelist and country man Laszlo Krasznahorkai; a collaboration which continues to this day.
The film opens with now trademark Tarr style, watching mining carts travel along with their loads for a few minutes (yes minutes). The camera slowly pulls back to reveal Karrer (Miklós Székely) shaving. He's a lonely loser, slowly drinking himself to death at the Titanik Bar. He is in love with and sleeping with the lounge singer there (Vali Kerekes). The problem, however, is that she is married, and has made no secret of wanting to end their affair. That when he asks her why she doesn't love him, and she replies "I love you and you know it," is of no real matter to her.
Karrer is offered a smuggling job by the bar's shady owner. He decides to offer the job to the singer's husband, who has built up a substantial debt and is in danger of being imprisoned for it. He accepts, and Karrer wins himself three days to swoon the singer. She denies him, nevertheless sleeping with him in perhaps the least passionate sex scene ever filmed. A bitter Karrer decides he will turn in to the authorities her husband when he returns from his smuggling job, leaving her alone and thus making him now the logical option. By the end, the lives of Damnation's characters will be as broken and desolate as the crumbling town in which they live.
Damnation plays as love triangle, grounded out over nearly two hours. Tarr's long shots and elegantly bleak black and white photography follows ever so slowly the action. The lighting is impeccable, creating ghostly silhouettes, dusty and dim barrooms, and elegant and shimmering light bouncing of the face and hair of the lounge singer. As characteristic of Bela Tarr, the cinematography is stately and assured, breathtaking and deliberate. He films his characters and their town as assuredly and respectfully as possible. The town, and the dogs which walk its streets, hint at the apocalyptic undertones of the film, and transcends all emotions, or lack there of.
I have had reservations about Damnation in the past, confident that it was film-making at its very best, sublimely atmospheric and tonal, but unsure whether or not just how well it worked, particularly in relation to Tarr's two formidable masterpieces, Satantango and Werckmeister Harmonies. Those films have something mammoth and intimidating about them: Satantango, with its titanic length, clocking in at over 7 hours, all in the same style and minimal narrative; Werckmeister Harmonies with its bizarre metaphysical underpinnings and suggestive philosophy. Those films have a ground out dreamlike or perhaps nightmarish quality to them, particular Werckmeister Harmonies. After my fourth of fifth viewing of Damnation, I'm now assured that it does in fact work particularly when you avoid getting hung up on Tarr's other films. I'm also assured of its greatness. Damnation is a masterpiece of film-making. It draws parallels with the Italian realist films of the 50s and early 60s, as well as the minimalist transcendentalism of the films of Robert Bresson, but all the while invoking a dreamlike quality that keeps the viewer removed at just the right distance for a gritty but transcendent experience.
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