And there wasn’t light: The Turin Horse (2011)

A man is continually whipping his horse who refuses to move. A famous philosopher Nietzsche notices the scene, runs to the horse, breaks into tears and embraces it. He returns home, lies in his bed, utters “Mother, I am stupid”, and lives the rest of his life being mute and demented. And that’s the true story of what happened to Nietzsche. The question that Tarr asked was: what happened to the horse?

“Eat. We have to eat.”

The Turin Horse (2011) is Béla Tarr’s last film, who described it as an anti-creation story. God might create a world in six days, and Tarr seems to be able to reverse the process. As soon as you have watched it, you will realize why this one in particular had to be the last one. The film follows the daily routine of impoverished potato farmers, who seem to be the owners of the mentioned horse. A harsh wind relentlessly blows. Every day seems to be defined by existential nihilism, where life seems to be without any intrinsic value or meaning. They take turns in sitting by the window and staring into the distance. Their daily meal consists of potatoes only, eaten hot using their fingers. The horse refuses to leave the farm, eat or drink. One day, a neighbor drops by and claims that the nearest town has been completely destroyed, and that the end is near.

The awe-inspiring black-and-white cinematography pinpoints the existential nihilism in The Turin Horse. Long shots accentuate the daily indifference of two people, and repetitive soundtrack highlights the monotonous and dull life of two main characters. Mihály Víg has created a simple string leitmotif, which sounds increasingly ominous as the time goes by. From a sad tune to a warning sign, from a horse gallop to surrendering to the void: the same tune somehow has a different sound and a different meaning every time it announces its presence.

Overall, this is a story about people, and not about philosophy. But one can track Nietszchean spirit throughout the film. A visitor states that people realized there was no god, and so they soon comprehended that their existence seemed unreal as well. Such a monologue directly mirrors Nietzsche’s philosophy. According to Anderson, Nietzsche claimed that standard moral commitments lacked a foundation and made us even worse, making it hard for us to imagine ourselves living any other way. The binary opposition of good and bad originated in the social class of the privileged ones, since the good ones were first considered to be those of a higher social order. To be excellent means that there are ordinary people who are not excellent. Are our characters excellent if they play their daily roles perfectly? Or, in a standard view, do they need to work hard to enter a social class that can ponder over moral issues? An impoverished farmer doesn’t have time for philosophy. Even staring at the window is not a philosophical stance, but a necessity to accept life as it is. It is not staring into unknown, but staring into the only thing that’s known to them.

The eternal recurrence seems illustrated by the repetitive and monotonous life of impoverished farmers.

Bernhard: They stopped at this point and had to understand and had to accept that there is neither God nor gods, and the excellent, the great and the noble had to understand and accept this right from the beginning, but, of course, they were quite incapable of understanding it, they believed it and accepted it but they didn’t understand it.

They just stood there, bewildered but not resigned until something, that flash on the mind, finally enlightened them, and all at once they realized that there is neither God nor gods.

All at once they saw that there is neither good nor bad; then they saw and understood that if this was so then they themselves did not exist either.

Suffering, Nietzsche states, is an inevitable part of the human condition. An ascetic way of life is usually the result of accepting such suffering as punishment, connecting it to the notion of guilt. Father and daughter live a tiresome, ascetic life, but they do not see it as punishment. To Nietzsche, asceticism is not a desirable position since it involves diminishing your own personal worth. To an outsider, their life may seem as penalty, but to them it is the only reality they know, neither a good one, nor a bad one. Nietzsche identifies the importance of power, while happiness is connected to the feeling of growing power. However, our characters are weak against the elements, have no power over their horse, and seem to accept the impending doom. Life is not a pursuit of power anymore since it ceases to be a pursuit of anything.

Tarr has stripped the 146-minute movie to around 30 shots. And that’s all it’s needed. Even without no dialogue in most of the scenes, once you’re mesmerized by the film, you cannot look away from the unrelenting bleakness. We see the daily routine: day one, day two, day three… Each day, the camera shifts an angle a bit, but we know the drill. There’s nothing that could change. The film was shot in and around a single location – a farmhouse built for production – and this is the only world they know, and we as an audience as well. A philosophical stance of idealism states that things exist as long as there’s someone to perceive them. There is no other town, we don’t see it, and, from an idealist perspective, therefore it might not exist at all. The encircling darkness is therefore removing their surroundings from existence, leaving the farmhouse being equal to the entire universe.

Characters seem to be accepting their fate as darkness encompasses the only world they know.

It seems that the notion of the eternal recurrence is central in Nietzsche’s philosophy, an idea mirrored in The Turin Horse. With the devouring darkness surrounding them, they try to turn on the light. They fail. “Tomorrow we’ll try again”, the father says. Some commentators considered it a way of looking at time and space themselves, but some considered the idea of it being an inspection of whether one’s life has been worth living. Would you do it again? Even when faced with the meaningless existence, I believe that Tarr’s characters would do it all over again. They might be staring at the abyss, but at least it’s staring back at them.



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