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Slow cinema is about the weight of time. For anyone familiar with the term, this may seem self-evident. But like any other term that has ever entered a public discourse, slow cinema has been diluted. No, slow cinema is not simply about long takes. No, it is not simply about minimalist narratives and nuanced sound design. No, it is not some organized rebellion against the “speed of modernity.” To say so would ignore the strength of time and space as a fundamental language of slow cinema in particular. Again, slow cinema is about the weight of time, that weight that unfolds as you watch the film, that weight that you continue to carry as you exit the theater, that weight that solidifies in your mind, occasionally finding its glow again after three days, six months or twenty-five years.

Béla Tarr’s Sátántangó, having just turned twenty-five, has not lost any of its weight. In some ways, it has increased. The film was well-received upon release, but its stature as a daring accomplishment and monumental exercise in meditative grandness has only grown. For any budding film buff, Sátántangó weighs heavy on the mind, both as a consequence of its reputation and its still daunting seven-and-a-half hour runtime of monochrome grit. 

More importantly, despite the film’s menacing nature, crowds are still making their way to see it. There is a reason why the film sold out every showing of its week-long run at Lincoln Center. There is a reason why every person at my screening sacrificed their Sunday afternoons and evenings for a quarter-century old film. There is a reason why I somehow managed to stay awake through every second of Sátántangó.

Adhering to the principle of slow cinema, it is only inevitable that Tarr’s style will bear some similarity to other giants within the genre. Just from a superficial glance, someone might mistake his work for that of Theo Angelopoulos or Andrei Tarkovsky. But the devil is always in the details. There is a dance to the way Tarr moves and places his camera. Sometimes, contrary to the general impression people have of his films, his style can even be playful and mischievous. Whereas Chantal Akerman’s slow cinema is focused on recreating the hyperreal and Abbas Kiarostami’s is a venue for introspection, Tarr seems more concerned with parsing out a certain dynamic within a space, with maintaining a frequency and flow between the actors and objects on his set.

In an interview with Little White Lies, Tarr elaborated on this element of his work, mentioning that he “noticed that when the camera is rolling and the whole scene is moving, everyone starts to breathe in the same rhythm: the actors, the crew members, the cinematographer, everyone. You are all ‘in.’” André Bazin always understood this inherent quality of long takes. Even if it doesn’t necessarily generate the realism that he always sought, it does create and preserve an internal climate within the film. By removing the escape of the cut, the camera’s looming presence during a long take forces everything on set to lock in. The primary reason that Sátántangó is so able to lift its weight across seven-and-a-half hours is because its main vocabulary of long takes naturally generates a blood flow of images that is consistent in tone and utterly hypnotizing.

Sátántangó is broken into twelve distinct episodes, each introduced with a stark yet poetic title card. To some, this might suggest that the film will feel disjointed and narratively confused. However, the film’s internal climate, its overwhelming sense of both desperation and grace, is so pervasive that it completely co-opts these narrative divisions. Structured as a sort of repeating chronology, each episode overlaps with  the others and is sequenced in a way where certain events are shown again from different perspectives. Sometimes, passages of time are void of action. Characters groan and drink. They play music. They dance the tango of the film’s title. The camera pays equal attention to all these moments. It sits still, then begins to glide, making its way through the air for a few minutes before slowly pushing in to an object until the entire screen goes black. Somewhere in the background, a faint sound locks into rhythm and repeats itself into eternity. The splattering of rain. The hissing of the wind. The ticking of a clock. The camera slowly makes its way out of the black and reintroduces itself to where it had just been.

These types of scenes are scattered throughout the film, often finding their place to disrupt the core narrative. Yet, despite their seeming emptiness, their odd framing and their unique sense of humor, they work. And that is because they not only depict the tango, they are a part of the greater tango: the film itself, Sátántangó. Six steps forward and six steps backward across twelve episodes, pushing and pulling the camera forward and backward within each episode, all to the ever-present metronomes of clocks and rain. This is Tarr’s dance, choreographed not with gestures and the movement of bodies but with editing and cinematography, sound and mise en scène, time and space.

Naturally, the inherent structuring around mass cinematic movement in Sátántangó bleeds into the way it depicts its characters. Beyond scenes with the neglected Estike, the film does not spend much time examining the psychologies of individual characters. For the most part, it is the movement of large groups of people, whether they are lurking towards the horizon or being tracked laterally across desolate landscapes, that receives the camera’s gaze.—that is, if there are even people in the frame at all. The most obvious comparison would be to the Soviet montage films of Sergei Eisenstein or Dziga Vertov, whose adherence to Marxist-Leninist ideology also placed a greater emphasis on collective human efforts over individual motivation. As easy of a comparison as this may feel, I do not find it terribly compelling. Tarr’s approach to cinema, its dance, possesses a level of fluidity that is simply not found in the dialectical rationality of those Soviet films. I am more reminded of the city symphony found in Wim Wenders’ Wings of Desire and the metaphysical freedom of its flowing crane shots. The way Tarr captures huddles of human bodies clashing against its surroundings are much more akin to Jia Zhangke’s depictions of working class China in Still Life than the heroic sailors in Battleship Potemkin.

That being said, there is no denying the influence of state communist policies on the development of early Hungarian cinema. In 1919, Hungary implemented the world’s first nationalized film industry, of which Tarr was a part. He inherited the organization’s socialist mentality and its rooted, insular environment. However, it would be too perfect to just chalk everything Tarr has done up to any kind of a political ideology, even if the film is about an isolated rural farming community. In an interview with IndieWire, he went as far as to say that “politics makes everything too simple and primitive.” More so than a love of the proletariat, Tarr harbors a profound belief in people, in humanity.

What do I mean by this? Tarr appears to understand at a very intrinsic level the power of people, whether it be the cast, crew or audience. As much power as he may have as a director and screenwriter to create a unique vision of slow cinema and to impose it upon the world, it wouldn’t mean much if nobody came to help make it or watch it. After all, who would even know of Sátántangó if it didn’t find its way into people’s hearts twenty-five years ago? For Tarr, the madness of being a director is not just in the financial risk, but in the risk that your film will fail to touch people, the risk that your faith in the goodness of people will not be recuperated. Slow cinema is particularly demanding. It’s hard maintaining that frequency on set and that suspended intrigue in the theater, let alone after a couple of years or decades. But if that hushed attentiveness in Lincoln Center was any indication, it’s safe to say that Sátántangó’s faith in people has been affirmed many times over.