RADICAL IMAGES : BÉLA TARR'S SATANTANGO
(This essay was written for a college assignment on visual literacy.)
The film I have chosen to analyse is Sátántangó (1994), a Hungarian film by director Béla Tarr. Tarr’s unique style of filmmaking—characterised by extremely long and, in conventional terms, often uneventful shots—has been compared to that of great film stylists such as Andrei Tarkovsky; although in the boldness and simplicity of his vision he is perhaps best compared to Robert Bresson or Chantal Akerman. While this essay will focus on the formal issues of his work, a brief outline of the film’s narrative context will aid the discussion:
Sátántangó depicts the life of an isolated farming community on the Hungarian plains, steeped in the rain and mud of Autumn, where several townsfolk are plotting to cheat their neighbours out of their shares of a group cattle sale and abscond with the cash. Their machinations are interrupted by the news that Irimias, a former neighbour that the town had thought dead, is returning.
The community consists of an array of bleak and joyless characters—such as a miserable, drunken old man who spends his time staring out at the world from his window, recording and commenting on everything he sees (but on a subsequent excursion, finds himself ill-equipped to deal with this world himself); and a young girl, neglected by her elders and conned by her brother, who takes her frustration out on her pet cat, the only being she can assert any power over. In the film’s central episode, the little girl poisons her cat and then herself.
When the community discover this tragedy, the newly arrived Irimias exploits the situation, convincing the townspeople to give all their money to him, for the supposed purpose of creating a new commune where they can all live in harmony. Displaying a herd mentality not unlike the cattle they have raised, the villagers blindly follow Irimias’ command in the hope of some non-existent utopia.
The story is told in twelve episodes (six steps forward, six steps back, like a tango), many of which overlap chronologically, showing the same events from different points of view.
One of the particular difficulties in writing about this film is its length: clocking in at 445 minutes, Satan’s Tango does not lend itself to a brief summation. Indeed, the above summary I have given could be said to relate only tentatively to the actual experience of watching the film. Up to an hour of the film can go by without more than a line of the above synopsis being fulfilled. Tarr is, instead, much more focussed on the visceral and visual experience of each shot—the interplay of light, composition, space, time, sound, movement—making it in many ways very suited to this question. It’s the sort of the film that is excruciatingly unsuited to being described in terms of “what it’s about”—a film where one is much more likely to remember the emotional or mesmeric impact of particular images than intricate twists and turns of the plot.
However, because of the length and pace of the film—most shots last around 10 minutes—the selection of a 5-10 minute clip wouldn’t give much of a sense of the film’s compositional strategies. For that reason, I’m going to take a larger segment—an hour-long section from the middle of the film, which focuses on the disturbed little girl’s story.
“Comes Unstitched”, the sixth episode in the film, taking place almost three hours into its running time, opens with a deceptively simple image: the little girl, Estike, is sitting outside the door of her dilapidated and run-down house, waiting for her brother to come out. The camera is placed over her shoulder, with her back dominating the left third of the screen, and the house covering the upper-right half of the screen. Inbetween is the damp, mucky earth, stretching out flat to the horizon and the murky grey-white sky.
In several ways, our eyes are drawn to the house above all elements of the composition. Texturally and tonally, it’s the busiest part of the image, made up of various layers and shades of peeling paint, crumbling plaster and bricks—while the rest of the image is far more plain and consistent (the median grey tones of the earth, the pale grey-white of the sky and the dark black of the back of Estike’s head and shoulder.) Also, the combined shape of the sky and ground form a broad L-shape around the house, with Estike’s forming a subtler L-shape around that. All this tends to frame and lead our attention to the house. She, too, appears to be looking at the house, and her presumed eyeline—parallel with the horizon—seems to lead us there as well.
There’s a complication to this arrangement, however, that’s typical of Tarr’s approach. While the structure of the composition may guide our attention to the house, the viewer may be more interested in the figure of the little girl who is relegated to the margins of the frame. This is, after all, the first time we have met this character—and at this stage, presented only with her dark outline, we are not even sure who she is. Her marginal position and lack of description in the image—even the wet ground is given more texture and detail—makes her all the more mysterious and, as a result, more intriguing. There is a tension, therefore, between what the image is obviously highlighting and focussing on (the house); and what, on a subtler level, is—almost paradoxically— being emphasized by being ignored (the girl). (It’s also worth noting that the image stays like this, unchanged, for over a minute; giving the viewer time to look critically at the composition.)
One could argue that this reflects the little girl’s position in the story as a whole: she is the film’s tragic, neglected character—ignored by everyone until it is too late. The marginalisation of Estike compositionally mirrors how she is neglected in the film’s social system—and also emphasises the power of image systems to shape, discriminate and neglect just as much as a society can. Both are attempts to put an order on reality, shape it into something more coherent and contained. What distinguishes Sátántangó from most other films is that it leads us to question these attempts, not merely accept them. This simple but brilliant image is one of many examples of how the film accomplishes this.
The following image shows another facet of Tarr’s approach. We’re in a forest, and the camera is moving forward. The large lower part of the image—about three quarters of the screen—consists of the earth, speckled multiple shades of grey with autumn leaves. Our attention, however, is drawn to the upper quarter of the screen, where distant tree trunks divide the bright sky with jagged vertical lines like dashes of charcoal—creating a harsh black and white pattern that stands out from the muted grays of leaves and grass. The shot continues like this for about half a minute before we begin to pick something else out amidst the trees—Estike and her older brother.
It’s the way in which they are introduced into the composition that is interesting: placed among dozens of tall trees, they’re barely noticeable at first. When they become clear, their stark black figures almost seem like miniature versions of the trunks that tower above them. The composition presents the characters as just another part of the landscape; no more important—and in many ways less impressive—than the trees.
