Saturday Editor’s Pick: “Sátántangó” (1994)

by on May 28, 2011Posted in: Editor's Pick

Playing Sat May 28 at 3:00 at Anthology [Program & Tix]
Alt Screen Editor Paul Brunick reviewed the Facets DVD release in Film Comment (Jul/Aug 2008):

The where: a rain-battered village in the Hungarian hinterlands. The who: a disintegrating farm collective and a con man with a God complex. The what: some easily manipulated dreams of a better life and several wads of cold, hard cash. The film that garnered lavish praise from Susan Sontag and inspired Gus Van Sant’s return to low-budget experimental fare (said to be an artistic damascene conversion), Béla Tarr’s much discussed but rarely seen Satantango is a work too easily eclipsed by its own reputation. Hopefully, the long-awaited DVD release will allow critics to move beyond the facile pretension-vs.-philistinism polemics and actually start grappling with the work’s metaphysical mysteries and tantalizingly oblique political allegory.

Let’s not beat around the bush: Sátántangó is a commitment. Béla Tarr’s loooong-take masterpiece clocks in at an epic seven-and-a-half hours. But don’t let its imposing running time and rigorous aesthetic scare you off. Not only is it a true cinematic landmark, it’s also very blackly funny. Plus it contains more love triangles, in-group power struggles and rumor-mongering machinations than your average episode of Gossip Girl. Seeing it in the distraction-free confines of Anthology with a few fellow die-hards is far superior than psyching yourself up for a home-viewing marathon.
Sátántangó has inspired an uncommonly large amount of superb film criticism. Let’s begin with longtime Tarr partisan Jonathan Rosenbaum at The Chicago Reader:

Satantango weaves the collective interactions of Almanac of Fall and the pungent evocations of solitude of Damnation into the same narrative fabric; though the film focuses on a community, at least three of the most remarkable sequences follow the movements of an isolated individual. The most celebrated and terrifying of these, involving a little girl and a cat, is rendered so convincingly that many viewers have wrongly assumed its violence to be real rather than fabricated. (For the record, the cat used in the sequence is now Tarr’s pet.) Even more extraordinary, to my taste, is the film’s mesmerizing third section, which charts for a full hour the mainly solitary movements of an old doctor lost in an alcoholic haze. It’s a tribute to Tarr’s singularity of purpose that at no point does this sequence–or anything else in his 415-minute film–seem tedious or self-indulgent; the breadth of his canvas suits the magnitude of what he has to say.

Rumsey Taylor considers the film’s much-discussed opening moments at Slant Magazine:

Sátántangó begins with a formidable opening shot: within a rural, permanently saturated farming community, a single take observes a group of cattle as they exit a warehouse pen. Some wander around, grazing inattentively while others impulsively copulate. The entire herd begins to move between houses and barns, toward a subdivision end and slowly toward the horizon. This action is stark, unusual and darkly satiric, for in these opening minutes the farmers’ livestock is able to freely move around—to simply leave. It is this option of freedom that no human character in the film shares.

J. Hoberman for the Village Voice (spoiler alert, kind of):

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.


David Auerbach’s fascinating three part meditation at Waggish is too expansive to summarize, but here’s a particularly enlightening section in which he compares the austere visuals of Tarr and Antonioni:

