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The Cinema of Cruelty

As the Academy Awards draw near, it seems appropriate to write about three films light years removed from the Hollywood film industry that are united by the theme of cruelty to animals and that wear their art film credentials proudly (even though one film subverts pulp genres).

One is “The Turin Horse”, the final film made by auteur extraordinaire Béla Tarr over a thirty-seven year career and that is inspired by an anecdote about Nietzsche coming to the aid of a horse being beaten by its livery cab owner. In an interview with the Hollywood Reporter, he was asked to name a film that had real quality. His answer was Aki Kaurismaki’s “Le Havre”, a film he “really loved”, as did I. ( When the Hollywood Reporter began mentioning that it might receive an Oscar for best foreign language film, Tarr interrupted him:

Who cares about this stupidity? You know what I mean. This kind of quality is not for the Academy Awards. This kind of quality and sensibility is for you and the other people – for personal use. The others are just part of a fucked-up business, which is not my business.

Béla Tarr came to mind after seeing “White God” at a press screening a while back. Directed by fellow Hungarian Kornél Mundruczó, it about the mistreatment of a teen girl’s beloved dog Hagen by various people and institutions. As such, I decided to write about the two films as well as about Robert Bresson’s “Au Hasard Balthazar”, a 1966 film about the abuse of a donkey—a work that I had somehow ignored despite Godard’s comment: “Everyone who sees this film will be absolutely astonished…because this film is really the world in an hour and a half.”

White_God_NEW1_986

Still from Kornél Mundruczó’s “White God.”

As should come as no great surprise, the three films are as much about the human condition as they are about the animal kingdom. Metaphorically speaking, the dog, the horse and the donkey represent humanity suffering under conditions not only marked by our separation from and exploitation of animals but our tendency to reproduce in our relationship to such domesticized creatures the same forms of domination that exist in human society.

“White God” opens with 13-year old Lili (Zsófia Psotta) being dropped off at her father’s home by her remarried mother who needs someone to look after Lili while she is attending an academic conference. Her dad, a cold and remote figure who earns a living examining beef in a slaughterhouse, has not bargained on Lili bringing along her beloved dog Hagen. He is not much of an animal lover and hardly a lover of human beings to boot.

When he enters his apartment building with daughter and dog in tow, a neighbor coming down the stairs warns him that dogs are not allowed. When they ignore her, she gets even by reporting them to the local dog pound that makes a visit the next day to inform them that dad will have to pay a stiff tax since Hagen is a mixed breed. Hungary, it seems, is trying to foster a pure breed canine population. At this point, it dawned on me that the film might be commenting metaphorically on the burgeoning racism in Hungary that is directed at Roma, Jews and African immigrants. The next day, a look at the director’s statement in the press notes confirmed my suspicions:

It’s no secret that after the films I’ve made thus far, I am turning towards genre experiments. The first installment of these is WHITE GOD, inspired mostly by increasingly rancorous present-day social relations. In my view, parallel to the questionable advantages of globalization, a caste-system has become more sharply defined: Superiority has truly become the privilege of white, Western civilization, and it is nearly impossible for us not to take advantage of it. Yes, us.

The press notes do not explain the film’s title but some critics speculate that is a play on “White Dog”, the 1982 Sam Fuller film about an African-American dog trainer trying to retrain a “white dog”, a term applied to animals trained to attack Black people. But the title derives instead from a novel by South African writer J.M Coetzee titled “Disgrace” in which human beings are “the white god” to dogs.

As tensions between dad and Lili escalate over her insistence that Hagen remain with her during her stay, he finally erupts and abandons the pet on a heavily trafficked Budapest road. From that point on, the film evokes any number of Hollywood lost dog films, a Disney studio staple. In scene after scene, we see Hagen narrowly escaping dogcatchers and evil men bent on abusing him.

The worst of them has spent time in prison for the same crime as football player Michael Vick, training dogs for blood sport. When he spots Hagen, who is a trusting and affectionate animal, he decides that his brawn could be leveraged for fighting once he was trained to be a killer. If you have seen “Amores Perros”, the cynical Mexican film about the connections people have with their pet dogs, you will remember that this is exactly what happens to a gentle Rottweiler owned by a slum dwelling youth. If I had seen “White God” first and gotten an idea of the cruelty inflicted on dogs to turn them into fighters, I would have walked out on “Amores Perros” that turns dogfighting into a subject for black comedy.

Eventually Hagen ends up in a dog pound facing execution, an act that is euphemistically referred to as putting a dog down. In an unguarded moment, Hagen not only escapes from his cage but also subdues a guard making it possible for all the other dogs to escape with him. The final forty minutes of the film consists of two hundred and fifty dogs, a small army of extras as it were trained for such scenes, rampaging down the streets of Budapest wreaking havoc on dogcatchers, cops, shoppers, and people sitting at sidewalk cafes. It will give you the same adrenaline rush and feeling of exhilaration as the final moments of “Rise of the Planet of the Apes” when Caesar leads chimpanzees, gorillas and orangutans in a victorious march across San Francisco. The difference, however, is that “White God” makes no effort to anthropomorphize the dogs. They are not trying to create a new society, only to escape one that has become more animalistic than the animals.

