Bela Tarr: Damnation (1988) - Can't Stop the Movies
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Bela Tarr: Damnation (1988)

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Every Tuesday Andrew will be examining the work of the Hungarian director Bela Tarr.

"This way it's a nice family story.  But it finishes like any other story.  And all stories end badly, because they are always stories of disintegration.  The heroes always disintegrate and they disintegrate in exactly the same way."

Andrew COMMENTARYWhen we finally arrive at that quote in Damnation, we have to pause for a moment and figure out what Karrer (Miklos Szekely) means by this.  He's addressing it to his former lover and her husband.  She stopped the affair so that she could focus her prime years on her husband and her career.  But they're down on their luck, and Karrer has found a way to get closer to her while removing her husband from the picture.  Karrer will offer him the smuggling job that he took recently, and this will allow Kerrer time to rekindle the romance that she stopped.

So we arrive at those lines, and we must wonder who they're addressed to.  Does he mean to address the husband?  If so then he's letting him know that the crime that he will commit does not matter in the long run.  The same if he's addressing it to the wife.  This way the message communicates that her decision to end the affair means nothing because her story will end the same as anyone's.  But he could also be sharing his own story, as the opening frames indicate that Karrer's happiness has long turned to ash.

Damnation almost completely disposes with plot.  The scenario outlined above drives the entire film.  Karrer has been removed by his lover, and plots for a way to bring them back together.

Was he ever a good lover?

The dialogue is sparse.  If you typed out all of the words spoken in Damnation you would barely get a page worth of material.  But unlike Almanac of Fall, where characters talked and talked until their words eventually rang hollow, Damnation makes sure every line has at least three or four meanings that could be attributed to it.  Part of this complexity comes from Tarr's new partnership with Laszlo Krasznahorkai, a Hungarian novelist that brought out the best in Tarr.

Some directors find greatness when partnered with a certain someone.  Akira Kurosawa's films began to take on a new dimension when he and Toshiro Mifune began working together.  The same can be said for Martin Scorsese and Paul Schrader, drawing out the transcendent feelings of guilt and unobtainable salvation in their characters.

Krasznahorkai's and Tarr drain all sense of hope from the landscape and it's inhabitants.  The opening scenes of Damnation make this clear in a three minute sequence that perfectly establishes how bleak the surroundings are.  A series of lifts are carrying materials to and from an unknown destination while the machinery powering them clangs incessantly.  Slowly the image pans back, and we discover that we are viewing this process through a window.  Further still, and a man joins the frame, silently watching and listening to the drone of the machines.  Then we fade almost imperceptibly into darkness, the camera pans to the right, and we watch the man shave.  Each slice of the blade cuts into the soundtrack, further emphasizing how alone he must be if the sound of his shaving can overpower the machinery.

He is without hope and Tarr wordlessly emphasizes every agonizing second of his existence.  Tarr is confident in every second of the transition from observing the lift to Karrer shaving in the dark.  There is no more color in this world, but unlike Tarr's earlier black and white films things are no longer grainy and distorted.  The endless desolation of the plains, the decomposing bar, the lift of smoke and the oppressive rain are all in crisp focus.  There is no longer any hope, no flat to escape to, no home that any of the characters could call their own, just endless nothing.

Just another night for Karrer.

Tarr makes us feel every second of Karrer's existence.  He allows the camera to watch as he hovers around his former lovers home, waiting for her husband to leave.  It lingers around the bar, stopping on all of the losers that find themselves at the mercy of her voice, some remembering what it was like to be in her arms.  The seconds drift into minutes, and Tarr refuses to cut the action.  He wants us to hang around every moment of Karrer's existence, and show just how meaningless it all is.

It's an unusual marriage.  A film this gorgeous is usually associated with some spark of hope (Wings of Desire, The Double Life of Veronique) but there is no such luck here.  It's an endurance test, a film that takes us to the brink of total existential isolation and asks us to look around with it's inhabitants.  I can't blame anyone for disliking what they see, but it's difficult to argue with how remarkable the films accomplishment is.

So why isn't Damnation, in my eyes, a masterpiece?  Partly because of it's greatest strength, the pulverizing insistence that existence is bleak and meaningless.  There's not a single point in the film that's not tinged with loneliness and despair.  Even Antichrist, possibly the most punishing experience I've sat through, allowed some variation of mood to seep in at the beginning and end of the film.  There is no such release with Damnation, and there is a point where Karrer's suffering becomes almost redundant.

The dancing is as lifeless as the sex.

Damnation is a raw experience in a different way than Tarr's other films.  There is no longer a sense of immediacy or intimacy with the surroundings.  They are there, we are here, and our remaining seconds are too precious to spare on petty schemes.  If only Karrer could have learned that sooner.

Next week I'll be tackling Bela Tarr's most daunting film - the seven and a half hour Satantango.

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Damnation (1987)

Directed by Bela Tarr.
Written by Bela Tarr and Laszlo Krasznahorkai.
Starring Miklos Szekely.

Tarr with text

Posted by Andrew

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