The film takes place in the isolated and dilapidated Hungarian countryside sometime at the end of communism. The locals spend their days drinking, dancing, and quarrelling with each other, or just sitting around doing nothing. A few of them decide to steal whatever little money the community has left and leave the village forever. However, their plans are crossed by the much-admired and feared crook, Irimiás and his friend, Petrina, who make a surprising return after being gone for years. The two dupe and threaten the villagers once again; they cheat them out of the money by falsely promising lucrative jobs in the city.
Béla Tarr’s movie, Sátántangó has excited and fascinated film fans since its first release in 1994. The same year the film received the ‘Caligari’ award at the Berlin International Film Festival and the ‘Age d’Or’ prize at the Brussels International Film Festival. Bloggers, film critics, and academics continue to attend special screenings and to write extensively about this epic movie. Their dedication is remarkable for such a low-budget, Hungarian film that is black and white and over seven hours long, has very little in terms of plot, and progresses at an excruciatingly slow pace. In what follows, I discuss some important aspects of why Sátántangó has become a cult classic in a newly emerging global art cinema scene. Since the French New Wave and New German Cinema’s relative popularity in the 1960s and 1970s, critics have been talking about the slow erosion of avant-garde cinema in Europe. Sátántangó not only brought Hungarian filmmaking back from the fringes of contemporary international cinema, but it also provided proof against such negative prognosis for art movies all around the world. Tarr’s film is often considered a prime example of the revival of European modernist cinema in the 1990s. Called a ‘radical modernist’, Tarr’s style lines up closely with the cinemas of Reiner Werner Fassbinder, Andrey Tarkovskij, Yasujiro- Ozu, Michelangelo Antonioni and Jim Jarmusch.1 Indeed, starting with Damnation (1988), Tarr’s films showcase all major aesthetic and narrative characteristics of modernist cinema: monochrome film stock, extremely long shots, carefully choreographed camera movement, and the use of amateur instead of professional actors. The tension between the characters’ social and economic position and their elaborate, sermon-like, poetic speech, also common in avant-garde cinema, is especially striking in Sátántangó.
One can argue that Sátántangó pushes the above-described elements of modernist cinema to the limits. The film is so radical and so extreme in its style that, as some critics have suggested, it dissolves its own boundaries and questions the very definition of cinema. Probably the best example of Tarr’s radicalism is the film’s marathon length. Besides the obvious difficulties of commercial distribution, watching the screen for seven and a half hours requires an enormous effort and investment from the audience. Such viewing experience goes directly against the logic of comfortable entertainment in mainstream commercial cinema. Sátántangó, in all its aspects, is a self-proclaimed, extreme counterpoint to contemporary fast-paced, action-oriented, heavily digitised and overacted Hollywood films. The film was more than a simple experiment in style and narration for Tarr; it was a real gamble – but one that has clearly paid off.
Nevertheless, it would be a mistake to understand Sátántangó as only a gesture of provocation. The film’s aesthetic elements are integral to its internal logic, the archaic and mythical nature of its fictional world. The extremely long takes (the average shot length is 2 minutes 33 seconds) and very slow pace create an overall sense of prolongation and suspense that is not self-absorbing, but that achieves the desired visual affect of endless monotony and repetition. Suspending temporal progression instils a mythical circularity in the narrative and lends it a sense of inevitability and intransience. In other words, the length and particular cinematographic style of Sátántangó are not simply matters of aesthetic radicalism: they become the film’s main theme as well.
Like most of Tarr’s movies, Sátántangó is the filmic adaptation of a well-known Hungarian novel with the same title by contemporary author, László Krasznahorkai. Therefore, the issue of intermediality – the complex relationship between words and images – is central in understanding the aesthetic as well as narrative elements in the film. Praised for its extraordinary faithfulness to the novel, Sátántangó follows similar, circular temporal structure, slow pace, fragmented narration and dark imagery. 2 The sentences that stretch over several pages in the book become very long takes while the long internal monologues are replaced by sustained silence. Repetition, circularity and complicated sentence structure in the novel find their visual counterparts in form of black and white film stock, slowly panning camera, and a limited number of shots with the goal to create the same sense of stationary, monotonous and desolate reality.
