Six days in the lives of this pair who barely speak to one another, and it took me nearly as long to finish the film. This is not to say that The Turin Horse is a hard slog not worth the bother; far from it.
We are told at the start that Nietsche was cut down in his prime, mentally speaking, while visiting the Italian city and witnessing a hansom cab driver mercilessly whipping his horse. However, Wikipedia is wrong when it says that Tarr’s film constitutes a musing over what became of the horse: there is no way the man in this film on his secluded farm could turn a living as a hansom cab driver, and a cursory examination of the cart (Tarr offers us at least five minutes in his opening shot) confirms that it is not a cab.
True to the Spartan aesthetic whereby a two and a half-hour film can consist of only thirty extended sequence shots, Tarr pares down his dramatic elements to the minimum. We have a man, who has the use of only his left arm, and his cart, and his horse. Ultimately they arrive at a group of buildings. Is he making a delivery? No, this is his home. A young woman, his daughter it transpires, helps him unhitch the horse, stable it and stow the cart. All this takes place in exhaustive detail (the second shot of the movie) and is repeated in reverse, and then again, on the second day.
Gradually we are introduced to their daily repeated round of domestic acts. The girl undresses and dresses her father, tops up the wood in the stove, fetches water from the well, boils two large potatoes which constitute their only food, and which they peel with bare fingers, for they have no cutlery, and eat with salt, or he does. (He devours his usually; she merely picks at hers.) We also see her wash a shirt, sew on a button, and attempt to persuade the horse to eat and drink (it appears to have lost the will to live, and who can blame it?) The father drinks his morning schnapps (two glasses, more in the second one), palinka, and sits at the kitchen window watching the wind-swept landscape and occasionally uttering some guttural curse or other.
No other work seems to take place, or could it, given the conditions outside. Life seems to be a question of waiting…for something. On the third day a man arrives to buy some palinka, and talks about how injustices will wipe everything off the face of the earth, to which the old man responds, ‘fuck that’. On the fourth day some gypsies come for water, which the girl gives them before her father chases them off with an axe. They tell her to come with them. She doesn’t, but receives a book which she reads haltingly back in the house, a kind of anti-testament without much divine redemption in it. On the fifth day the well runs dry and they attempt to leave. Night falls prematurely, whereupon the lamps refuse to stay lit. The sixth day: deprived of fire and water, they sit with their cold potatoes. The man touchingly perseveres with his attempts to peel it with one hand and implores her to eat. She does not. God grants little, and what he does he takes away.
As in the universe of Samuel Beckett, all sorts of questions arise, some trivial: why will the horse not eat? Why does the wind not come in through the hole in the stable wall? Where is the daughter throwing the waste water when she comes towards the camera at the back of the house? Some more essential: what is the nature of the catastrophe that has beset the land? Why do they come back so quickly from the brow of the hill, when they have taken such trouble to pack their things (the film’s most Beckettian detail)? Is the point that Man is a poor forked animal in a godless universe, that life is an endlessly repeated struggle and all he must do is wait to die? Well, yes, probably. And we come back to the horse. Could it be that Tarr transmutes the horse’s fate to that of the man and girl, lashed by the elements, to what end they do not know, and in the end do not care. So the horse stops eating, as, ultimately, must they.
Cheery stuff indeed, but the rhythm of the piece, underscored by Mihaly Vig’s minimalist music, carries its own rewards. The debate has raged elsewhere over ‘slow cinema’, and whether, to put it bluntly, it is all a con. I think when it is done as well, as painstakingly, as this (and the shoot ran on for weeks), then after a while you begin to see more clearly what the essentials are, like looking long and hard at a painting. I suppose my only reservation is that we have been here so many times before.