Gary Pollard Interviews Bela Tarr

Among the many guests attending this year’s 32nd Hong Kong International Film Festival were two of Europe’s most-respected filmmakers: Hungarian Bela Tarr, and – from Britain – Peter Greenaway. For a lot of people, Bela Tarr is their worst nightmare of what European art film is like. His “Satantango” is seven hours long. It begins with an eight-minute shot of cows meandering through a village. There’s a one-hour sequence which is basically a man sitting at a desk, and eventually getting up to go to the toilet, and to go out and buy some more alcohol. There’s a lot of this kind of thing going on in his films. He likes using black and white. He explains why in the following interview.

He deals with things on a very determined level and with a pace that some people will find slow. But, as you watch his films, they are incredibly powerful. By the end of “Satantango”, by the end of this seven hours film, you think: “I’m so glad I saw that.” And so much of it works so well.

And in terms of the film, these days many films come out as products. Bela Tarr says that European filmmakers basically are funded by the government, they’re funded by public money. Bela Tarr really insists that most films are like fairy tales, and he says: “I’m being paid with their money, to make films to appeal to their intelligence. I shouldn’t be making fairy tales. I shouldn’t be treating them like kids. I should assume they have a level of intelligence,which is how he works.

Gary Pollard
You’re famous, particularly after “Damnation” onwards,for long extended shots. Is that a kind of corrective to the fact that we have short attention spans now?.

Bela Tarr
You know, why I like to do this one is because you can create everything for a minute and everybody has to be there at the same moment, the actors the crew and we, and everybody has to be on the top, with all of your sensibilities, and all of your presence. That’s important. That’s why I like it. To have it, the moment, when everything is together.

You know, most of the movies are working like: information, cut, information, cut, information, cut. And for them the information is just the story. And for me a lot of things are information. I try to involve to the movie, the time, the space, and a lot of other things which is a part of our life but not connecting directly to the storytelling. And I’m working the same way: information, cut, information, cut, but for me the information is not only the story. A lot of other things. Maybe something is happening between us and I’m just moving with the camera and I’m showing you something over there, which is connecting you. It also gives some information to the people but it’s not in a cut. Or, the way how I’m showing I’m just always … it looks like a chain. You just put everything together and then finally you have a long take. But we are cutting, but not on the editing table, we are cutting in the camera.

Gary Pollard
People think in a way … you’ve said you’re not a believer in God, yet people still keep looking at your films and coming out with religious messages.

Bela Tarr
I’m working since thirty years. And during this time I have to tell you I’m doing the same movie about the human dignity. If you want you can call it also a kind of religion because if you believe and you are 100% sure one thing is important. Human dignity. And what is really … and please don’t touch it, the human dignity. Please don’t destroy it. Please don’t humiliate it. And I just wanted to show you always: here is some poor, ugly, sad people. Maybe they are able to do crimes but they are able to love each other, but they are human beings and they have a right to life. And the quality of their life, it’s not “doesn’t matter”. You know, that’s what I think, and that’s why I’m doing a movie. And that’s, and that’s what I believe.

Gary Pollard
You’ve got two moments of particular revelation, when I think about in “Satantango” there’s the scene where Iremias comes to the place where the little girl killer herself, and there’s the mist going across, and he falls to his knees and then in the hospital scene in Werckmeister Harmonies they go through a hospital and then they see the old man standing in the bath and then they go away very quiet. What is it that impresses those people in those scenes.

Bela Tarr
I can be cynical and I can tell you very simple. Because behind the old man in the bath there is a wall. No way. They have to turn back. That’s the cynical version. Of course on the other hand I think every human has a sensibility and every human has a respect. You know, if you are the biggest criminal, if you are able to kill someone, everybody has a border that they have to turn backbecause if they cross this border in this case we cannot call them human. We have to call them animals. But I have to tell you I respect several times more the animals because what we are doing on the earth is more …

Gary Pollard
One thing that impresses a lot of people about your films: they love the cinematography, the black and white cinematography but you do very extended scenes, the cinematography often looks quite naturalistic. Do your extended scenes create extra problems for your cameraman?

Bela Tarr
It’s not a question of extra problems or not. You know, if you have a picture. It looks like a painting. Every frame has to be perfect and you have to show something which is important. If here is, for example, this small flower. It’s really importent iif I take me hand to … the light is coming from here. If I take my hand to here, it became dark. It’s always the question if … what I want to show I have to decide – the flower or the water?. In this case I’m hiding it, or I keep it in the dark and I put more light to here because I just want to show you what I think, what I … what is important and we have to … and the black and white is very good because it’s bright, white., this is totally dark and you can feel always like I can … and your eyes always are just going to the brighter, to the brighter point. That’s why I really like to do the black and white. And I never think about how difficult it is for the cinematographer because I just know what I want to show, but I know it’s really difficult, because there’s a lot of really complicated camera movement.

Gary Pollard
I’ve got a picture by Brueghel on the wall of my office. I was very interested to see that you love Brueghel so much. What is it about Brueghel that you love and how does that apply to your films?

Bela Tarr
For example, when we see the falling Icarus. And this is the story, and this is the title of the picture, and what do you see? Icarus is really the smallest point in the background when he falls to the water and in the front you can see two ugly real people. That’s a kind of philosophy. The story is, I don’t know where because the main issue is in front of you. That’s … it’s a kind of dramaturgy. I have to tell you I learned filmmaking more from the painters and from the musicians than the filmmakers.

Gary Pollard
Do you feel your films are optimistic or pessimistic?

Bela Tarr
First of all, if you are pessimistic, you don’t do anything, and you don’t want to tell and don’t want to communicate with the people. That’s true. I don’t think I’m too optimistic, but I’m still optimistic because I believe that somebody will come and watch this movie and agree with our point of view.

Gary Pollard
Bela Tarr thanks very much.

Bela Tarr
Thank you.

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