Kornél Mundruczó explains what the film’s finale is meant to express:

These are the moments when masses revolt. This is Europe’s current fear: The uprising of the masses. And they are right to be afraid. I was searching for iconic images to represent this, so we would see the direction we are taking when we refuse to place ourselves in the position of another species, the adversary or the minority. I wanted to show their perspective. Art must never give up its critical stance. It must hold a mirror up to the face of society.

And what can we expect from the Oscars instead? A bevy of awards for Clint Eastwood’s “American Sniper”, a film that holds up a distorting mirror to society far more frightening than a rabid dog.

“White God” opens at various theaters in April and is not to be missed.

At the very beginning of Béla Tarr’s “The Turin Horse”, we see a man in a horse-drawn wagon trudging down a country road as we hear the following voice-over:

In Turin on 3rd January, 1889, Friedrich Nietzsche steps out of the doorway of number six, Via Carlo Alberto. Not far from him, the driver of a hansom cab is having trouble with a stubborn horse. Despite all his urging, the horse refuses to move, whereupon the driver loses his patience and takes his whip to it. Nietzsche comes up to the throng and puts an end to the brutal scene, throwing his arms around the horse’s neck, sobbing. His landlord takes him home, he lies motionless and silent for two days on a divan until he mutters the obligatory last words, and lives for another ten years, silent and demented, cared for by his mother and sisters. We do not know what happened to the horse.

Unlike “White God” or “Au Hasard Balthazar”, it is the suffering of human beings that is in the foreground. The horse we see in the opening scenes is on its last legs. As the elderly man who ekes out a living hauling goods in the wagon will soon find out, the horse will no longer work, nor will he take food. As dependent as he is on the horse for survival, he is in the same position as the hansom cab driver in Turin. When his whip has no effect, the survival of its wielder is threatened as well. They are both locked into a cycle of servitude.

Messenger-in-The-Turin-Horse Still from Béla Tarr’s”The Turin Horse.”

Survival best describes the conditions of life of Ohlsdorfer (János Derzsi), a man in his sixties, and his daughter (Erika Bók). They live—or exist–in a primitive farmhouse with a dirt floor and gas lights that is heated by a wood-fired stove, the same stove that is used to prepare potatoes, their single meal of the day.

There is very little dialog in the film, which is dedicated to showing father and daughter carrying out their chores. She dresses and undresses him each day, a necessity given his lame right arm. He chops firewood with his left arm and she goes to the well each day to fetch two buckets of water that are used for cooking and cleaning. Hardly a word is spoken between them.

The only break in this virtually silent (and black-and-white) film is when they receive visitors on two occasions, one welcomed and one unwelcomed. In the first a neighbor comes by to purchase some plum brandy, the beverage they imbibe each morning to kick-start the day. As he sits with the father, he delivers a rant about how the world is falling apart. Corruption is everywhere. Ohlsdorfer takes it all in impassively, finally telling the neighbor that it sounds to him like pure rubbish.

Later on a wagon full of Romas stop by to take water from their well without permission. This leads father and daughter to storm outside and curse them out to the amused indifference of the unwanted guests. Compared to the miserable existence of the Ohlsdorfers, they are free and happy.

On the next day, the Ohlsdorfers discover that the well has gone dry. Along with their nag’s sit-down strike, this marks an end to life on the farm, such as it was. For the entire two hundred and forty six minutes of the film, you cannot escape the feeling that this is a place of no return, captured primarily by a howling wind that sweeps across the dusty and forlorn hills and fields that surround the farmhouse. A profound sense of decay and entropy hangs over the film like a shroud.

If this does not sound very entertaining, it was not meant to be. Béla Tarr was trained as a philosopher and his final film was a statement about the futility of existence inspired by his reading of Nietzsche. Unlike his younger colleague in the Hungarian film industry reviewed above, Tarr has no interest in holding a mirror up to the face of society. It is the single human being that preoccupies him.

In an interview with Cineuropa, Tarr described his intentions in making this film:

The key point is that the humanity, all of us, including me, are responsible for destruction of the world. But there is also a force above human at work – the gale blowing throughout the film – that is also destroying the world. So both humanity and a higher force are destroying the world.

He did not start out this way. According to András Kovács, the author of “The Cinema of Béla Tarr”, he began making documentaries when he was sixteen, mostly about the life of workers or poor people in urban Hungary, and largely under the influence of his Maoist comrades at the time. The poor and the disenfranchised crop up in all his films, even though as the years wore on his interest in the social dimensions declined—mostly I suspect out of a feeling that both Communist and post-Communist societies were a disaster.

