"A moving picture," said William Faulkner, "is by its nature a collaboration, and any collaboration is compromise, because that is what the word means — to give and take." True enough for Faulkner, whose moonlight job in Hollywood, though he worked on some Howard Hawks classics, required his craftsmanship but not his genius. And there is truth enough in the observation to apply it more generally to novelists in the movies.
In that tumultuous history, the long and faithful collaboration between director Bela Tarr and novelist Laszlo Krasznahorkai stands apart. Spanning five features over a quarter of a century, two of them indebted to the writer's novels, their alliance is among the most triumphant of enduring novelist-director pairings, alongside Graham Greene and Carol Reed ("The Fallen Idol," "The Third Man," "Our Man in Havana"). And the shared vision pursued in their works — of human longing, struggle and folly in a disintegrating, predatory world, where all paths only circle back unto themselves — has been, above all, uncompromising.
With the fifth feature in this starkly original cycle, "The Turin Horse," which has just opened locally, this union of Hungarian masters appears to be drawing to a close. Tarr, though only 56, has said it will be the last movie he directs because he plans to devote his time to a new film school and other endeavors. Krasznahorkai, meanwhile, now has three of his novels and an assortment of short works published in English, and his reputation on this continent continues to grow. His latest novel available in English (like the others, translated by the poet George Szirtes) is newly arrived from New Directions — his 1985 debut, "Satantango," where it all began for him and Tarr.
Though the director and novelist are credited as co-screenwriters on all their collaborations, they don't write conventional scripts. Rather, Krasznahorkai serves as a kind of literary consultant as the film takes shape. "When we make films from his stories," Tarr once explained to critic Jonathan Romney, "we usually take the novel and we somehow in a terrible manner ruin it, and often what remains is just dialogues and situations." Then, he says, "we have to rediscover everything in reality that has already been discovered when he wrote the novel."
Though Tarr has referred to himself in interviews as "very autocratic" and makes clear that "filmmaking is not a democratic process," collaboration has been a crucial element of his work from the outset. In his earliest features, starting with "Family Nest" in 1977, he relied on a semi-improvisational approach with his actors, in the vein of John Cassavetes and Henry Jaglom. Like those directors, for nearly all his movies he has worked with the same core group of actors and filmmakers, including his wife and editor, Agnes Hranitzky, and the musician-composer Mihaly Vig.
The novelist was a relative latecomer to the ensemble, joining shortly after Tarr read "Satantango" in 1985. Tarr immediately set out to make it his next film, and Krasznahorkai signed on as co-screenwriter. This was already a time of transition for the director. After three early works of social realism that had established his reputation, Tarr appeared to be restlessly searching for a new filmic language. In 1982, he had embarked on a TV adaptation of "Macbeth," filmed in two shots, the second one lasting more than an hour — a sign of things to come. Two years later came "Almanac of Fall," which introduced an expressionistic palette of lighting and color to the kind of claustrophobic apartment setting seen in his earlier work.
With Krasznahorkai's arrival, Tarr broke through. A series of obstacles sidetracked "Satantango," so the pair wrote "Damnation," based on Tarr's nugget of a story about a downtrodden loner helplessly in love with a married cabaret singer. In the film, released in 1987, Tarr leaves the urban settings of his previous work for a crumbling mining town, and he stakes out many of the hallmarks of his pictures since: striking black-and-white images of textured close-ups and bleak but beautiful Hungarian landscapes, and patient, protracted takes with slow camera movements, which can seem excruciating to viewers weaned on the flash-cut pace of TV and popular movies.
The tragicomedy "Satantango," finally realized in 1994, develops the discoveries made in "Damnation" with exquisite elaboration, depicting a hopeless town slowly vacillating with the monotony of a metronome, whose population of petty cheats, liars and drunks finds our sympathy when nefarious opportunists arrive. Spanning more than seven hours, the film is a herculean achievement and one of the decade's masterworks. Here, Tarr explores the extended take to the point of obsession, warping one's sense of linear time, like Morton Feldman's hours-long chamber compositions, while inviting us to not just watch the image, but look.
Tarr assured his place as one of the era's great directors with "Werckmeister Harmonies," in 2000, based on Krasznahorkai's second novel, "The Melancholy of Resistance," about the mayhem of chaos and order that erupt when an exhibit featuring a preserved whale and a mysterious figure called the Prince comes to town. The film gives a full venting to the writer's sense of menace and foreboding and delivers some of Tarr's most shattering and ineffable moments. In 2007's "The Man From London," about a seaside railway signalman and the moral questions he confronts after witnessing a murder and retrieving a cash-filled briefcase from the scene, the writing duo for the first time adapts the work of another, the late Belgian novelist Georges Simenon. The result moves the Tarr style again into new territory, combining the family-life claustrophobia of his early films with the haunting exteriors of his later ones.
Throughout these works, Tarr's steady gaze encourages us to examine the image as we would a painting. For this director, it is not the stories of plot that interest him so much as the people, objects and landscapes — and the stories they reveal when we are afforded the chance to look. And listen — to inevitable, punishing downpours; to boots on mud; to Vig's sonorous accordion; to distant bells sounding in a town with no belfry. The experience, whatever the grim situations and hapless characters trapped inside them, can produce an ecstasy like that of studying a Bruegel (an inspiration Tarr acknowledges).
Though the labyrinthine sentences of a Krasznahorkai novel might seem the literary equivalent of the director's extended takes, the movement of his language is a frenetic counterpoint to Tarr's meditative imagery. His prose similarly places demands on the reader with rewards in store for the willing. Recalling Beckett and Kafka by way of Thomas Bernhard, it is filled with sentences that pour out for pages at a time, lurching from one comma to the next, over and over, following a character's thought in this direction, his action in that, pausing hardly, if at all, for paragraph breaks. Periods are held in abeyance like a delayed cadence in Wagner.
Where Tarr's films capture the wonder of absorbing a master's painting, Krasznahorkai's sentences capture the essence of a painter at work, hunting for the image in his brush strokes: now a fish, now a tree, now a triangle, now nothing at all. Except that, for the characters who reside in those sentences, they pursue the hunt endlessly, circularly, never reaching the object sought, or if they do, the precious thing longed for turns out to be counterfeit, often with cruel, even apocalyptic, consequences. They inhabit worlds and conditions from which there is no escape, in which every promise of liberation proves a lie. Neither communism nor capitalism, religion nor logic, nor the critique of any are ever specified, but all are implicitly indicted.
These characters and environments, the repetitive continuum inside which they grapple and the author's absurdist humor and deep humanity proved to be ideally suited to Tarr's aesthetic, and they helped transform and elevate his work.
Tarr began his career, he often recalls, intent on "kicking in the door" of contemporary cinema. To the end, through decades that have seen the Americanization of the European film, he has given no quarter. And the intrepid films of his partnership with Krasznahorkai, while defining ours as a civilization that is no more, have reminded us that the art of the motion picture remains essential and alive.