The Turin Horse is a 146-minute movie that documents a single week in the lives of its two characters, but such definite statements have little meaning in the world of Béla Tarr. He is a man who can make time stand still or make it feel as if the minutes are passing by at a fraction of their normal speed. Maybe Tarr himself feels the passage of time in a different way to the rest of us? He is only 56 years old, and yet he has stated in no uncertain terms that The Turin Horse will be his last film. It certainly feels like a valedictory work, the final statement of an artist who feels he has said enough about the human condition and is leaving us with a final masterpiece that deals unceremoniously with the end of things.
The film opens with an anecdote about a horse that was on the receiving end of a severe beating from its owner when Friedrich Nietzsche happened upon the scene. Nietzsche threw his arms around the horse's neck, sobbing, and then returned home, where he lay still and silent for two days. After finally speaking what proved to be his last words – "Mutter, ich bin dumm." – he died. This incident took place in 1889 – are we to infer from the film's opening shot that the horse in this film is the same one? Can we even be sure that this film is occurring in the same time and place? Tarr gives us no hints, and a sense of timelessness runs throughout The Turin Horse.
Certainly, the horse that we see in the opening image looks like he has taken some beatings in his time. The first shot of the film is a stunning cinematic coup that pinned me to my seat, as an aged farmer and his tired old nag make their way down a country road, the wind howling around them. The farmer's name is Ohlsdorfer (János Derzsi) and he lives with his daughter (Erika Bók) in a small stone cottage, with no other inhabitants in view. Ohlsdorfer has a useless right arm and left eye, and he relies heavily on his daughter for dressing, undressing, cooking and manual labour. Once we are safely inside this cottage, with a storm continuing to rage outside, this is where we stay, as the film counts down a few days in the lives of these people; days in which nothing unremarkable happens, but beyond the walls we gradually sense that everything is happening.
The films of Béla Tarr are very much an acquired taste. His pictures are slow-moving, black-and-white dramas in which dialogue is at a premium, and they unfold in long, unbroken takes. The Turin Horse consists of around 30 individual shots in its 2½-hour running time, and many of these are simply images of the old man getting dressed in the morning, or the pair sitting down at the table to eat their daily potato. It sounds like a parody of misery-soaked Eastern European art cinema, but The Turin Horse is utterly engrossing as it immerses us in the mundane routine of this pair's day-to-day existence before disrupting that routine with incidents of increasingly grave portent. The woodworm that Ohlsdorfer has heard for 58 years suddenly fall silent, the horse refuses to budge from his barn, the well dries up, and all the while the wind outside continues to howl incessantly.
This doom-laden atmosphere, combined with the plaintive score and Tarr's rigorous control of every scene creates an astonishingly evocative atmosphere of ever encroaching dread. Nobody else makes films like Béla Tarr and The Turin Horse is another towering achievement, fit to stand alongside his Werckmeister Harmonies. With his departure, it feels as if we are losing more than simply a great director, as Tarr seems to stand for an entire way of looking at the world that is so out of step with the rest of contemporary cinema. He was a serious filmmaker who was serious about the things his films could say and do, but if The Turin Horse must be his last film then it is a fitting farewell. How many filmmakers can say they bowed out with a film that feels like the end of the world?