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450 min. Hungarian.

The final inhabitants of an abandoned settlement set off, fleeing their miserable existence by following the promises of a false prophet named Irimias. Béla Tarr uses endless, dimly lit tracking shots to describe his protagonists’ hopeless attitude toward life. The film contains sequences that become indelibly inscribed in the memory, such as the opening scene of cows leaving their shed and crossing a muddy plain. SÁTÁNTANGÓ is a meditation on time, but also a parable on the decline of humankind and a symbol for the cosmos and the human condition. The film stands out in the oeuvre of Béla Tarr through its formal severity, its atmospheric expressiveness, and its unusual narrative style that works based on leitmotifs, grabbing the audience and never letting them go again for more than seven hours. SÁTÁNTANGÓ is a monument of contemporary cinema, even of all film history. Premiering in 1994, the film became a milestone in the history of the Forum. After 25 years, it now returns to screens in a digitally restored version. (Ulrich Gregor)

Béla Tarr was born in Pécs, Hungary in 1955. He began his career at the age of sixteen as an amateur filmmaker and later worked at the Balázs Béla Stúdió. He started studying at the Film and Television Academy in Budapest in 1977, after having completed his first feature-length film, Csaladi tüzfészek. In 1981, he was one of the founders of Társulás Filmstúdió. Since its closure in 1985, he has worked as an independent filmmaker. In 1989 and 1990, Tarr lived in Berlin as a guest of the Berlin Artists-in-Residence programme of the DAAD. Between 1990 and 2011, he was an associate professor at the German Film and Television Academy Berlin (DFFB). In 2013, he founded the film school film.factory at the Sarajevo School for Science and Technology (SSST).

False prophets and decliners

In 1984, a year before László Krasznahorkai’s novel went to press in Hungary, Béla Tarr had already resolved to film this sublime vision of perdition. It took all of ten years to realise this dream; phases of resignation and despair had to be overcome and financial backers had to be persuaded to fund this daring project.

The married couples Schmidt, Kráner and Halics, the doctor, and the rebellious Futaki lead disconsolate lives. Their collective was dissolved and they were left behind, all alone. Trapped in their day-to-day, they no longer know how to go on; they yearn for a new life, which they want to launch themselves into with blind despair. But this new beginning ends catastrophically. In a dismal, spider-infested tavern, they await their rescuer, their saviour Irimiás. He is supposed to lead their exodus out of slavery. But Irimiás, a former inhabitant of the village, is only a petty fraud who cunningly capitalises on these people’s longings. Promising to provide them with jobs, housing and food, he takes all their money.

Béla Tarr’s SÁTÁNTANGÓ begins in a wholly unspectacular manner. In a shot that lasts several minutes, cows leave a shed and plod across the farmyard. The people who live in this godforsaken stretch of land almost disappear in nature. They seem like silhouettes, like fine pencil strokes on white paper. In one sequence, Béla Tarr has one of his desperate souls cross the farmyard – as he does so, he is completely hidden behind a seemingly formless animal body. The villagers have long succumbed to stupor. Their lives progress across terrain that is well-trodden; they suffer their lives the way one endures an illness.

From the beginning of SÁTÁNTANGÓ, Béla Tarr dissolves the boundary between interior and exterior, between the private and the public. It looks like the camera is filming the Schmidts’ house from the outside, but the closer the camera moves to the window, the more fluid the transition to the interior becomes. This shift in perspective, which Béla Tarr repeatedly employs, brings forth landscapes of the soul. Disordered phantoms appear and haunt the protagonists’ shattered consciousness. Time and its pulsing rhythm are thus brought to a standstill. The days and months congeal into monotony. Life simply falls apart into disparate fragments that can no longer be put together to form a complete picture. Feelings are lost to oblivion, they are simply extinguished. Béla Tarr’s losers have no future, because they have no past.

The ideology of survival
Mrs Schmidt cheats on her husband with Futaki, a lonely man whose despair is etched into his face. When Mr Schmidt suddenly appears, Futaki quickly exits the austere dwelling, fleeing into the autumn cold. The camera will later merge the Schmidts and Futaki into a triangle, approaching them from different angles. They will remain silent, and the weary rebel Futaki will ponder the realisation that the worst thing in life is not to suffer, but to have grown numb from the agony of life.

Ten-year-old Estike wants nothing to do with the adults’ wasted life. Estike, who still has a so-called future ahead of her, kills herself. She embraces suicide as the only possible deliverance from the monotonous meanness of life. The adults go on, blindly obeying the ideology of survival. In Hungarian, Estike is the diminutive form of the word “evening”. Still in the days of her childhood, this girl with the protruding ears already ventures into the dark night of the soul. After her suicide, little Estike is seen again, looking into the tavern’s interior from outside the window. The scene’s horror results from the shift in perspective. This time, Estike is seen from the inside of the tavern; alone and in silent dismay, she watches the adults drinking and dancing.

The doctor has a notebook for each villager, wherein he keeps a precise record of their lives. Alcohol and cigarettes are the doctor’s always purchasable companions on his road to perdition. The doctor collapses, falling in the manner of terminal alcoholics. He is loaded onto a cart like a piece of meat and taken to the closest hospital. The most important event, the villagers’ departure to the city, escapes his documentary obsession. When the doctor returns to his shabby dwelling, the villagers have long followed the false prophet Irimiás. The doctor can only see the traces of the destruction that lead up to their departure, he cannot interpret them. He settles into his lookout position, has his alcohol ready, and looks outside, but sees nothing. He continues his recordings and stays behind, alone with his notebooks.

