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Damnation (1988) ****
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.
An exceptionally brilliant movie. But this is not for everyone.
Beautifully shot in black and white, the director bravely specialises
in spectacularly lengthy shots which the viewer's brain will either
become absorbed by or reject for tedium. An interesting dimension which
can heighten involvement in these long shots (or annoy the hell out the
unconvinced) is rhythmical sound - be it cranky machinery (like the
relentless mechanical pulley system outside the 'central' character's
window) or people dancing to cabaret music. There is a detachment to
the camera-work, particularly in the dance band sequences, which
reminded me of Kubrick. Again this is an approach which will alienate
many viewers but it lends a kind of philosophical power what would
otherwise be mundane documentary social observation.
I watched this after the more recent Werckmeister Harmonies on the current double-disc DVD edition available in the UK which is a superb issue and has an interview with the Director as a bonus feature. Interesting to note that he states quite categorically that he intends no allegorical/symbolic element to his work.
Hey! Crazy movie! Oh Gaad it was so boring and depressing! Actually I felt
quite privileged to have watched this film. Some people are NOT making
with the intention of being popular, and Bela Tarr is one of them.
Satantango is 7 and a quarter hours long, and this one stretches an
existential eternity across its 2 hours, bringing us 2 hours closer to
but hopefully nearer to life.
I was looking for symbolic significance from the first achingly long shot, but we were lucky enough to have Tarr interviewed in the cinema afterwards. He scuppered any suggestion of symbolism in his films, insisting that the fact of pointing a camera lens only at things that exist means that metaphysics and allegory are impossible in film. More than a hint of his totalitarian background in his didactic description of his work.
I felt like I had learned something from this film. I thought it showed how life in Hungary can be depressing, a struggle, apparently hopeless, but that the hopelessness only really comes from inside the person. A desperate, selfish man lurks around the drab industrial landscape, fixated on his one motivation, the woman who is his object of desire. He hatches a plan to get rid of her husband. Afterwards the director stated explicitly that the plot is deliberately simple and even banal - the main character delivers one monologue about how all stories dissipate and all heroes dissipate and die away. He stated that the dogs and the rain which both haunt the film are characters and have stories as much as the people.
If you get the chance, go and watch it. It's a proper work of art, there's nothing wrong with it!!!!!!!!!!!
The film is about immobility. About people who abandoned themselves to
a collective sinking, and dances. The camera travels slowly along the
last days before apocalypse.
The photography is excellent. And the music also helps to forget the length of some scenes. Those who liked Tarkovski's films shouldn't be deluded.
The text is powerful, with its dose of irony. Unfortunately I couldn't understand everything. Some monologues seemed to be a nonsense, which may be something normal in this apocalyptic context. Anyway, I hope I'll be able one day to find some transcription; this film deserves to be studied.
The film that launched director Béla Tarr into international attention,
Kárhozat is the Hungarian's first major investigation of the nature of
Trailing the exploits of alcoholic depressive Karrer, Kárhozat presents us with a view of a desolate and decrepit Hungarian town. He spends his days wandering from bar to bar, obsessing over a married lounge singer and part-time lover whom he longs to elope with. Passing off a job to collect a package to the husband, he buys himself three days alone with the object of his desires.
As is now his trademark, Tarr brings us the minimal number of shots: slow, winding, thoughtful and beautiful. His approach is simultaneously simple and complicated, showing us at the same time nothing and everything. The aesthetic of the film is astounding, beauty created wonderfully in the chaos and destruction of the landscape. The brooding intensity of the omnipresent coal trains dominates the work, an indicator of lost industry and decline. Miklós Székely leads the cast with the perfect stoic facade, his granite face holding back the weight of an emotional past and the crippling need for escape. The sinister and critical bartender gives us Karrer's true opinion of himself, one he would rather not face up to, whilst the sagacious old woman provides the film's sensibility and reason. The plot itself is not so important as the camera's journey and the character's silent ruminations, leading unavoidably to a wonderful climax and one which does exactly what it should: causes us to question our own lives and the oddity of humankind.