The effect is mirrored throughout the film, in instances where figures are depicted as indistinguishable from the landscape. In fact, it happens in the very first shot I discussed above: after Estike’s brother comes out of the house, both of them walk across the flatlands towards the horizon and the shot holds until they are become just two single dots in the composition, no more integral than any other.
There are also many cases where non-human elements are simply given equal or greater emphasis in the mise-en-scene. There is, for example, a shot later on in the film in which the camera tracks over a group of people sitting in the back of a moving truck. The people are spaced apart and the camera tracks slowly, so what we first see is the landscape in the background passing by. Then slowly a person appears into view…and out of view, and we are left with the simple, timeless landscape again. As the shot continues, one almost gets the impression that the people just happened to be there, getting in the way.
The effect of all this is to frame the character’s aims and concerns—and by extension, those of the film’s narrative—in a much wider context. They say if you want to make God laugh, tell him your plans—and, in a way, what Tarr is doing here is letting us in on that divine joke. What do our plans and worries matter in the long run? The land and the trees and the sky and the wind will be here long after we’re gone.
Of course most people prefer a less existential worldview: one that is ordered, secure, “coherent and contained”, as mentioned earlier; one in which our lives have definite meaning. We may just be part of the landscape, but we are intent on being more than that; the world may be essentially chaotic, meaningless, ever-shifting—but we are intent on creating order, meaning, stability. This conflict is one of the key issues of the film’s narrative, and it is also expressed visually.
One of the key motifs in the film is the triangular composition, usually in the form of a straight, open road. Typically framed symmetrically from its centre, the road serves both aesthetically and physically as a symbol of order. Aesthetically, the road ’s straight, measured lines perfectly illustrate the laws of perspective. Physically, the road is of course an example of man imposing order on nature—carving a convenient, linear path through the chaos of the Hungarian plains. The road is associated with people with a purpose, on their way to somewhere, with a definite destination—so it’s appropriate that the road image is virtually excluded from the episode focussing on the confused and isolated little girl. Instead we see her walking across the open plains, or through the forest.
However, there is one significant triangular composition involving the girl that mirrors the other images, in the sequence in which Estike poisons her pet cat—arguably the central scene in the film. The scene takes place in the attic of an unused building, as the cat unwittingly drinks the poison from a bowl of milk, Estike standing in the background against the wall watching. The floor takes up the lower third of the screen, with the cat positioned just left of centre. The upper two thirds features the triangle-shape, which is formed by the roof falling down diagonally on either side of the girl, its apex just out of frame. The girl is positioned slightly right of the image’s centre, and just left of the centre of the triangle. With everything slightly off-centre, the effect is subtly uneasy—and this compliments the distressing content of the scene.
The image provides a counterpoint to the order symbol of the open road, linked through the use of the triangular composition. (Also, the symmetry of the attic’s floorboards echo the perfect perspective of the open road.) This scene, too, is about order. The girl is trying to gain some sense of her control over her life, some sense of her own significance, by asserting power over her cat. It’s an insightful microcosm of the insecure quest for security that pre-occupies most of the film’s characters—but, even more than that, of the same quest that has pre-occupied human civilisation for most of its history, and been the catalyst for most of our troubles. (It’s significant that the triangle has also been part of another symbol of order: the hierarchical pyramid of power that forms the basis of most governments.)
Reinforced and informed by its compositional strategy, the film illustrates the ugly truth that is articulated by one character earlier in the film:
People don’t like freedom, they are afraid of it. The strange thing is there is nothing to fear about freedom…. Order, on the other hand, can often be frightening.
Indeed, throughout the film, one gets the sense that the order its characters try to maintain is diseased and the film consistently undermines it in various ways. Even the house—another image of man-made order—that compositionally overpowers Estike in the first image I described , is run-down and dilapidated. There is a feeling that this obsession with order is not only dangerous—it’s hopeless too.
This has inevitably been only a partial look at this neglected film which, in my view, deserves as much attention as it can get (put bluntly, I don’t think a better film has ever been made.) However, much as composition plays an integral part in the film, talking about Sátántangówithout talking about its use of time feels like talking about Van Gogh without mentioning colour, or Miles Davis without mentioning the trumpet. As what I have written might already suggest, much of the effectiveness of the film’s compositions is dependent on how long we are given to look at them, and, of course, how they change and develop over time.
I had hoped to go into more detail about the film’s use of light and dark—as it adds yet another layer to the film’s treatment of order, chaos, man, landscape and so forth—but unfortunately restriction of space prevents me. Put briefly, the film’s use of light and dark—particularly its use of darkness—show the extent to which even light is just another limited form of order or understanding, and darkness a form of chaos. A piece of narration in the film highlights this, describing how the sun rises
to separate earth and sky, man and animal, from the disturbing confused unity in which they became inextricably intwined.
An episode in the film illustrates it as well: a reclusive old man leaves the security and comfort of his home to stock up on brandy, but finds himself overwhelmed by the chaos—and darkness—of the outside world.
It’s typical, and exemplary, of Béla Tarr that the most basic aesthetic elements of his film—light and dark—should also be the most expressive, both politically and philosophically. If any film has ever thoroughly fused form and content, it is Satan’s Tango. As Peter Hames said of Tarr:
He really does want us to re-see and re-experience the world in both social and perceptual terms. The revolutionary quality of the films rests in the fact that these objectives are seen as part of a single project. (1)
- Peter Hames, “The Melancholy of Resistance: The Films of Béla Tarr”