Satantango

Satantango

An extract from an article I wrote on long cinema:

For those unfamiliar with director Béla Tarr, his work remains some of the most respected in modern European cinema. He is the master of nihilism and the king of achingly slow despair. Sátántangó is his most famous work, best known not because it is so widely seen but because it is a seven-hour behemoth which cinephiles almost challenge each other to see. It is assumed difficult to watch, as it consists entirely of long takes shot in black and white, that feature events like five minutes of people walking or seven minutes of cows wandering through a village. A common assumption is that the film is long only because its pace is slow. While that is literally true, that is not the real reason for the runtime. The reason derives from the story.

Tarr collaborated heavily with the Hungarian author László Krasznahorkai and many of Tarr’s films, including Sátántangó, are adaptations of Krasznahorkai’s books. Krasznahorkai is himself an experimental author, writing novels that generally consist of sentences that last many pages. There are more sentences in this article than in some of Krasznahorkai’s novels with over two hundred pages. So when Tarr adapts the work of such an allegorical and stylish writer, he constructs a film as slow and as detailed as the writing on the page he is copying. Krasznahorkai and Tarr have a lot to say, about societal decay, our living apocalypse, and the systems that constantly fail us. They use their style to make us feel the pain and lethargy they want us to examine.

Sátántangó is not even Tarr’s slowest film, as his later career includes films like Werckmeister Harmonies and The Turin Horse, both of which have an even higher average shot length. Yet those films are both under three hours, why is Sátántangó different? The reason is deceptively simple. Tarr was not trying to make a long film, he was trying to make an adaptation. The Turin Horse was one allegory, prolonged to one hundred and fifty minutes of soul-crushing nihilism. Werckmeister Harmonies, adapted from Krasznahorkai’s The Melancholy of Resistance, omits huge swathes of the text. However, Sátántangó is among the most faithful film adaptations ever made. Every single scene is taken straight from the page. Nothing is removed. And you cannot adapt Sátántangó without including everything, as the structure is so non-linear and dependent on each piece interlocking perfectly. Tarr felt compelled to tell this story and there was only one way to do it justice: keep every plot detail and keep the slow style. That is why the film is seven hours long.

Read the entire article here.

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