Kárhozat (Damnation)

This was one of a set of three Béla Tarr DVDs we bought on holiday last year, none of which we’d yet got around to watching. I first saw this film in the cinema in 1990, and wrote the following comments on it:

Een meesterwerk! Schitterend depro film van twee uur waarin bijna niets gebeurt, waar de hoofdpersoon eindeloos rondloopt in de stromende regen door een vervallen en verlaten industriestad, waar alles treurig en depressief is, zelfs de muziek waarop de stombezopene mensen ‘vrolijk’ dansen op een feest. Deed mij soms aan Stranger than paradise denken, maar ook soms aan Eraserhead.

Or, to translate for any non-Dutch speakers out there:

A masterpiece! Brilliant depressing two-hour film in which almost nothing happens, where the protagonist endlessly walks around in the pouring rain in a dilapidated and abandoned industrial city, where everything is miserable and depressed, even the music to which the dead drunk guests ‘cheerfully’ dance at a party. Reminded me sometimes of Stranger than paradise, but also sometimes of Eraserhead.

(I wasn’t quite so prolific in those days 🙂 ). So, I had high hopes for this film, and I wasn’t disappointed. Not being able to remember much about Stranger than paradise I’m not sure about the reference to that film, but for the rest I can still agree with every word of what I wrote 24 years ago.

(details below)

This is in many ways an extreme film. For a start it must be one of the most depressing films ever made. Everything about it is depressing: the setting, the weather, the characters, the story, the music… In fact it’s so exaggeratedly depressing at times that it starts to look almost like a parody of depression and becomes difficult to take seriously. In other words it’s almost depressing enough to be funny (but not quite…). Then there’s the film’s extreme slowness, with seemingly endless shots in which the camera stands still while focussing on one thing, zooms slowly in or out, or pans slowly across the scene – and when I say ‘slowly’ I’m talking about minutes rather than seconds. As far as its pacing goes, this film resembles the music of La Monte Young more than that of Anton Bruckner. As in 1990, I was struck by the similarities with Eraserhead, even if that film is more surrealistic and less depressing: the bleak industrial landscape, the hypnotic and often industrial soundtrack (starting with the sound of the coal trolleys which open the film so beautifully), and the way they reinforce one another. Might Béla Tarr have been influenced by Eraserhead ? It’s not impossible.

Apparently Tarr once said in an interview that his films, including this one, contain nothing symbolic or allegorical and should be taken as straightforward realistic narratives, but that’s exactly what this film quite obviously isn’t. Even ignoring its exaggeratedly depressing atmosphere (no place on earth can ever have been quite that depressing!), and the occasional absurd sequence of someone dancing in a puddle, we have the dialogues which are theatrical in the extreme and anything but realistic. The main character frequently comes out with lines which could have been taken straight out of a philosophy textbook, but perhaps the most extreme example is when the older female character who works as cloakroom attendant in the Titanik Bar approaches him in the street, asks him if he knows the Old Testament and begins quoting from it. Her quote goes on for several minutes (she’s obviously got a good memory!), and his response is to say nothing and simply walk away. No, this film is a work of art, it’s theatre and it’s poetry, but it’s definitely not realism.

It’s also an extremely visual film: the dialogues play a secondary role and most of the story-telling is done by the images and sounds. The camerawork and photography are amazing, and the soundtrack is excellent. I suppose a lot of people will find this film too long and too slow-moving, but I was fascinated from start to finish and didn’t find it a second too long. I can hardly wait to see those other two DVDs…



title Kárhozat (Damnation)
director Béla Tarr
released 1988
language magyar
subtitles English
seen 11/11/2014, on DVD
further information IMDb


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