Notes on Bela Tarr’s Satantango

7 hours and 30 minutes. That’s how long this film, by Bela Tarr, is. For any film of similar length (and there are others), the first question I would ask for those who have seen such films is, Is it worth the time? And relatedly: Is the time justified? I will provide an answer to both questions, but before I do, let me explain why I’m writing about this film. This is a film I’ve been wanting to see for a long time. I really liked Werkmeister Harmonies and Turin Horse–both by Tarr, and both are great–the former would definitely make my list of all-time great movies (and the latter also has a shot). Satantango also appears on all-time great lists, including the 1001 Films You Must See Before You Die list. So, I’ve wanted to see this. Unfortunately, it was not easy to find, and the DVD was expensive. This year or last, I saw that they were screening this in Seattle, and I felt excited, but disappointed that I couldn’t go. (It would have been extra special to see this on the big screen.) But recently, the kanopy.com website, to my delight, made the a newly restored version of the film available for streaming. I recently watched this, and unsurprisingly I have a lot to process. And this is why I’m starting the thread now.

One thought on “Notes on Bela Tarr’s Satantango

  1. The film is known for its time-consuming takes, where very little seems to be happening. For example, we might see a character(s) walking down a dirt road, and that might take several minutes. Moviegoers have some justification to question the value and meaning of this.

    I’ll provide two responses to this, drawing partly on a 2019 Mubi interview with Tarr.

    First, my sense is that Tarr’s approach makes the film somewhat like a collection of paintings, organized into a loose narrative, which is (obviously) very different from most movies. In the interview Tarr touches on this:

    “Time, anyway, is a part of our life. Time and space, and you cannot ignore it. I know most of the films are ignoring time, because they are just going through the storyline, they are just telling the story: action, cut, action, cut, action, cut, and making it clear to us what is happening. But we don’t know what is happening in the world, really. And I am interested in the world, not just in filming it.

    Here, I interpret him to mean that he wants to infuse the film with a natural sense of time, whereas the story supersedes and tramples over time in most films. There’s also a quote that reveals the reason this was especially important in this film. The interviewer asks Tarr about the sense of time in the low-lands, and this is Tarr’s response:

    Hey man, if you are sitting in the Hungarian lowlands, I’m sure it’s the same in the desert in, let’s say, Arizona, when you are out there: there is no time, no distance anymore, you can go hours, weeks, and you don’t see anything. You are out of time; you have a different sense of time then when you are living in a town. And so, the slowness of the drama came from this. You know, you have to understand that first you have to know the life of the places and then afterwards you have a feeling for how you have to film it.

    I think this provides a justification for his “slow” approach, but this justification wouldn’t make the approach appealing or tolerable to viewers. I would respond to such viewers by recommending they approach the film as if they were going to museum–except in the film the “paintings” incorporate movement–movement of living things, nature, and even the camera. But ultimately, like paintings, the scenes need time, not quick scanning, to be fully appreciated and enjoyed. And, again, I think the scenes function more like paintings that a movie. One might ask if the “paintings” are any good in this movie–are they good, or even great works of art? I would say they are. If you like beautiful black-and-white photography, you will find a lot to like in this film. If you don’t like black-and-white photography, and you don’t like going to museums, then I think, the chances of enjoying this film is close to zero.

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