Darren Carver-Balsiger’s review published on Letterboxd:
Why Make Long Movies? : The Beauty of Five Hour Epics
Last year, Martin Scorsese’s The Irishman was released on Netflix to a collective gasp. A gasp of “wait, this is going to be three and a half hours!?!” There are miniseries on Netflix shorter than that, and some were taken aback by the lengthy runtime of a single film. A film meant to be watched in one sitting, and one simultaneously released in theatres. However, The Irishman is small fry. Whilst films of that length rarely reach the mainstream, there’s a whole world of cinema that exceeds The Irishman by an hour, or two, or even seven. But why do such long films exist?
Obviously films in the four hour or over range are niche. You won’t find any blockbusters hitting that duration unless they’re released in parts over years (like The Lord of the Rings). But outside America, in the land of the uncommercial and the arthouse, sometimes making a film last five hours is the right way to tell your story. It’s not about annoying your audience, it’s about expecting them to trust you that all those hours will be worth it.
Let’s begin with an infamous example: Sátántangó. 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. Whilst 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.
Broadly it can be said that films of incredible length are attempting to be thematically rich. They are ambitious efforts trying to be comprehensive in an analysis of an idea, or indeed many ideas. They tend to be slow, because that pace affords them time to allow an audience to ponder the themes and get immersed in the world. The single aspect of reality most able to be discussed in this way is history. Sátántangó is about a moment in history, as Hungary was reaching a collapse in the very fabric of society as communism fell apart and gave way to a dilapidated afterthought of an existence. It was a time of change. This is the same fundamental idea of so many long films. The four hour A Brighter Summer Day is a contemplation of Taiwanese identity amidst the White Terror. The ten hour Evolution of a Filipino Family is a meandering exploration of two decades of political oppression in the Philippines. Tie Xi Qu: West of the Tracks is a nine hour document of China’s modern industrialisation, making it perhaps the 21st century’s most important film. Historical change lends itself to extreme length.
The forming of identity through national change is something not often considered in the West. There’s no story to tell when life is stable for many generations. The motivation for a director like Edward Yang to make A Brighter Summer Day is that he witnessed Taiwan, and himself, undergo a search for identity in a land that was without one. His film needs four hours to be able to disentangle the mainland immigrants from the Taiwanese locals and children forced to grow up in a time of oppression. Similarly Lav Diaz’s Evolution of a Filipino Family is personal to his own life as well. He grew up in the recent history he depicts. His country also struggled with its identity as a democracy under martial law, filled with the most extravagant wealth and the most impoverished farmers.
Not all personal stories are political though. Ingmar Bergman took five hours to examine his own childhood in Fanny and Alexander. Though that film is often seen in the three hour version released internationally at the time, a five hour version (often shown as a miniseries) exists. The film is about religion and ghosts and family, and all the ways that Bergman tried to find a place for himself as a child. It is stunning work that Bergman used to cap off his career, before he entered semi-retirement. Fanny and Alexander is Bergman’s final statement as an artist, a self-reflection that introduces a personal needle with which to thread his entire earlier career.
On the other end of that spectrum however is An Elephant Sitting Still. The debut film from Chinese filmmaker Hu Bo, An Elephant Sitting Still is a four hour odyssey into the complicated social reality of modern China. Hu literally learnt his craft from Sátántangó’s Béla Tarr, who taught Hu at a filmmaking training camp. An Elephant Sitting Still takes Tarr’s slow approach to filmmaking and perhaps even inspiration from his film Werckmeister Harmonies by similarly utilising a symbolic animal to show wonder surrounded by the darkness of existence. Hu Bo tragically committed suicide in 2017, leaving behind just this one feature-length masterpiece. Yet An Elephant Sitting Still shows yet another filmmaker exploring themselves through ever-expanding cinematic contemplation. Hu made a film on depression and tragedy, a common link in this form of cinema. Happiness is easy to explain and show, sadness takes much longer to even get close to explaining.
Not all explorations of history require personal stories to be at their centre. Sometimes a film needs to be long because the subject is so complex. A very early example of this comes from Abel Gance’s Napoléon, which was intended as the first of six movies that would cover the life of Napoleon Bonaparte. This five hour silent film was epic in scope and unprecedented in scale. The film even showcases a novel 4.00:1 aspect ratio towards the end, inventing widescreen by having three 4:3 screens play simultaneously. The film covers Napoleon’s early life in incredible detail, justifying its length, but unfortunately the project was never completed so the story ends prematurely. As with many long films, ambition was part of the motivation for making it.
Another type of long history film comes in the form of documentaries. The best known of these is Shoah, a nine hour documentary on the Holocaust. The film’s length is necessary, for watching it provides you with a thoroughly detailed insight into the events surrounding the Holocaust, from all perspectives. As an act of witness, it is a film everyone should see at least once, for it is truly eye-opening. It would be hard to name what could be cut out of such a film, for every word of these survivors feels necessary to hear, and presenting it as a TV series would reduce the impact of hearing these words cumulatively build up a picture of history. The spirit of making such long documentaries to highlight an entire slice of the world and our history can currently be in the work of director Wang Bing. Wang has currently made five documentaries which stretch over five hours in length, and each highlights an entire portion of modern day China. The best known of these is Tie Xi Qu, a documentary vital to understanding the towns that transformed China from a rural society escaping war to a thriving modern economy in just fifty years.
Finally, history is not the only thing worth exploring for hours at a time. In the 21st century, many directors can find other topics to explore. Lav Diaz remains the modern day long film master, having thus far directed eleven films over four hours in length, seven of which extend over six hours. His plots are varied, even though he sticks to examining his native Philippines through a variety of different lens and ideas. Another area rich for exploration is human sexuality, comprehensively covered in provocative works like Sion Sono’s four hour Love Exposure and Lars von Trier’s five hour Nymphomaniac. These films are outrageous and filled with long, complicated plot details. As they are not about evoking history, there is no need for the glacial pace of many films previously discussed in this article. Instead, Love Exposure and Nymphomaniac are relatively speedy and drawn to flashy stylings common in the modern arthouse scene. They are long only because their sexual topics allow for so many story elements to be spun from them.
So overall, we can see that long cinema has existed in many forms for many years. These four hour plus epics are designed to be meaningful examinations of a time and a place. History is not constructed of two hour montages, it is made of long periods of time where only slight things happened. Whilst long films are nowadays made for all kinds of reasons, there is a rich history of auteurs making films personal to themselves and their countries and finding only many, many hours of footage can fully capture their feelings. If you want to discover an existence you could never have, you need not delve deeper than a half-day movie directed by those with the courage to showcase their world. Long cinema may seem distant and difficult, but embracing the beauty or despair of life can sometimes only be felt by spending a lot of time in someone else’s shoes. Long cinema has a unique place in the tapestry of film, and it’s one of the most adventurous and profound areas of art in the modern world.
For those wanting to delve into the world of long movies, here are 10 recommendations, listed chronologically:
- Napoléon (1927, 5hr32m – restored version)
- Fanny and Alexander (1982, 3hr8m / 5hr12m uncut)
- Shoah (1985, 9hr26m)
- A Brighter Summer Day (1991, 3hr57m)
- Sátántangó (1994, 7hr19m)
- Tie Xi Qu: West of the Tracks (2002, 9hr11m)
- Evolution of a Filipino Family (2004, 10hr25m)
- Love Exposure (2008, 3hr57m)
- Nymphomaniac (2013, 4hr1m / 5hr25m uncut)
- An Elephant Sitting Still (2018, 3hr54m)