The drift is the most telling. Tarr rarely moves the frame with the characters. He remains static while the characters move, or the frame moves while the characters remain still, or both move unsynchronized. Admittedly, he sometimes chases after characters with a steadicam as they walk away from us towards the horizon, but this hardly qualifies as traditional either. Antonioni is a much more polemical filmmaker than Tarr, but he achieves a similar effect: by ignoring the traditional layering of characters on top of backgrounds, Antonioni flattens the scenes, so that we get the impression that the people are part of a scenic whole. Like Tarr, Antonioni makes his characters shallow and superficial so that we perceive their surfaces and are not drawn to any hypothetical interior aspects. Tarr’s shot of a fly buzzing around in a bar while all else is still is so close to Antonioni (see L’Avventura and, if you must, Zabriskie Point) that I took it as an homage. (It probably isn’t.)
Antonioni uses these techniques in portraying the bourgeois (early-60s) and the hip (late-60s and early-70s) to make overt yet vague statements about the horrors of capitalist culture. (See also Lindsay Anderson in if… and O Lucky Man!.) Tarr works with a more primordial brew of the exploiters and the exploited. I like him more than Antonioni, partly because he avoids the use of flashy visuals, which always smacked to me of hypocrisy in Antonioni’s films. But Tarr’s approach, like Antonioni’s, give a sense of finality and closure, a sense that this is all there is. Anything more, it is implied, would be false, a point that Tarr has explicitly made in interviews. Psychology? Not in this world. Character development? Such a thing does not belong here. Traditional narrative montage? Wholly extraneous. It’s not that I agree with Tarr’s exclusion of these things, but Tarr is adept at enveloping you in his version of reality, with all its exclusions, and this I believe is his greatest strength. The collective effect of Tarr’s flattening, his close-ups, his tableaux, his severe black and white visuals, is to compel the viewer, steamroller-style, to see the whole world in his terms, and only his terms.


Dan Jardine and Ben Livant have an in-depth conversation about the film at The House Next Door. Jardine’s hanging on every long take; Livant’s appreciative but on the fence. A sample:

Tarr achieves an almost terrifying power but sometimes squanders it by hanging on too long. The prosaic and mundane image becomes poetic and philosophic…and then becomes boring and irritating. Sometimes, not in every scene, but sometimes. Often enough though. So the film in its entirety is, well, it’s just too much. Sorry to be so corny and conventional but it has to be said that there is not enough cut in this director’s cut. Even though Tarr obviously made his film in accordance with what is essentially an anti-editing cinematic paradigm, Sátántangó suffers from a serious lack of editing.
Tarr’s adoration of the long take is definitely all about slipping us out of film time and into real time. But before we make much of this and only this, consider that there might be something else at work here. I think you are off the mark for seeing Sátántangó as an anti-editing film. The scenes are not internally edited but they are edited together, with many of the story-lines overlapping in film time…Whereas other more conventional directors (and editors) cut back and forth between different scenes occurring at the same time, Tarr abjures such editorial choices. Instead he creates these exceptionally long, uncut scenes; consequently, he has to occasionally loop backward in time and revisit a moment or a scene from a different POV. This serves dual purposes. Tarr is able to create these—yes, painfully slow—cyclical rhythms, yet he is also able to show us these moments from slightly different perspectives within the narrative as a whole. This gives a complete picture of the villager’s reality that takes on cubist dimensions.

Zach Campbell at Elusive Lucidity devoted two posts to the film. Below, he riffs off Auerbach’s Antonioni comparison and draws a few directorial connections of his own:

For me a long track across an open space (in which people, objects, and landscape are integrated equally) feels, in Tarr, like a sigh, an exhalation–the sliding down into gravity’s pull, as though the camera itself were a felled animal assaying its surroundings at length. Quite unlike Antonioni, whose shots–to me–seem to always scrutinize, they produce tight lines of vision, and in that I suspect he’s quite comparable to De Palma & Coppola, to evoke discussion of these three made here back in October. I’m only anthropomorphizing Tarr’s camera because this is what it feels like, and the vibe of its particular “personality” that I get is that it’s passive, weary (and wary). It’s also a camera very attuned to the liveliness of the images it captures, perhaps because it imparts little liveliness or tautness of its own.