For Kovács and most scholars and critics who write about Tarr, the style is paramount rather than the politics. For example, a search for “Marxism” in “The Cinema of Béla Tarr” reveals only a single occurrence, the title of a student film of Tarr’s from 1979. Reviews of “The Turin Horse” are much less about the director’s political past and present but more about his characteristic long takes, tracking shots, black-and-white photography, and the adoption of a dirge-like film score.

Even J. Hoberman, a critic with a long-standing affinity for the left, has more to say about the film’s style than its ideas: “There are some moments of startling beauty, as when Tarr fills the entire screen with a wrinkled, just-washed sheet, but mainly ‘The Turin Horse’ is something you spend time with.”

For a different take on Tarr, there is Jacques Rancière’s “Béla Tarr, the Time After “, an 88-page essay in book form that argues for continuity between the director’s Maoist youth and his mature work that is imbued with Nietzschean pessimism. Rancière, a philosopher who embraced Maoism around the same time as Tarr and who shares a life-long engagement with the lives and suffering of the poor, would appear ideally suited to analyze his films. Indeed, he describes them as on a continuum between the social and the cosmic:

The Turin Horse shows us the father and daughter packing their meager belongings one morning to leave an infertile land. But it is over the same horizon-line, behind which we saw them disappear, that they enter into view again, walking in the opposite direction and returning to the house to unload the things packed that morning. The difference between the two is precisely that no explanation is worth anything anymore: there is no longer any obtuse bureaucracy, any tyrannical stepfather blocking the path to promised happiness. It is only the same wind-swept horizon that urges individuals to leave and then sees them home again. Passage from the social to the cosmic, the filmmaker willingly says. But this cosmic is not the world of pure contemplation. It is an absolutely realistic world, absolutely material, stripped of all that dulls pure sensation, as only cinema can offer it.

Rancière’s study of Tarr can be read at Scribd while “The Turin Horse” can be seen at www.fandor.com, one of the better alternatives to Netflix that I have endorsed on CounterPunch in the past.

If Nietzsche inspired “The Turin Horse”, then Bresson turns to another nineteenth century pessimist in “Au Hasard Balthazar” for inspiration, namely Dostoyevsky. If Nietzsche’s works were about the “death of God”, Dostoyevsky’s were about the death of faith especially as expressed in the Grand Inquisitor chapter in “Brothers Karamazov”, where Jesus is threatened with execution for interfering with the mission of the church.

It is not Jesus who serves as the moral and metaphysical anchor in Bresson’s film but instead the donkey Balthazar, who unlike the human beings all about him is a saint by comparison.

The young Balthazar was a gift to a girl named Marie whose affection for the animal has a slightly aberrant quality, a relationship like Hippolyta’s to Bottom in “Midsummer’s Night Dream” but without the yucks.

Unable to care for her pet, Balthazar becomes the property of a number of men who treat him as badly as Hagen or the Turin horse. Worst of all is the treatment he gets from a lout named Gerard who Marie loves passionately. He is as cruel to her as he is to the donkey.

Every character in the film is afflicted with one sin or another: avarice, lust, or pride. Despite his Catholic convictions, Bresson did not intend his film to be a Christian sermon. Indeed, in keeping with the pessimism of Béla Tarr’s last film, he was far more interested in demonstrating the futility of a society based on materialism. Money and commodities are the dark thread that runs throughout the film as characters engage in lawsuits, theft and trickery to gain an advantage over their rivals. Balthazar appears Christlike insofar as property is meaningless to him.

balth-1

 Still from Bresson’s “Au Hasard Balthazar”.

In a commentary for the Criterion Collection, film scholar James Quandt hones in on this dimension:

Money and its equivalents (bread, land, contraband) are insistently shown, alluded to, and invoked, especially in the grain dealer’s speech about loving money and hating death. This avaricious miller is played by writer Pierre Klossowski, expert on de Sade and older brother of the painter Balthus, and he briefly takes the film into Buñuel territory as he surveys the shivering Marie, who swats his hand away from her neck and hungrily spoons compote from a jar. He offers her a wad of francs for sex, fulfilling the command of the young man who danced with her at Arnold’s party: “If you want her, pay!” In this monetary setting, Balthazar’s circuitous journey to death suggests less a traversal of the stations of the cross than an exchange of value, like the passing of the false note in L’Argent. His transit from hand to hand does not unleash “an avalanche of evil” as the trading does in the latter film, but just as determinedly reveals a world of moral and physical barbarity.

“Au Hasard Balthazar” can be seen on Amazon streaming. Listed number sixteen on Sight and Sound’s Fifty Greatest Films of All Time, it is certainly better than any film to be honored at the Oscars on Sunday night, especially the vile “American Sniper”.

Louis Proyect blogs at http://louisproyect.org and is the moderator of the Marxism mailing list. In his spare time, he reviews films for CounterPunch.

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Louis Proyect blogs at http://louisproyect.org and is the moderator of the Marxism mailing list. In his spare time, he reviews films for CounterPunch.

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