The Turin Horse (2011): Review

As this review describes much of the content of the film. You may wish to watch it before reading this.

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Hungarian auteur Béla Tarr has stated that The Turin Horse is his final film. This seems somewhat appropriate as it references an apocryphal event that is said to have marked Friedrich Nietzsche’s final fall into physical and mental decline and is themed on a descent into nothingness. While visiting the Italian city of Turin, Nietzsche is supposed to have been distressed by the sight of a stubborn horse being brutally whipped by its driver and fallen sobbing upon the beast’s neck in a protective embrace. Nietzsche spent the years following the time at which this event may or may not have occurred, in an early dotage, under the care of his family.

The event concerning Nietzsche is described in the film’s prologue, which ends with: ‘Of the horse… we know nothing.’ In the scene immediately following this sentence, we are presented with something may that shed some light on the horse’s fate: We follow a bearded middle-aged man atop a wooden cart, drawn along a path by a shabby-coated horse, through the dust and debris swept up by a gale. It is unclear whether this horse is the horse. In any case, the entire film centres around the lives of this man, his daughter and the horse in their isolated stone farmhouse.

This film struck me as glacial, both in its slow, deliberate pace and its atmosphere of crushing inevitability. It runs for 146 minutes and consists of a mere 30 long takes, all in monochrome. The score is repetitive and mildly dissonant: the same dirge-like piece, mainly on organ and violin, is woven in and out of the film at varying intensities. I found it to be largely effective if occasionally grating, though given the film’s bleak mood, some discomfort is permissible. The score also compliments the almost constant whirring and keening of the strong and unremitting wind that tears at the farmhouse and surrounding hills.

Though the father and daughter are in each other’s company for most of the film, they seldom talk. When there is dialogue, it is terse and directed at the mundane activities that make up the bulk of the film’s content: They both muck out the stable and make several unsuccessful attempts to get the horse to eat or drink. The daughter is buffeted by the wind as she fetches water from the well outside, she boils a daily potato for each of them, she washes clothes by hand, she dresses and undresses her crippled father. The father chops firewood, works at carpentry and is presumably returning from some kind of work at the beginning, a journey which he is prevented from repeating by the horse’s obstinacy. Indeed, these people’s history is never addressed, we are only, unsparingly, shown their quotidian toil.

Much of the success of the film rests on how well we are shown this drudgery. To this end, the farmhouse has been constructed thoughtfully, out of real stone, rough plaster and so on. The interior lighting is intricately staged. The tools and furniture seem to have been chosen for their stark, rustic qualities. The actors’ movements and stillness are framed and re-framed by the camera as it snakes its way around the space. Acts of drudgery and subsistence, when presented in this manner and in this setting, encourage a kind of close study, a rapt fascination. That the father ploughs into his potato while it is hot and endures the burning, while his daughter tentatively picks at hers, takes on a strange significance. (Possibly worth noting: These scenes appear to quote Van Gogh’s Potato Eaters.) As there are so few other details to focus on, I found the the implausible excess of leftover potato scraped from the wooden plates after the meals considerably jarring. With so much of what we tend to think of as acting omitted, my attention was nonetheless held by the pared down behaviour of these people.

If we ignore the father’s age and his only having full use of one arm, and look only in gendered terms, the division of domestic labour seems heavily weighted toward the daughter. A lot of the father’s speech comprises dour orders directed at his daughter. He stands, staring sternly straight ahead when she dresses and undresses him; this comes across as an attempt to retain his dignity. Even taking into account the father’s infirmity, it seems undeniable to me that the social organisation of the household is patriarchal. While questionable, if nothing else, this gives a richer and more authentic depiction of 19th century European ordinariness.