With beautiful, paced, unconventional direction, Tarr gives us an intimate portrait of ourselves and our world. Achieving an incredible amount with a minimalistic approach, the film is entrancing, mysterious, and inspiring. Telling us as much with his landscapes as with his characters, Tarr's Kárhozat is a testament to the brilliance of this creative juggernaut.
The film demonstrates in the most eloquent manner how much colour one
be found on black and white film emulsion. Béla Tarr and Gábor Medvigy his
cinematographer, tell the simple story in a sequence of very long shots, that are seemingly very realistic. The apparent realism in the film is spread into thin layers of detailed information in the composition of each frame, and add up to a full cinematic view on reality. Each shot tells a story, that relates not only to the characters and the plot, but mainly correspond with thoughts and ideas of a
different plot the visual plot. The visual delivery of the plot, so it seems, is more important then the plot itself. In one shot we can see a wide lens close up, lit with meticulous attention to every hair lock on the actress' head, develop into a panning shot of a crowd in the foreground and the hero in the background (in focus!), when each of the
events is lit in a different way so the audience would be able to tell the hero from the crowd, and each character is lit to his personal lighting theme. Gábor
Medvigy uses light like Ennio Morricone uses music.
Yes, this is not for every movie goer. But it rewards those who love the art of film making. Very stylized, yes, but directed by someone who has chosen film as his medium for expresses and articulating a world view that is bleak, atheistic and unforgiving. You may not "like" this film: but as an antidote to all that is superficial, crass and commercial it is terrific. To some, it is intellectual masturbation: to those who see film as an art form, a movie to be admired, debated and savored. It will be seen by fewer than those who enter any "Blockbuster" video store on any given day- but, God help me, I would rather see this film than any other at that store.
*** This review may contain spoilers ***
"It's not social, it's not ontologial, it's cosmical, the s**t is
cosmical!" - Tarr
The world is hell and we're all damned, mourns Bela Tarr in "Damnation", a supremely bleak film. Bouncing from irredeemable gloom to relentless despair and finally defeat, the film paints a landscape of decaying homes, perpetual thunderstorms and dog infested streets. It's characters, meanwhile, spend all their time drinking booze and dancing listlessly at local nightclubs. They seek escape and solace, but both are temporary at best, illusions at worst. There's no running from the black.
The film's key motif is a series of cable cars which run above the town, forever extracting coal from Tarr's dying mining community. Underneath this conveyor belt, this ribbon of constant motion, humanity remains immobilised, its life force slowly sucked away. While the world revolves, humanity remains in inky stasis, Tarr's characters both tethered painfully to the past and crippled by an unknowable future; tormented by memories and regrets, but scared of hoping. Nothing survives, Tarr says, you're dying the moment you're born. Why hope?
Within this sickeningly bleak world lives a man called Karrer, a balding figure who navigates earth with a death mask. He wishes all children would die, if only to end the suffering that is the human race. The only joy he finds is in the presence of a woman, a local night club singer, but we sense that his love for her is itself selfish. She seeks to escape this hell, skipping town to become a famous singer elsewhere, but he can't have that. If she escapes then it places the blame of immobility on him. Better to keep her here, anchored, in the darkness, suffocated.
Karrer's hope, then, is to reaffirm hopelessness. Indeed, nothing scares him more than children, with their bright eyes and cute faces, "because they swindle mankind into going on with this charade and condemn us all to an eternity of horror." For Karrer, who like everyone in the film speaks with apocalyptic aphorisms, existence itself should be rejected.
The film ends with Karrer selling his soul to the authorities, before stepping back out into the rain. He picks a fight with a dog he is one of them now before disappearing behind a mound of dung. He's trapped, dead, his body already festering...whilst high above the village the cable cars continue their slow crawl, further and further into the air, always moving, a ticker tape to nowhere.