There are two aspects of intermediality worth investigating further: the structuring of time and the question of the narrator. First, the film and the novel both alter the viewer’s experience of time as structured and material to replace it with mythical, ‘thick’ time through length, slow pace, and monotony. Further, temporal overlaps and simultaneity (witnessing the same event from different angles) are equally present in the novel and the film. For instance, in the first scene when Futaki, having spent the night with Schmidt’s wife, hides from the returning husband, we watch the action from two different angles. At the beginning, we see the events from inside the house and then again from outside, behind a neighbouring barn. In the novel, events are re-told by different narrators. ‘Satan’s tango’, the central scene of the movie, is a case in point: we see the events first from the point of view of Esztike who is standing outside the pub in the rain looking at the drunk, partying crowd; and then from inside the pub. But, while in the novel such simultaneity has the effect of undermining narrative coherence, in the film it actually achieves the opposite effect. Repetition becomes a force of cohesion and reinforcement due to the concreteness of the image.3 Second, the specificity of the medium used (written versus visual language) also impacts narrative stability. The novel destabilises the narrative voice: virtually all characters function as narrators and, at the very end we arrive back to the beginning as the Doctor starts writing the first few lines of Sátántangó. The film, however, creates a much more coherent, strong, principle narrator, who is invisible and omnipotent. The Doctor is only one of many characters with a clearly subjective point of view on the events. The temporal and narrative structuring in the film is therefore heavily impacted by the medium in which it operates.
Beyond such formalist analysis, Sátántangó is also an interesting commentary on Hungary’s politico-economic reality in the late 1980s. When Krasznahorkai’s novel was first published in 1985, Tarr immediately contacted him to work together on a film adaptation. However, he did not receive sufficient funds to start the production because the communist political censorship at the time was not ready to allow for such a bleak and critical depiction of Eastern European late-socialist reality. Indeed, the characters’ inability to assume control over their lives, to escape their disintegrating world, as well as the fatalism that determines their actions reflect a sense of futility, paralysis, and uncertainty that Eastern Europeans faced in their everyday life. Desperate for change, Esztike, Futaki, Schmidt, Kráner, Halics and the rest are all waiting for a ‘saviour’ to come. However, the land of promise never arrives. Instead Irimiás, the false prophet appears, whose sophisticated language and phony proposal about a model farm that will save the deteriorating community is symbolic of the contemporary political regime’s attempt to maintain its hegemony through corruption, exploitation and deception.4
Sadly, the total failure of the communist utopia did not result from the people’s disinterest, ignorance or laziness. Instead, long hours of hard labour that consumed the lives of millions over 50 years of communism bore no other fruit but poverty, bankruptcy, and desolation. The images of decay, ruin, and barrenness are visual metaphors for the futile human sacrifice required from all Eastern Europeans by the Communist Party. Their humiliation, powerlessness, and exploitation force the characters into self-destructive, immoral, and irrational behaviour in a way that is dramatic and astounding, yet without clichés.5 What makes the film particularly successful today is the way it elevates the historically specific critique of the late-socialist surveillance state (e.g. Irimiás’ cobweb metaphor) to a philosophically relevant argument about humanity’s misfortune and fallibility.
Some critics have read Tarr’s film through the lens of postcolonialism. Such analyses usually interpret Sátántangó’s dilapidated world as a selfexoticising gesture for Western audiences. In a postcolonial reading, the viewers are drawn to the movie because of a mixed sense of repulsion and fascination with the backwards and archaic Hungarian countryside. Sátántangó, it has been postulated, presents Eastern Europe in a one-dimensional and ahistorical way, not as a real place with its complexities, but rather as an abstraction, a space where all material decay and human misery come to the surface. Ultimately, the film sets up an uneven power relation between the viewer and the viewed, making the cinematic gaze into a tool of colonisation for Western audiences.
Tarr’s mastery is in seamlessly intersecting the politically poignant critique of Hungary’s late socialist reality with an existentialist meditation over human imperfection. The film oscillates between two interpretative dimensions: between the universal and the material, between the abstract and the concrete, the historically specific and the atemporal, mythical. The harsh landscape of the Hungarian countryside anchors the characters’ lives in a highly material way. The crumbling walls, relentless rain, and flat, dreary landscape could not be more concrete and tangible. Yet, the overwhelming images of decay are also symbolic of the transience and eternal passing of everything man-made. The same is true for the film’s characters. Irimiás, for instance, is undoubtedly a thief and a crook. At the same time, he embodies a fundamental materialism that, in Tarr’s dark vision, drives all human behaviour. Esztike, on the other hand, can be seen as a sacrificial lamb, whose body after her death transforms into a spirit. Yet, she is very much the victim of the community’s economic and social misery, of human negligence and abuse. The banal and wretched material existence of these characters thus transforms into a vision of universal human drama. However, Sátántangó denies the possibility that transcendental forces would control human behaviour. Every time the universal and mythical comes close to the metaphysical (Petrina’s prayer, Irimiás’ hallucination), the film circles back to an inescapable materiality disallowing any sense of mysticism. Despite the Biblical references (Irimiás, the prophet, the sacrifice of the lamb, apocalypses, etc.), God is clearly absent from this world.
