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Sátántangó by Béla Tarr received its world premiere at the Forum in 1994. The Q&A at the Delphi Filmpalast of which this transcript only form a part was held in Hungarian with simultaneous translation into German by Miklós Gimes. Editor and co-screenwriter Ágnes Hranitzky, László Krasznahorkai, the author of the book from which the film was adapted, and leading actor Peter Berling took part in the discussion alongside director Béla Tarr and Ulrich Gregor, then head of the Forum.

Ulrich Gregor: To start off the discussion of this long film, I’d like to just mention again that the idea for making this movie had been around for a good while, even before Béla Tarr‘s most recent film. What stages did this project go through – how did the idea come about, and why did it take so long for the film to be finished?

Béla Tarr: It would be a very long story if I were to tell you the whole thing. It would take longer than the film itself. (Laughter) I first read the novel by László Krasznahorkai in 1985, and I liked it very much immediately. I thought it was really great. At that time, there was a lot going on, and we were having to deal with various external pressures. But now it’s finally here, and you can see it – and that’s only because so many people helped us along the way. I’d especially like to thank someone who’s not here today: Alf Bold. Without his help, we wouldn’t be sitting here on this podium.

UG: I’d also like to ask Mr. Krasznahorkai a question about the film. What significance does it have for you, to see this film here? As far as I understand it, it’s not that Béla Tarr made a film out of your novel, but rather that it was a close collaboration, and that you were involved in every phase of the filmmaking.

László Krasznahorkai: I would never have imagined being able to work as closely with a director as I did with Béla Tarr. And that has to do not only with Béla Tarr as a person, but with the genre of film in general. For me, film was always something foreign, and I’m as surprised as anyone to be sitting here after a film that I myself worked on. But it’s not just film-literature feels foreign to me, too. It would also feel strange for me to be sitting at the launch of one of my books. It’s odd to find myself in a situation that is so very different from my regular life. For me, they are not two separate things. My books and also the collaboration on this film come out of my despair, and so it’s hard for me not to talk now about my despair. This despair was also the impetus for working with Béla. Once, we were sitting in a bar after the book had come out in Hungarian, and it became clear to us both that this despair is actually not anything unusual. I think that most of you sitting here could just as well have been sitting in that bar and struggling with despair in the same way we were. It’s the same despair you suffer from. And our only task now is to clarify the distance between the finished product and our despair: what needs explaining is the fact that despite this profound despair, we were still capable of making this film. We didn’t need to talk for long, that time in the bar, about the actual reasons for our despair. But we quickly concluded that there is a difference between despair and inactivity. For despair does not mean inactivity. I’d like to emphasize that again, even if it’s already clear: despair does not necessarily mean inactivity and lack of creativity. When we started making films together, we thought we didn’t need to explain why we were making films. I think it’s actually understandable, and clear.

Audience member: I wanted to ask if the author is satisfied with how the images in the film match with his own ones from the book. Because it’s often the case that literary adaptations in cinema don’t match the expectations of the writer. And so I’d like to know if this adaptation somehow got in the way of these images of his.

LK: I can only answer the first question: I’m very happy with this film. I’ve actually never understood the point of adapting literature to film. But this is not an adaptation. What connects the film and the book is an essence, is the essential thing. I think, in terms of the second question, whether my images prevented the director from finding his own one – that’s a question for him.

BT: First of all, we’re talking here about very good literature, a book I read and reread over the years and which I still love very much. So on the one side we had literature, for which we sought a cinematic form. At the same time, we used the novel as a kind of pretext to say a little something about filmmaking itself. And then there was the little detail that we also wanted to speak about our lives. About our everyday lives. And just as the novel asks what our actual task is, or what the task of literature is – to oversimplify it – at the same time, we have to ask ourselves what the task of film is. What is film, anyway? How does something become a story? How does something become time? How do these categories work, how do they mutually influence each other? How do we live and what do we perceive in this state? What do we see? At what point does it become important what the corner of this table looks like, what material it’s made of?
And so there’s a whole series of questions that we answer – with our work, our films, but also with our daily lives. And there is no definitive answer. The more we think about these questions, the less certain we become. And if we’re really honest, then we must admit that we won’t find an answer. It would be so nice if there were a definitive, certain answer. You have to distinguish between that which has been, that which is certain, which can no longer be called into question, and that which is still to come. Even with film work, you can draw a line between what was, and what is still before us. These are the kinds of considerations we’re concerned with in our work.

Audience member: An important element of the film is the way it plays with time, and the fact that it has several perspectives. Sometimes the film jumps backward in time, and shows the same occurrence again, but from a different perspective. I find that extraordinarily interesting, because otherwise the film plays out almost in real time. Does this also occur in the novel?

BT: This use of multiple perspectives is also a literary element. And it’s exactly like that in the novel. But in the film, you really have to repeat whatever you want to show from another perspective, in order to make it comprehensible. You can do this more quickly in a book, of course. This pen can’t see anything, but the camera always sees –it needs an object. The crucial difference is that I can play around with this pen, but not with the camera.

Audience member: A follow-up question to the director’s first answer: I also think the film is an incredible visual experience and, for film theorists, exactly what they’ve been waiting for. But did I understand correctly that the meta-cinematic aspects are more important for you than the images of the world and of people?   

BT: No. Life is the most important thing to us, and film is part of our lives. You can’t separate the two. The world that surrounds us is important: what state is the country in, what are the conditions on the street, what do people’s faces look like? We’re looking for a formulation that reflects this – what we see and experience on a day-to-day level. There’s no philosophy you can trace everything back to, no ideology or act of creation that can be conveniently formulated – there are only feelings. With the tactile sense of our emotions, we record things, and try to convey something. And one of these senses is the camera.

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