There is No Joy in Tarrville

The Hungarian film poster for DAMNATION (1988), directed by Bela Tarr.

What would it be like to live under a totalitarian regime in a godforsaken rural area where society has collapsed under economically depressed circumstances? In a place where there is no work or even a social structure, people turn to alcohol, violence, suicide, madness or a combination of the four. Capturing the psychological state of mind and physical reality of such an existence is a specialty of Hungarian director Bela Tarr, who became a filmmaker in Soviet controlled Hungary in 1978. He has since become a world-renowned artist who is best known for Satantango (1994), his seven hour and 19 minute epic about the disintegration of a collective farming community. Many Tarr aficionados believe a more accessible starting point for a beginner is Werckmeister Harmonies (2000), a weird, dreamlike fable about a village that descends into chaos after the arrival of a mysterious carnival attraction. I consider both of those masterworks but a better entry point to his brand of cinema might be Karhozat (English title: Damnation) from 1988. It is shorter (a mere two hours) than his two better known works but also the film that launched his international career and a visually fascinating example of his slow cinema aesthetic which favors long, uninterrupted camera shots that can often last from six to eleven minutes in length. It is also occasionally lumped into that genre known as cinema miserablism by some critics but feels more like a deep dive into a dense but atmospheric novel.

Karrer (Miklos Szekely B.) remains detached and lost in his own thoughts as villagers drink and dance their cares away in Bela Tarr’s DAMNATION (1988).

Tarr is not interested in traditional storytelling or a discernable narrative arc in his films but Damnation probably comes the closest to having something resembling a plot. Shot in a stunning black and white format by cinematographer Gabor Medvigy, the film has the look of a classic film noir and unfolds like one too. Karrer (Miklos Szekely B.) is a depressed barfly who lives in a bleak coal mining town where it rains incessantly. He has been carrying on an affair with the married singer (Vali Kerekes) from the local Titanik Bar but her husband (Gyorgy Cserhalmi) is on to them and takes steps to end it. Karrer is offered a smuggling job for some extra money by the bar owner (Gyula Pauer) but decides to offer it instead to the singer’s husband, allowing the lovers to enjoy another sexual liaison in his absence. After the husband returns, Karrer goes to the local police station and informs on the bar owner, the singer and her husband for their illegal smuggling operation and wanders off into the muddy hinterland.

Karrer (Miklos Szekely B., left) comes up with a plan that will separate his lover (Vali Kerekes, center) from her husband (Gyorgy Cserhalmi, right) for a few days in DAMNATION (1988).

Damnation is not a movie with big dramatic moments nor is it a typical character study since the main protagonists reveal little about themselves and remain enigmatic figures. Even the sexual encounters are depicted without passion or emotion and are just as matter of fact as someone peeling potatoes or washing dishes. What makes the film captivating is the look, feel and sounds of Tarr’s fully realized setting. Damnation is a tone poem, a mood piece, a twilight world where despair and loneliness and alienation are palpable. The idea of watching a suspended trolley system of coal carts traveling back and forth across a barren landscape for six or seven minutes might sound like watching paint dry but in Tarr’s hands the effect becomes hypnotic, almost trancelike. Natural sounds replace a traditional music score and help transform Karrer’s run down village into a timeless space where the constant rain, howling dogs and music from the bar provide the appropriate ambiance.

A desolate mining town in Hungary during the Soviet occupation is the setting for DAMNATION (1988), directed by Bela Tarr.

The gloom and doom served up in Tarr’s movies could be metaphors for the totalitarian state of mind that affected everyone who lived in Hungary during the Soviet occupation (which ended in 1991) and it is certainly not escapist cinema. Damnation is an art film, pure and simple. Tarr plunks the viewer down in a pitiless world where misery and hopelessness is the norm but you are immune from it as an observer. Instead, there is a glistening beauty to the black and white images and a fascination in the way Karrer and his fellow villagers interact but see no escape from their dead-end lives.

The singer at the Titanik Bar (Vali Kerekes) contemplates her current situation at the workplace in DAMNATION (1988), a key work for Hungarian director Bela Tarr.