8.5/10 "Damnation" contains 3 excellent, powerful scenes, but its glacial pace will irk most viewers (increase the frame-rate on your DVD player). Kicked out of his university philosophy class for being too "extreme", Tarr quickly blossomed into the most suicide inducing film-maker since Antonioni. Though few have seen his films, he's been a huge influence on late career Gus Van Sant and Steven Soderbergh. His arty black and white cinematography lures us into a world of extremely long takes and extremely slow pans, the viewer beaten into submission by an aesthetic of inaction. Makes a good companion piece to "Red Desert ". Worth two viewings.
Damnation was one of those rare instances when I felt both frustrated and fascinated by the film I was watching. Bela Tarr is SO adept at creating mood that the light sketches of plot began to feel superfluous, and I found myself wanting to brush them away and just float in this surreal sludge without trying to follow a 'story'. Tarr's use of sound design and music to create tension and a dream-like state come closer to David Lynch's than anything else I've seen. The original (I'm assuming) songs in the film also share that distinctive quality of mimicking a certain genre of familiar music, while having something that's a bit off about them - much like Badalamenti's scores. Interesting to note that Blue Velvet was released two years prior. The slowly gliding camera, which seems to have almost it's own agenda aside from the film ads to the purveying sensation of unease, and the exquisite lighting and black and white tones are breathtakingly stark. There are moments in the film when there is so much going on in the scene, and the shot is so lengthy, that the situation itself becomes real and transcends the fiction of the film. This is a very rare phenomenon in film, and was absolutely spellbinding - especially the dance scene. The middle of the film gets heavy with bleak philosophical exchanges, which would be better illustrated than told - especially with Tarr's incredible gift for mis en scene and sound design. Iconographic sequences like the slow pan past the miserable crowds waiting for the rain to stop, or the reoccurring pack of wild dogs speak volumes more of Tarr's theme than the most eloquent words. The characters are like automatons shuffling about in a purgatory from which there is no escape. It is as though the entire world was a flea-bag apartment building, a tattered old bar, and a vast field of mud and debris which one must traverse between the two.
If only there was an Academy Award for Best Use of Ore Carts, Béla Tarr
would be the proud owner of an Oscar for Damnation. There is simply no
other film whose depiction of ore carts holds a candle to Tarr's
masterful portrayal of dozens of carts suspended on a cable, traversing
the landscape and incessantly gazing down upon a small Hungarian town.
Some industry insiders say the Academy may have been convinced to create the award had the mining community rallied behind the film. But at the time, Hungarian miners thought it was more important to jump on the "revolt against the Soviets" bandwagon than to lobby for increased recognition of the mining implements so long unappreciated by the Hollywood establishment.
Naysayers claim the Academy would not have given in to public pressure, citing the animal welfare community's failed campaign in support of a proposed Oscar for Best Performance by Stray Dogs, which experts agree would have been easily won by Damnation and its motley pack of canines.
However, it is generally believed that this was not a reflection of an aversion to expanded award offerings, but a result of the powers that be buying into the notion that because Hungary was a communist country when Damnation was filmed, the dogs featured in the film were not unwanted strays, but the people's dogs, owned and loved by millions, and therefore not sufficiently disadvantaged to merit special honors.
Other proposed awards that garnered significant grass roots support include Oscars for Most Atmospheric Droning, Best Poorly Synched Music, and Original Use of Indoor Campfire, as well as a Guinness Record for Most Rain Per Minute Filmed, none of which ultimately came to be.
But of all the awards not awarded, the Oscar for Best Use of Ore Carts is the one that will stand out in people's minds when they inevitably recall the ever-vigilant unsung heroes of one of the wettest land-based films ever made. If that makes Damnation sound like an uncommon sort of movie living in its own cinematic world that most filmmakers never visit, that's because it is, and that's a good thing.
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