Standstill of the soul
Béla Tarr’s SÁTÁNTANGÓ paints the gloomy picture of an irreparable decay. His magnum opus sketches out an apocalypse that isn’t solely Hungarian. The married couples Schmidt, Kráner and Halics are damned. Their life has gone off the rails; the ebullience of youth has given way to a monstrous stupor. Their departure is no real exodus, it leads only deeper into slavery. They are being taken to the slaughter.

Gabor Medvigy’s camera views the characters as if they were fossils from a long vanished epoch of European civilisation. In shots that span minutes, the camera glides over people and houses, lingering amongst them for a few moments before moving restlessly along. In this process of decay, everything eludes the gaze that wishes to hold on. Hermetic close-ups fragment people; even the wide landscapes seem like a murky dungeon, and life like an existence without any possible meaning.

SÁTÁNTANGÓ is a majestic journey into darkness, a cinematic apocalypse. In rain-drenched black-and-white images, Tarr depicts the standstill of the soul. Life petrifies in endless monotony. Everyone is left to themselves and to the desolate feeling of being alive.

In the end, SÁTÁNTANGÓ’s stream of narrative and images flows back to its starting point. It’s impossible to know for sure whether the observed reality is made up of real events or whether it is merely the doctor’s phantasmagoria. Using simple wooden boards, the doctor nails his observation window shut. The external world no longer interests him; there is nothing left worth documenting. The cinema screen, the window onto the world, sinks into complete darkness (Infoblatt No. 10, Internationales Forum des jungen Films 1994)

Meditation through ugliness

The more happens in a film, the less we see of the world. The less we see of the world, the more films we have to watch, to the point of going blind. Sufficient would be a single film in which little happens, but that we can keep watching until we catch a glimpse of what is most important.

Three types of world can be dived into: one that is very beautiful, one that is very ugly, and one that is empty. Meditation through beauty belongs to Tarkovsky. Meditation through emptiness belongs to Ozu and early Antonioni. Meditation through ugliness belongs to Béla Tarr. Those who go to the cinema and spend a whole workday with SÁTÁNTANGÓ do what they should always have done, especially if they’re interested in film: they meditate, immersed in images. They do not run around, do not do business, do not brood – they merely observe and try to see.

SÁTÁNTANGÓ is not as long as it is because the director wants to narrate or show so much. Tarr wants to say and show very little. He wants us to understand and see what he tells and shows us, and in the way he wants us to. He wants us to see the decay in the heart of all things. Neorealism once revolutionised narration by integrating observation into the plot. Neorealist stories only make sense if the viewer can contemplate them. To avoid dissolving into the frenzy of video clips and digital tricks, modern film would need a new narrative revolution. Modern film must radically oppose the fragmentation of time and the helplessness of spontaneity. We must learn anew to see the world as a whole, however long this education might take. Those who do not have the time will lose their ability to see without realising it. (András Bálint Kovács, 1994)

Production companies Mozgökep Tärsuläs es Alapitväny (Budapest, Hungary), Von Vietinghoff Filmproduktion (Potsdam, Germany), Vega Film AG (Zürich, Switzerland). Director Béla Tarr. Screenplay László Krasznahorkai. Cinematography Gabor Medvigy. Editing Agnes Hranitzky. Music Mihály Vig. Digital restoration Arbelos Film Distribution & Digital Film Restoration, Hungarian Filmlab. With Mihály Vig (Irimiás), István Horváth (Petrina), Erika Bók (Estike), Peter Berling (Doctor), Miklós B. Székely (Futaki), Lászlo Fe Lugossy (Mr. Schmidt), Èva Almási Albert (Mrs. Schmidt), Alfréd Járay (Mr. Halics), Erzsébet Gaál (Mrs. Halics), János Derzsi (Mr. Kráner), Irén Szajki (Mrs. Kráner).

World sales Luxbox
Premiere February 18, 1994, Forum


1977: Családi tüzfészek / Family Nest / Familiennest (108 min.). 1978: Hotel Magnezit. 1980: Szabadgyalog / The Outsider / Der Außenseiter (134 min.). 1982: Panelkapcsolat / The Prefab People / Betonbeziehungen (102 min.), Macbeth (62 min.). 1985: Öszi almanach / Almanac of Fall / Herbstalmanach (119 min.). 1988: Kárhozat / Damnation / Verdammnis (120 min., Forum 1988). 1990: Utolsó hajó / The Last Boat / Das letzte Schiff (31 min., episode for the omnibus film City Life, Forum 1990). 1994: Sátántangó / Satantango. 1995: Utazás az alföldön / Journey on the Plain / Reise in der Tiefebene (35 min., Forum 1996). 2001: Werckmeister Harmóniák / Werckmeister Harmonies / Die Werckmeisterschen Harmonien (145 min., Forum 2001). 2007: A londoni férfi / The Man from London / Der Mann aus London (139 min.). 2011: A torinói ló / The Turin Horse / Das Turiner Pferd (146 min., Competition 2011).

Funded by:

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