There are several stunning set pieces in Damnation, especially one set inside the Titanik Bar as the house band (a saxophone player and an accordionist) play a lilting tango-like number that motivates the patrons to get up and move about in a group dance that evolves into free form improvisation. A traveling pan shot that moves from left to right and captures the hard-lived faces of numerous groups of villagers standing in doorways as they watch the rain fall is also unforgettable.

Villagers in a mining town watch the rain from the doorway of a bar in the 1988 Hungarian drama DAMNATION.

There is an oppressive sense of claustrophobia in almost every scene such as one in which a young mother breast feeds her child in front of a soccer match on TV while Karrer and his lover have a physical altercation in the other room. Karrer is clearly stuck in a hopeless situation but his behavior is dictated by his obsession with the singer. The only person who might be able to help him is the coat room attendant (Hedi Temessy) at the bar but her occasional advice and philosophical insights to Karrer go unheeded.

An atmosphere of despair and dread permeates the visual design of Bela Tarr’s DAMNATION (1988).

On a visual level, some critics have compared the look of Tarr’s films to those of Russian director Andrei Tarkovsky but I think Damnation, in particular, shares some similarities with Yugoslavian director Dusan Makavejev’s Covek Nije Tica (English title: Man is Not a Bird), a quirky romantic drama which was also set in an economically depressed mining town. Makavejev injects more sly humor and subversive imagery into his tale of a failed romance than Tarr does in Damnation but the latter is not entirely humorless. Consider the final scene of the film in which Karrer reverts to his animal nature and gets down on all fours and has a growling face-off with a feral dog in a garbage dump. It is both astonishing and absurd at the same time.

Karrer (Miklos Szekely B.) finally goes to the dogs in the climatic scene of DAMNATION (1988), a Hungarian drama by Bela Tarr.

Damnation marked Tarr’s first collaboration with novelist Laszlo Krasznahorkai (they would go to make five features together ending with The Turin Horse in 2011). In an interview with R. Emmet Sweeney for Film Comment, Tarr revealed that he originally planned to make Satantango (from Krasznahorkai’s novel) first but, “no one let me do it, and…I had no chance to work in Hungary because the politicians here really didn’t like Almanac of Fall [his previous feature], saying it was decadent, really ugly and dirty. It was stupid. Anyway, we were thinking of something else to do, and I thought we should do a simple thing. So we wrote what became Damnation, and went to the Hungarian Film Institute, the Hungarian Film Archive, which had a small amount to give, and the lab, and somehow we made this movie. It was really cheap, but we were independent of the state censorship.”

Hedi Temessy plays a coat room attendant at the town bar who offers sympathetic advice to patrons in DAMNATION (1988).

Tarr agrees that Damnation has a film noir feel but added, “If you go to a small Hungarian town, a miner’s town, you don’t need American film noir. You have the real thing….You know, it’s a very cheap story. It’s not about the story. I wanted to show more than the story, because all stories are the same. But I really love the people, and I wanted to show you the people.” In fact, Tarr would emphasize the main reason he made Damnation in an interview with Bright Lights Film Journal: “I have a hope, if you watch this film and you understand something about our life, about what is happening in middle Europe, how we are living there, in a kind of edge of the world.”

A typical composition from a Bela Tarr film in which a shot is held for a long time as people walk through it or nothing occurs at all (from DAMNATION, 1988).

For those willing to take the plunge, Damnation can be a mesmerizing experience and the haunting, melancholy music that emanates from the Titanik Bar is composed by Mihaly Vig and is available on CD. The Budapest composer has also provided the music for most of Tarr’s major works starting with Almanac of Fall (1984).

The film poster for SATANTANGO (1994), a 7 hour plus epic which is often considered the crowning masterpiece of Hungarian director Bela Tarr.

Damnation was originally released on DVD in the U.S. by Facets Film in Chicago in 2006. It was an acceptable transfer but in December 2021 Arbelos Films performed a 4K restoration of the film from the original 35mm camera negative at the Hungarian National Film Institute. It was supervised by Bela Tarr and released on Blu-ray with several extra features and is the ideal option for viewing the movie.

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