Bela Tarr’s 1988 cinematic stunner “Damnation” has been restored and is being made available for virtual screenings around the nation, including the Austin Film Society, starting Nov. 13. The black-and-white film, which marks the Hungarian director’s first collaboration with novelist Laszlo Krasznahorkai, laid the groundwork for the rest of Tarr’s storied career.
If you haven’t seen Tarr’s work before, then this will be a great introduction to his style: a mesmerizing monotony of gloom and doom that somehow feels vibrant.
The opening is unlike any other, with no dialogue until about seven minutes into the film. Instead, we see buckets of coal in the air, being transported over lines similar to ski lifts, going somewhere, or since this Tarr, perhaps nowhere. The buckets make a repetitive noise that might drive someone crazy. But there’s a man staring out the window, watching the buckets go by, while smoking a cigarette.
Then, in what becomes the signature style of “Damnation” and of Tarr, the camera moves slowly to reveal that the man has moved to the bathroom. The man is Karrer, played by Miklos B. Szekely, and he eventually begins to shave himself with a sharp razor. And you can’t help but wonder whether he will slit his throat.
Outside his apartment, the town where Karrer lives has all the dreariness and raininess and muddiness that you might expect in rural Hungary as the Soviet Union finally loses its Eastern European empire. Stray dogs roam the deserted streets, looking for mud puddles from which to drink. And when Karrer leaves his apartment, he seems like a stray, too. In fact, he ends up outside an apartment, where he knocks, only to be told by the woman inside to go away. He says he loves her. She says she loves him. But she says she’s leaving town and going make a new life for her and her daughter.
We don’t know much of her story at this point. But since Karrer spends his days drinking himself into a stupor at dive bars, we get the idea that he might have met her at such a place. Indeed, she’s a singer, played by Vali Kerekes — and her sultry, fatalistic style makes Peggy Lee look animated. Throughout the first scene of her singing in the aptly named Titanik Bar, she holds a lit cigarette above her head and clings to a microphone with the other. The lyrics keep repeating the phrase, “It’s over.”
The dialogue is exceedingly odd. It’s more like extended monologues, especially when Karrer starts talking. He says that his story — like many stories — is one of disintegration. He is told by a cloakroom lady at the nightclub that he needs to stay away from the unnamed singer, because she’s a witch who will drive him to ruin, just like she’s doing to her current husband, who’s in deep debt.
The cloakroom lady, played by Hedi Temessy, turns up later to quote some vengeful Old Testament verses about a wrathful God, to which Karrer politely listens. It should probably be noted that this particular scene takes place outside, in the rain. And yet again, it’s a monologue of doom.
At one point, a bar owner suggests to Karrer that he might want to do something besides get drunk every day on cheap brandy. And the bar owner has a suggestion: Why not take a three-day trip abroad and come back when some smuggled goods. There’s good money in smuggling, he’s told. But Karrer has a different idea. He’ll propose that the husband of the singer whom he loves be the smuggler instead, since the husband is deep in debt and needs money. And that will allow Karrer to have three days with the singer.
The husband accepts the plan, and Karrer ends up in the apartment with the singer. And they make love in one of the most lifeless erotic scenes ever filmed. They’re naked and in bed, and she’s sitting atop him, barely moving, with no trace of emotion.
At this point, you might be wondering why folks consider this to be a masterpiece of cinema. Let’s just say that the style, the camerawork and the artistic panning shots through windows of drab buildings are mesmerizing feats of beauty.
In his review of the restored “Damnation” for The New Yorker, Anthony Lane says he noticed that there’s one scene of elegant composition that is lifted straight from Antonioni’s “L’Eclisse” of 1962. “We spy Karrer on one side of a stone column,” Lane writes, “and a woman on the other side.” The camera first shows only Karrer, but as it pans the building, it shows the woman — and yet another woman in front of two doors, as if they’re standing guard of something. Lane goes on to reveal a plot spoiler that I will avoid. But let’s just say that the scene is exquisite foreshadowing.
To view “Damnation,” visit afsathome.org