Director: Bela Tarr
Cast: Gabor Balogh, Janos Balogh, Peter Breznyik Berg
My Rating: 9/10
In Short: Dark, moody and heartbreaking; essential Tarr
Much of Bela Tarr’s sixth feature (and first truly great one) revolves around a place called the Titanik Bar, where patrons come to drown themselves with endless streams of alcohol. An early scene brings us to the bar, where we see a few stinking drunks looking solemnly at the ground whilst a beautiful woman sings a despairing song. This scene lasts six, maybe seven minutes, and is all established in one take. Those familiar with Tarr’s work will not be surprised, as he is well-known for shooting his films in long, unbroken shots that seem to swallow the viewer with their absorbing endlessness.
Indeed, many of Tarr’s most moving scenes seem to occur in bars, pubs or other places where people gather together. There is the scene where the drunks dance around the bar in a fit of mad glee in Satantango, as well as the eleven-minute tracking shot that opens Werckmeister Harmonies. Those scenes establish the pub as a pivotal part of Tarr’s Hungarian towns, one of the only places that to the townspeople, doesn’t seem disgusting and squalid. But they are nowhere near as prominent in their respective films as the bar scenes in Damnation are. It seems like nearly half the movie takes place there. But when we see what’s going on outside, a constant waste land of disgusting muddy water and neverending torrential rain, we see why the pub is viewed as a refuge, where later in the film dozens of couples will come to slow dance, a beautiful scene on a parallel with the silent solemnity of the earlier sequence with the singer.
The story tells us of Karrer, a young man having an affair with a married woman, who attempts to reconnect with her after she breaks things off by sending her husband away to do a dangerous smuggling job. This is really the extent of the entire movie, there are virtually no more plot developments beyond this summary. No surprise twists, no characters introduced to turn the whole thing around. The film concerns itself with being a visual exploration of an unspecified location where no-one really says anything and the only meaningful dialogue comes from the mouth of a woman who sings mournful requiems for relationships with friends and lovers that have long since passed, reaching their inevitable ends and leaving destruction in their wake.
The mental turmoil that tortures the townspeople is evident, even as they attempt to drink and dance it away. There is one scene where perhaps the whole town of around 100 people are gathered in a hall, dancing and laughing quietly, enjoying the peace of moving together in unison. But soon enough they are forced out into the cold darkness of the stormy night, and we see afterwards the empty hall they once inhabited, a lonely mess. There is one man standing in a corner, dancing alone in a puddle, splashing water around him. In a town like this, you make your own entertainment.
The movie ends with a curious scene, a perhaps too blatant statement of how society has decayed for the people, but nevertheless a powerful moment that feels strangely appropriate: one character is walking down a muddy, dirty path and meets a vicious dog who growls and tries to attack him. He responds by barking and growling back at the dog, eventually overpowering it with a surprisingly violent bark, that becomes so loud and inhuman that the dog scurries away, terrified. It seems that the people have become so alienated in their stinking muddy mess of a community, that the act of humanity itself seems like a bad joke, or a distant desire they are unworthy of. Shortly before this scene, one character speaks the memorable line: “Believe me, there’s nothing worse in a man’s life, than when he realizes that those he loves, those he considers his friends… well, when it suddenly turns out that they are on a fatal path and cannot find the proper way again. Because their sins prevent them from ever becoming honest citizens, because they have forever lost the chance to live freely, with a clear conscience, under the protection of the law, enjoying their days.” Indeed, it seems like all the characters have lost the morality or decency to be normal people, instead choosing to prance around in their own filth, apathetically accepting their foul state to be the ultimate, unavoidable destiny, a long, final whimper quiet period of life that precedes death.