A sample of the film’s enveloping visuals:

Ian Johnston praises the humanism undergirding Tarr’s rigorous visual style at Not Coming to a Theater Near You:

What characterises the villagers above all is their passivity, whereby their vague stirrings of hope for a better world are quickly stilled by their acceptance of what life metes out to them. If anything, these characters most resemble the cattle we see in the film’s opening shot, stumbling around in the mud and the rain, blinkered by their petty ambitions, their prejudices, and their inability to see beyond the limited confines of their immediate world. This makes the film sound like a misanthropic take on the brutish nature of humankind, and yet the sum effect of Sátántangó is anything but. Again, this comes down to the question of style, the long mesmerising takes that generate the sense of empathy and feeling for a character or a group of characters through the time the film makes us spend with them.

Alt Screen contributor Cullen Gallagher picked up a similar vibe when he wrote about the film for The L Magazine

What Rosenbaum hits on the nose is the lack of moral authority Tarr asserts over his characters and their actions. He’s not interested in judgment; rather, he’s interested in their experience, and in creating a communal experience that involves the characters on-screen and the audience off-screen, and where the screen in between them serves less as a boundary than an invitation to peer through the looking glass. But instead of seeing any sort of wonderland, we are shown the open wounds of humanity: the heartless who thrive off of the weakness of others, and those who can only persevere and push on ahead, if even in a never-ending circle. As Albert Camus suggested, “One must imagine Sisyphus happy.”

Manohla Dargis at The New York Times is loving the long takes, though she raises an eyebrow over the fate of the film’s famously abused feline:

In an interview in the online journal Kinoeye, Mr. Tarr explained his predilection for long takes: “The people of this generation know information-cut, information-cut, information-cut. They can follow the logic of it, the logic of the story, but they don’t follow the logic of life.” In “Satantango,” life is beautiful and grotesque by turns, and never less than mesmerizing. In this grubby corner of the universe, men and women steal from one another, spy on their neighbors, walk (a lot) and drink themselves into oblivion, while a lost, lonely child tortures her cat, then lies in the weeds to wait for deliverance. (Animal lovers beware: although Mr. Tarr claimed in a 2001 interview that the cat was not harmed during the film and was now living with him, it is clearly in distress.)


Armond White at The New York Press is a fan, though he peppers his praise with complaints about how his fellow critics have misunderstood the film (but of course):

The thingness of Satantango gives it its rep but that’s also a distraction. Elitists use Tarr’s method to ignore his message. The vision of an inhumane society fits elitist fashion but ironically, they ignore the lament within this obstinate beauty. Tarr’s images of a godforsaken world make a cry that exceeds trendy nihilism (just as his Werckmeister Harmonies checked-in with the forgotten lament of Fellini’s La Dolce Vita). By emphasizing thingness—what’s least important about Satantango—Sontag’s endorsement threatened to exclude Tarr’s art from popular impact (as did Lars Von Trier’s rip-off Breaking the Waves). Such isolationism eventually ruined Abbas Kiarostami. The right approach to Satantango can make it useful rather than forboding. There’s a great contemporary folktale inside this oversized art-epic.

Fergus Daly and Maximilian Le Cain’s interview with Tarr offers some nice insights into both his overarching philosophy and practical process. If the excerpt below is any indication, he’s pretty good at deflating some of the breathless praise bestowed on his unique brand of filmmaking:

FD & MLC: Some of the tracking shots are among the most complex I’ve ever seen. Were they achieved using a steadycam or.
BT: It depends on the ground. I prefer tracks, but if you can’t use the tracks, then you must use the steadycam.
FD & MLC: There’s one very long tracking shot of the hero and the musician walking along the pavement, with a bit of dialogue at the start and finish but mostly silent, which is very impressive.
BT: It was on tracks.150 metres long.
FD & MLC: The use of wind in it was wonderful.
BT: We used the wind machine. You know, everything is artificial. It’s the definition of artificial.

And there’s so much more! Jonathan Romney’s Tarr profile in The Guardian! David Bordwell’s incisive remarks on his blog! This in-depth career analysis by Peter Hames in Kino-Eye!
Like the film itself, the writings on Sátántangó can overwhelm with their sheer tonnage, but also reward those willing to delve in. For an exhaustive round-up, check out the film’s page at Cutting on the Action.

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