Sátántangó has clearly benefited from a newly emerging, global art cinema subculture that is more democratic, but also more private and individualised.6 Because of the recent revolution in film and communication technology as well as in contemporary viewing practices, the relationship between national, regional and global cinema has undergone a fundamental transformation. On the one hand, high-speed internet and social media facilitate the dissemination of films as well as their criticism quickly and widely within the global cinephile community. On the other hand, individual members of this subculture do not necessarily share values or lifestyles except for an appreciation for the film’s radical aesthetics. The rapidly growing interest in transnational and global cinema trends makes individual films relevant only in so far as they resonate with audiences all over the world. Sátántangó has achieved a cult status on the global art cinema scene exactly because a wide variety of viewers from all over the world find themselves invested in the movie. First of all, there is a draw to the myth that surrounds the film’s making.7 Second, its extraordinary length and slow pace requires an enormous investment on part of each viewer. Third, film fans seem to appreciate Sátántangó’s radical modernist style that is an open provocation to the ever more consumption-oriented Hollywood cinema culture. Most importantly however, Tarr’s apocalyptic vision resonates with all who, in one way or other, have experienced ‘universal moral degradation’ and misery that is tragic, yet inescapable and utterly human.8
1. See András Bálin Kovács, ‘The World According to Béla Tarr’, Kinokultura, Special Issue 7, February 2008.
2. For a detailed analysis on the issue of film adaptation, see István Margocsy, ‘Kinek a szemével?’, Filmvilág 1994/6.
3. See Gábor Gelencsér, ‘Keső vagy után? A Sátántangó modernsége’, Filmszem, Vol. 1, No. 3, August 2011, pp. 23–33.
4. See Hajnal Király, ‘Making Meaning in Béla Tarr’s Adaptation of Satan Tango’, in Ágnes Pethö, Words and Images on the Screen: Language, Literature, Moving Pictures, New Castle upon Tyne, Cambridge Scholars Publishing, 2008, p. 82.
5. A feeling of disillusionment and anger is expressed in statements such as, ‘is it possible that they show up from nowhere and take everything away? There shall be order here again, my friend, in this country, there shall be order again!’ (the tapster) or the schoolmaster as he offers Schmidt’s wife to take her away to the city when finally ‘those who are deserving will be in power’.
6. See András Bálint Kovács, ‘A negyedik dimenzió’, Filmvilág, 2009/02, pp. 4–5.
7. Although he had been planning to make Sátántangó since 1984, Tarr could not find funding for it until after 1989, the fall of the socialist political regimes in Eastern Europe. When finally he gathered the necessary financial support, it took over three years to shoot and edit it (from 1991 until 1994), making not only the length of the movie epic but also the length it took to actually realise it.
8. See András Bálint Kovács, ‘Sátántangó’, in Peter Hames and István Szabó (eds), The Cinema of Central Europe, London, Wallflower Press, 2004, p. 237.
Cast and Crew:
[Country: Hungary, Germany, Switzerland. Production Company: MAFILM, Mozgókép Innovációs Társulás-Von Vietinghoff Filmproduktion, Merlin-Vega Film AG. Director: Béla Tarr. Screenwriters: László Krasznahorkai, Béla Tarr (adopted from László Krasznahorkai’s novel with the same title, based on Mihály Víg, Péter Dobai, and Barna Mihók’s texts). Cinematographer: Gábor Medvigy. Editor: Ágnes Hranitzky. Music: Mihály Víg. Cast: Mihály Víg (Irimías), Dr Putyi Horváth (Petrina), Erika Bók (Estike), Peter Berling (Orvos), Miklós Székely B (Futaki), László feLugossy (Schmidt), Éva Almási Albert (Schmidtné), Alfréd Járai (Halics), Erzsi Gaál (Halicsné), János Derzsi (Kráner), Irén Szajki (Kránerné), Barna Mihók (Kerekes), István Juhász (Kelemen), Zoltán Kamondi (Kocsmáros), Péter Dobai (Százados), András Bodnár (Horgos Sanyi), Ica Bojár (Horgosné), Mihály Rádai (narrator).]
Hajnal Király, ‘Making Meaning in Béla Tarr’s Adaptation of Satan Tango’ in Ágnes Pethö (ed.), Words and Images on the Screen: Language, Literature, Moving Pictures, Newcastle-upon-Tyne, Cambridge Scholars Publishing, 2008, 76–87.
András Bálint Kovács, ‘Sátántangó’, in Peter Hames and István Szabo (eds), The Cinema of Central Europe, London, Wallflower Press, 2004, pp. 237–43. Lilla Tőke
The Routledge Encyclopedia of Films, Edited by Sarah Barrow, Sabine Haenni and John White, first published in 2015.