Although the novel by László Krasznahorkai was first published in Hungary in 1985, it didn’t appear in an English translation until 2012. My curiosity led me to buy it, to realise that being able to say you’d read it was almost as self-congratulatory as saying you’d watched the film straight through, as I only made it to about page 80 on a first attempt last summer. But I can make that claim now, having had a second go a week or two back.
With Sátántangó you also note his quirky way of numbering his chapters – Part 1 has Chapters I, II, III, IV, V and VI. Part 2 goes in reverse, Chapters VI, V, IV, III, II, I. Actually this is not irrelevant, as one idea he is developing is a sense of the circle of life, of everything having its beginning in its ending in its beginning... The last two pages of the book, until it fades out in ...”at which point...” are exactly the first two pages of the book – an invitation to go back to the beginning and read it all again, until you’re able to break out of the story.
Béla Tarr’s film is very faithful to the book, including being divided into the same chapters as the book, with the same names (allowing for the different translations in English. For example Chapter 1 is “News of Their Coming” in the published book, and “The News is They’re Coming” on the DVD release.)
The long, long sentences in Kraznahorkai’s prose find a corollary in Tarr’s trademark long, long takes, the camera frequently sitting there, observing an area waiting for someone to appear, or from which people have already left. But the black-and-white photography is immensely powerful, observing this crumbling, bleak landscape and the crumbling, bleak people left in it. It is the atmosphere that is one of the strongest elements in the film, and I can imagine it was close to overbearing on a big screen in a large cinema.
But like the book, it is not an easy film to watch, or to get into, because it is (they are) not ordinary narratives, but fragments, mosaics that build a picture of a community that has evaporated, or been destroyed. The general interpretation is that it is a representation of the Communist State in Hungary in the last stages of its demise, the almost desolate, ruined collective farm being a clear corollary for the whole nation.
Each chapter (book and film) focuses on a different character or characters. Several basically have only one character, which is a challenge to our expectations of drama as the interaction between two or more people. In the novel, there are clearer insights into the character’s feelings, motivations, thoughts, but the steady gaze of the camera takes us into the people in different ways.
The novel’s sense of circularity has somewhat of a presence in the film, but more in some different ways. The opening lines of the book were used as voice-over early in the film, and do re-appear at the end of the film, but I’m not sure I’d have realised this if I hadn’t read the book several days before. Also, they’re not the exact opening of the film. That is a stunning, long single take, tracking with a herd of cattle coming out of their barn, into the muddy yard, making their way to muddy fields, one bull mounting a cow, a dog barking, rain drenching an already saturated area. So this doesn’t quite capture the same sense of the story starting all over again. Perhaps the film’s translator sensed this – the book’s last chapter is “The Circle Closes”, in the film “No Way Out.” The same meaning, and yet not the same.
The film instead has a number of moments that I can’t remember in the novel where you see an event several times in different characters’ chapters. The centrepiece is the impromptu dancing in the bar, the Sátántangó of the titles. At one time we are inside the bar with several of the characters in the dance. At another we are with the retarded girl outside in the rain looking into the warm bar.
Mentioning the retarded girl raises another point. Her situation is probably able to be appreciated more substantially in the book where we learn more of her back story. Her chapter features one of the most confronting scenes in a film, where she tries to explore if she can have power over another living creature, and force feeds rat poison to her cat. In a long, long take we watch the cat lap the milk, try to struggle, collapse, die. There are no cuts where you can imagine a dummy being substituted for the live cat. I had to search the Internet before being able to watch the next chapter. Tarr is quoted as saying that the cat was his family’s pet, that a veterinarian was on set all the time, and the cat lived a long life after the film. But it all looks distressingly real!
Was it worth slogging through the book, sitting through 7 hours of the film in one day? Concentrating on the film, it was good to revisit it, especially as I had really lost most of it from my mind. Tarr is a powerful film maker, with a flair for setting a camera where it observes a wealth of human nature. His control of the soundtrack adds to this. It is the atmosphere that most endures. The actual thematic importance is perhaps limited outside Hungary, especially as time moves the collapse of communism further into the past. It’s not an analysis of the causes of that collapse, a sociological look at its impact, or a traditional character study. And do you need 7 hours of atmosphere?
Anyway, at the very least I suppose I can make a big note of the fact that I did get through the book. And now, I’ve actually watched the film twice. Anyway again, yesterday when I watched it, it was far too hot to do anything outside, so at least I stayed cool. And I finished with time for another episode of Horace and Pete. Ah, now that’s a pleasure!