Sinking into the literal and spiritual bog of a fetid Hungarian backwater, Béla Tarr’s 1994 Sátántangó is the essence of heavy. Telling of coarse monochrome peasant lives, their only glimpse of false hope coming through a Pied Piper savior, the film is an intentionally daunting monument. Its seven-hour runtime warns off dabblers, the one-screening-a-day bulk defies profit motive, and its protagonists—Tarr’s “poor, ugly, sad, and damned people”—deny expectations of pleasure. It is also, at times, funny as hell.
A little-seen legend for years, Sátántangó now exists on DVD for the weak of spirit and bladder to watch in relative comfort, while the once-mysterious Tarr plays nihilist blowhard for interviewers. (“I just think about the quality of human life,” he told Senses of Cinema, “and when I say, ‘shit,’ I think I’m very close to it.”) Now, MOMA is throwing Sátántangó a crystal anniversary party, and Tarr has brought admired Hungarian films to play with it. This is interesting; though he’s had long runs with like-minded collaborators, Tarr has been happy to perpetuate the idea that he’s been influenced by no one, and sprang full-grown from the forehead of a brooding deity.
Tarr’s attraction to trenchcoat weather and dilapidated décor makes noir an obvious frame of reference. He adapted psychological crime writer Georges Simenon for his recent A Man From London, and co-wrote György Fehér’s 1998 Passion, playing here, an adaptation of James M. Cain’s The Postman Always Rings Twice. István Lénárt’s prosecutor is the film’s essence—declaiming from a graven, shadow-gored face, he looks like he studied the law off stone tablets. Through its stern translators, the story’s famous sensuality becomes gasping desperation, and there’s barely a cloud break from the suffocating sense of reckoning.
Tarr’s two selections old enough to be formative for the now-54-year-old director are historical films set in the aftermath of Hungary’s defeated 1848 Revolution. The Round-Up was the international breakout of Miklós Jancsó, the gray eminence of Hungarian cinema and forefather of Tarr’s run-down-the-reel long-takes. Gábor Bódy’s 1975 American Torso concerns Hungarian veterans who fled to the Union Army. Bódy was an influential figure at Béla Balázs Studios, a center for progressive filmmaking that operated outside of state sponsorship, where Tarr’s talent incubated—and it’s easy to imagine the lasting impression made by some of Bódy’s vivid tracking shots: a muddy encampment by firelight that takes in arriving whores, the gutting of livestock sacrifice, and field surgery. No guilty pleasures or light romances slip in. Tarr’s taste, as his art, is an impenetrable fortress.