There are three instances of sustained dialogue or speech. The first of these mainly consists of a monologue: A man visits the farmhouse unexpectedly, seeking palinka, the Hungarian fruit brandy that is consumed throughout the film. He explains that he couldn’t go into town as it has fallen to ruin, has been degraded. He then launches into five minutes of cryptic Nietzschean prose. This is Nietzschean because he employs a binary typology of people: those who have acquired everything, in a sneaky underhanded fight, and debased it and the great and noble who abstain from fighting; winners and losers respectively. This doesn’t precisely fit Nietzsche’s ranking of the exceptional atheist who pours all of their passion into their earthly existence over the great herd of Christians whose morality is determined by what is judged to be good for the herd and who invest emotionally in spiritual fantasies and hopes and fears of an afterlife. Nonetheless, the visitor’s opposition of the noble and pacifistic to the underhanded and acquisitive does echo Nietzsche’s opposition of master to slave or Übermensch to last man. Nietzsche’s Übermensch will construct new values by which to live and stand as a life-affirming exemplar to the herd of humanity. The last man is the apathetic antithesis of the Übermensch, caring only for his comfort and security. Nietzsche also writes of nihilism as a failure to do this, an inability to paint values over the blank, valueless face of existence.

I can think of two interpretations of the visitor’s speech. The first is that he is a herald of the victory of herd morality over any hope of a new value system, and the inevitable victory of nihilism as the father and daughter’s world disintegrates. I think this is suggested when the visitor claims that the noble and great have altogether disappeared and do not believe in god or gods. Additionally, the father sceptically dismisses the visitor’s speech and offers his daughter no speculation as to why the woodworm has ceased its noise on the first day or the lamps ceased to give light on the fifth; ‘I don’t know. Let’s sleep.’ he says. There are no evocations of God’s will, of tests, punishments or of things happening for a reason; his outlook is positivistic. My second interpretation is based on the menacing behaviour of the Gypsies who appear uninvited after the visitor has left and take water from the well and Tarr’s claim that the visitor represents a ‘shadow Nietzsche’. In this reading, the underhanded thieves are presented as bad through the lens of Christian morality by the visitor, who is Nietzsche’s opposite (shadow in the Jungian sense). The visitor, father and daughter are the last remnants of the herd who’re being swept away by the rising tide of Übermensch. After all, theft is considered a sin under Christian morality. Furthermore, in his later writings, Nietzsche theorised that Christian morality represents the apotheosis of base slave morality, at the expense of noble master morality; humility, charity and obedience are privileged over pride, competition and personal freedom. I could argue that the gypsies display more of the master and the father and daughter more of the slave, though they do defend their well and threaten the gypsies with violence. It is also possible to read the father and daughter as last men, clinging to the relative comfort and security of their routine.

Both interpretations are flawed. However, when the gypsies are driven away, one of them shouts that the water is theirs, and the following day, the well is empty. This fits the visitor’s description of a class of despoilers and acquires of all they touch. One more event which is pertinent to this strand of interpretation is the book from which the daughter reads a passage aloud, clumsily, syllable-by-syllable. The passage deals with holy places, whose function is the veneration of the Lord. Deviations from this function are not allowed and amount to violation. No services can be held in violated places until a ceremony of penitence has been held. The text does make allusions to Christianity which may support my second interpretation. Her final words are of interest: ‘The celebrant tells the congregation: The Lord is with you. Morning will turn to night. Night will end.’ The cleansing described, rings of apocalypse and foreshadows the darkness that falls on the house. At the end of the fifth day, the narrator describes the cessation of the gale and dead silence that permeates the house. The void is approaching.

When they cannot ignite the lamps, the father says that they shall try tomorrow. There is absurdity here, an unwavering will to go on in the face of a situation that grows continually more bleak and hopeless. At the close of the film, the father and daughter sit hunched over bowls, facing each other, the father gingerly plays with a raw potato; the daughter’s remains in the bowl that rests between them. The father says that they have to eat and bites into his with a pitiable crunching. The film ends. I noticed strong parallels with Becket’s work, Endgame in particular. Both find an older infirm man with a younger companion. Both feature dwindling resources, dwindling life, dwindling everything. When Clov in Endgame is asked to describe the view outside their room’s two windows to his blind companion Hamm, he scans the surrounding world with his telescope, regularly pronouncing ‘zero’ and summarises the view from the first window as ‘corpsed’ and from  the second as ‘grey’.

The woodworm stops – decay stops; light stops; fire stops; the gale stops; there is silence. The world is almost stripped to nothing. Setting aside my attempts at interpreting the plot or meaning of this film: It uncompromisingly depicts the straitening and winding down of an already harsh existence.

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