Béla Tarr’s Marathon Masterpiece Casts a Devilish Spell


One of the great, largely unseeable movies of the last dozen years, Hungarian director Béla Tarr’s seven-and-a-half-hour Sátántangó screens this week at the Museum of Modern Art. Most simply described, Tarr’s masterpiece—adapted from a much esteemed, if still untranslated, novel by László Krasznahorkai—is a bleakly comic allegory of social disintegration on the muddy puszta. Set on an entropic collective farm during the last years of Hungarian Communism, it’s a mordant, characteristically Eastern European tale of hapless peasants and charismatic swindlers.

With fewer shots than the average 90-minute feature, Sátántangó
is a double tour de force—for the actors, as the camera circles them in lengthy continuous takes, and for Tarr, who constructs his narrative out of these morose blocks of real time. Krasznahorkai, whose subsequent novel The Melancholy of Resistance provided the basis for Tarr’s most recent movie, Werckmeister Harmonies, is a writer whose long sentences provide a prose analogue to Tarr’s mise-en-scéne, but Sátántangó is in no way literary. Because each cut is an event, the most banal incident can be expanded into something epic. The movie’s final shot, in which one character laboriously boards up his window, provides a superbly materialist fade-out.

So far as I know, Sátántangó has never been issued on DVD and is, in any case, essentially experiential—meant to be seen in a single viewing. Even so, two hour-long chunks would be remarkable movies in their own right. In one, a fat, drunken doctor spies on his neighbors, taking notes like a character in an Alain Robbe-Grillet novel, then runs out of booze, and makes an epic trek through torrential rain to get another bottle. In the other, a 10-year-old girl poisons a cat and then herself. Around halfway through, it becomes apparent that, despite its minimal montage, Sátántangó is an exercise in parallel action—much of what happens happens simultaneously. This “devil’s dance” is literalized in a remarkable sequence where the collective’s repetitive ranting, drunken strutting, and befuddled cavorting are set to the same mind-breaking musical loop.

Despair has never been more voluptuously precise. Sátántangó has cast its spell on cineastes as varied as the late Susan Sontag and the rejuvenated Gus Van Sant. If you have a day to devote to it, the same might happen to you.

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