The Turin Horse

The Turin Horse, dir. Bela Tarr (Artificial Eye)

January 2014

Do forgive me, but I’ve chosen to review a new-to-DVD film that brings us back down to earth after all the jollity of Christmas. You can rely on the Hungarian director Bela Tarr to do just that. I mean that literally, as The Turin Horse is a masterpiece that makes you reflect on what life is like for those forced to eek out the barest of livings on the land. Nor is that all it does: the story told is also about a growing realisation that the end of time is at hand. So forget the festive fun and prepare to have a life-changing experience.

The title of the film is a reference to an incident late in the life of the German philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche. Having preached a doctrine of ‘will to power’, and having sneered at Christianity for being a ‘slave religion’ which celebrated weakness, he underwent a curious change in 1889. Residing in Turin, he one day saw a coach-driver beating his horse, and immediately intervened, throwing his arms round the neck of the horse and sobbing hysterically. He was then taken away, and ended up in the care of his mother and sister until his death in 1900. This event has always been taken to have triggered Nietzsche’s madness. I like to think of it as the moment in which he became sane: the moment when he realised that a doctrine of dog-eat-dog was soulless, and that compassion for all living creatures, human and non-human, was the only morality that mattered.

It is a horse which one sees first in the film: a tired, dust-covered, drab creature pulling a creaking cart driven by an elderly man. We see it brought home to a windswept, ramshackle farm, then put to rest in a rundown stable. It is the horse to which the film keeps returning. Though we feel sorry for it, we feel sorry also for its owner and for the patient but weary daughter who looks after both of them.

There, then, are our three main characters. Over six ‘chapters’ and two-and-a-half hours we are invited to observe their daily lives, with its humble routines. The old man rises and is helped to dress by his daughter. They eat boiled potatoes with their hands. The horse is taken out, driven out and then brought back home. They eat potatoes again. They drink the rough, cheap, local brandy. They sit quietly for what seems an eternity. All the time, the camera simply rests upon them. In an era which relishes speed and busy-ness, it is wonderfully calming simply to sit and stay with these characters and every detail of their existence.

But what happens? Well, I suppose we could say that life is what happens. Focusing on everyday actions at extraordinary length eventually has the effect of encouraging a kind of meditation in the viewer. Many scenes are like religious paintings. Even when there is movement, the actions seem like gestures towards eternity.

Eventually, though, we sense a change is coming. A neighbour calls requesting a spare bottle of brandy, staying only to warn the old man that the world is undergoing a painful transformation: the old certainties have gone, corruption is rife, and the world is going to ruins. Sure enough, the signs are there in that isolated homestead: the horse refuses to eat or drink, and is obviously too sick to pull the cart; the well on which they rely for water dries up; the daughter reads aloud from a religious text about sin and damnation; the lamps, though full of oil, refuse to light; darkness envelops the home and its surroundings.

This review is not meant as a plot spoiler. Indeed, there is no plot to The Turin Horse in the conventional sense of contemporary cinema. ‘Things get worse and worse, and the end draws near’ hardly suggests a sure-fire blockbuster attraction. But if you want a film that will stay with you for the rest of your life, this is it.

Laurence Coupe