Famous German philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche suffered a complete mental breakdown in 1889 in Turin. It is rumored that this happened sometime shortly after he witnessed the brutal whipping of a horse at the hands of its cabman for it refused to move. Nietzsche apparently rushed to the hansom cab, threw his arms around the horse’s neck in order to save it from the beating, and started sobbing profusely! He collapsed to the ground later, and was taken home by his neighbours. But Nietzsche was a completely different person thereon. He gradually spiraled down into dementia and stayed that way until his death which was ten years after. This is what happened to Nietzsche. But what happened to the horse?
Mihály Ráday’s deep baritone narrates the above tale in a verbal prologue and sets the somber tone for Bela Tarr and Ágnes Hranitzky’s directorial marvel, "The Turin Horse" (2011), which picks up the story from here, and in a fictitious account, depicts six days in the life of the horse, its cabman by the name of Ohlsdorfer (Janos Derzsi) and his daughter (Erika Bok). Tarr takes us to their humble home with bare minimum stone-age-like furniture and shows us their dreary daily existence, through the lens of cameraman Fred Kelemen who captures it all in stark monochrome, thereby emphasizing the bleakness of their condition. We become mute witnesses to a rather tough life, as Tarr shows us in a repetitive fashion, how the deadpan daughter fetches two buckets of water daily from the nearby well, braving the storm winds. She dresses and undresses her old father who has lost the strength in his right arm. She helps her father prepare the horse carriage. She also boils two potatoes as a daily meal for them which they wolf down with their bare hands, sitting across the table, but hardly talk to each other.
Later, like mechanical clockwork, they consume some Palinka (a fruit brandy), almost like a daily activity akin to brushing teeth! The cold weather outside echoes the cold sentiments inside the house as the father-daughter duo live an almost robotic existence. The embers used to heat the potatoes seem to be the only things that exude any warmth! Life goes on with a dreadfully humdrum note, except for a couple of variations in the form of a cryptic visitor, some trespassing gypsies and the waning condition of the horse that deteriorates with each passing day, as it refuses to eat or move. The storm outside and the gradually declining condition of the horse spell doom and prove to be harbingers of rough weather in the lives of our lead characters, and we are forced to look on helplessly, as permanent darkness threatens to descend upon them…
Bela Tarr has said that "The Turin Horse", which could be his last film is about the "heaviness of human existence". To make us feel the heaviness, he makes us witness with (his famous) long takes and in almost real time, what almost every average human being goes through; a sort of tedium, a routine that one becomes slaves to! "A daily repetition of the same routine makes it possible to show that something is wrong in their world", Tarr has said! Why is it wrong? Is it making them less human as time passes? Although Tarr only chooses to divulge very little about the deeper meaning of his film, there are themes a lot more complex to be drawn. And then there are those underlying references to Nietzsche himself.
The most blatant reference comes in the form of the visitor who seeks to buy liquor and ends up delivering a long monologue hinting at an apocalyptic event. Perhaps hinting at the God is dead philosophy? But what of the horse? The dying horse could very well be a catalyst bringing about a radical change in the lives of Nietzsche (emotionally) and its cabman and his daughter (literally). With the decline of the horse, comes the storm, a storm that brings about death, decay and darkness. Or maybe Tarr is trying to point out that just like the horse, man is also a beast of burden, and at the mercy of the horse in this case! There are references to Nietzsche also to be found in the text in the book handed to the daughter by a trespassing gypsy. It wouldn’t be entirely wrong to say then, that the Nietzschean philosophy of eternal recurrence reflects in the repetitiveness shown in the microcosm of Ohlsdorfer’s meager existence.
And indeed, what a woeful existence it is! The relentless storm serves as a literal as well as metaphorical device that spells an inherent rough patch for Ohlsdorfer and his daughter. The graceful camerawork captures the perpetually stormy, desolate landscapes with a poetic brilliance, while a heavily melancholic dirge-like score composed by Mihaly Vig fills the atmosphere. When it’s not that, it is mostly the sound of wind howling or an eerie silence despite the signs of life in the modest little cabin, enhanced by the meticulous sound design.
There is very minimal dialog. "It’s ready" is amongst the handful of things the daughter says to her father when the potatoes are cooked! Much about the nature of the father-daughter pair’s relationship is conveyed, not through dialog, but through the facial emoting in a masterstroke of acting from the lead duo, especially Janos Derzsi. Erika Bok is mainly required to appear stoic and emotionless. In one striking scene, she goes inside the house, sits in the window and just stares outside, her face appearing like a pale ghost, while the camera stays there for a few seconds!
Maybe it echoes her feelings of being trapped or doomed to a place of no escape. It is the dexterous juxtaposing of the horse’s deteriorating condition with that of Ohlsdorfer and his daughter that make you sit up and take notice. At one point of time, the horse stops eating. Pretty much around the same time, the father-daughter duo seem to leave their potatoes unfinished! Not surprisingly, the two are directly dependent on the horse for their livelihood. The horse refuses to co-operate, and its masters probably lose their appetite!
Amidst all the doom and despair, Tarr, in the crushing final frame of his phenomenal film, still salutes the human spirit. A single flicker of hope and man’s will to survive against all odds will continue to prevail, no matter how dark the fate...