A BRIEF INTERVIEW WITH BELA TARR

I had the opportunity to interview Hungarian filmmaker Bela Tarr last summer, but I was never able to sell the piece. Given the relative obscurity of Tarr (his masterpiece SATANTANGO has a North American distributor, but it's only had anything close to a theatrical run in two cities: New York and Toronto), this didn't come as much of a surprise. However, the interview itself posed several problems. Tarr speaks little English, and I don't speak Hungarian, so the interview had to be conducted through a translator, which slowed things down and made subtleties of tone harder to figure out.

For an excellent introduction to Tarr's work, I recommend the following essay by Jonathan Rosenbaum:

S:You began making films as a teenager and made your first feature in your early '20s. How did you get the chance to make a film at that age?

B:I did not want to become a film director. I would have liked to become a philosopher. I thought my task in the world was to change it. And I considered filmmaking something to do on the side. I had a Russian-made wind-up 8mm camera, and I made an 8mm film about a workers' family, who were evacuated from their apartment. I recorded that. Because of these amateur films, I wasn't allowed to study philosophy, so I had to make films. I went to the Bela Balazs Studio, which at that time was a very open place. Anyone who had a sensible idea received some money to make a film, even if they just walked in off the street. They gave so little money, though, that I had to shoot my first film in 5 days. That was FAMILY NEST. There are 2 kinds of behavior: either you kick the door in or you knock politely. I wanted to kick it in. The first 2 films are intentionally raw, and we did not work with professional actors. It was a conscious choice on my part to make an anti-film. I wanted it to have a documentary look, with a handheld camera. If the film got scratched, then it was scratched. It was a political choice, but also an artistic choice.

S:What were the main reasons that it took so long to make SATANTANGO? Was it because of the film's length, the political changes in Hungary, or the difficulty of finding co-producers?

B:The film couldn't even have taken off until the political climate changed. I left Hungary after DAMNATION. I lived in Berlin for more than a year. And there, I watched the dismantling of the Wall. Since everything was fairly uncertain in Hungary, in Berlin I had become acquainted with 2 producers, who became the producers of SATANTANGO. That was how it became a co-production.

S:Did you leave Hungary because of negative reactions to DAMNATION or because it was unlivable for you as a person?

B:There was no chance to make any more films. I was extremely lucky because I received a grant to teach in Berlin. That was a way out. The government told me openly that they wouldn't give me money. Obviously, I've made films that are critical of them, so why would I want to take money from them? One has to be a fool to pay for a movie that spits on him. There was a silent agreement in Eastern European filmmaking. No one would step beyond a certain threshold.

S:Did you have difficulty finding German and Swiss co-production money without the demand that half the cast should be German or the film should be shot in Switzerland, or that it should look like a TV program?

B:There were no strings attached. I was very, very lucky. Both the German and Swiss producers gave me free reign. Although Swiss TV did invest money in the film, they asked the producers to give it back. They thought they couldn't broadcast the film. Switzerland is not a courageous place, but the Swiss producer is very brave. Without her, I doubt anyone else in Switzerland would have cared. The only German actor in the cast is Peter Berling, who plays the doctor. He produced some of Fassbinder's early films and acted in later ones, and worked with Herzog as well.

S:It seems that, especially in SATANTANGO and DAMNATION, your characters believe in a very gloomy kind of Christianity, with an emphasis of signs, miracles and the apocalypse. It seems that the films critique that belief system, but they also partake of it. Do you think there's a tension between those 2 poles?

B:Every film I've made asks the question "What does one believe in?" In each of the films, you can see a combination of faiths, beliefs and interests. But each faith is revealed as based on illusion. And then it spreads thin and disappears. In SATANTANGO, Irimias, which means "Jeremiah," is a messiah. All messiahs are generally just ordinary spies. There may be luckier nations on the Earth which have regular messiahs. I don't know any, but I haven't landed on the moon yet. At the end of DAMNATION, the man decides not to communicate with anyone but a dog. In FAMILY NEST, having an apartment is an unattainable illusion. All the characters believe they will be happy if only they have an apartment. I see this situation as very tragic, but with more and more of a cosmic dimension. At first, I saw it only within the family, but I slowly discovered that it affects almost everything.

S:It seems to me that there are certain sections of SATANTANGO which emphasize the image far more than the story, and vice versa. Do you see a tension between image and narrative?

B:I don't think they are detached, because the story is always a part of the image. In my vocabulary, story doesn't mean the same thing it means in American film language. There are human stories, natural stories, all kinds of stories. The question lies in where you put the emphasis on what's most important. There are everyday tidbits that are very important. For instance, in DAMNATION, we leave the story and look at a close-up of beer mugs. But for me, that's also an important story. This is what I mean when I say that I'm trying to look at things from a cosmic dimension. If I could describe a film fully by telling you the narrative, I wouldn't want to make the film. It's time that film frees itself from the shackles of linearity. It drives me crazy that everyone thinks film must equal linear narrative.