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by Harlan Kennedy


Infernal investigations!


The Berlin Filmfestspiele has been good at these for decades. So good we almost take its ministrations for granted. Shining a torch into the hellish, heinous and horrendous, as a movie arena it has learned from experience. A city once cracked in two, whose crack extended upwards to the sky, knows about schism and disunity. A city once host to history’s most hated man, whose bunker is a tourist stopover, knows about the inhumanities humans can devise for each other. 

So two films jump out at Berlin, perfect, terrible and dazzling. Masterly in their admonitions to us, to everyone and to all who come after.

Bela Tarr’s THE TURIN HORSE is from the stables of the apocalypse. The Hungarian filmmaker derided by some for crafting works of torturous minimalism (SATANTANGO, WERCKMEISTER HARMONIES) – and loved by others for the same reason – states this will be his last film. How apt that it shares a festival with an Ingmar Bergman retrospective. Like Bergman, Tarr’s greeting to his audience is always: “Are you sitting comfortably? Then we’ll soon deal with that.”

Ralph Fiennes’s CORIOLANUS is stupendous screen Shakespeare. The actor turned actor-director turns a notoriously ‘difficult’ play upside down, shaking it for the gleam of loose change. It really does seem as if the Bard set his play in the 21st century Balkans, where Fiennes and team – working out of Belgrade – make their Roman hero live again. And die, slain by his refusal to play the Realpolitik game. This play about honour and dishonour, about integrity and time-serving, is so modern it can hurt. Here it does.     

Both movies have the impact of turning over a stone and discovering a portal to hell. Not just worms and creepy-crawlies, but a shaft, a tunnel, to the worst inferno there is.

Bela Tarr is keen on Satan. And in a way on God. The forces of woe in THE TURIN HORSE appear to be of the Devil’s and the Deity’s combined making – always a good team when persuaded, like a rock group, to get back together again. But Tarr, though mystically inclined, has the time and vision to fault mankind. Human beings are as much the problem for him, and perhaps the solution if they would only knuckle down.

Nature is a foe too and, handed the opportunity, will give nurture a good drubbing. Then there’s Nietzsche, who engenders the film’s source anecdote overvoiced in the prologue, in which the Turin-dwelling philosopher embraces, sobbing with seeming sympathy, a recalcitrant cab horse in the street outside his home. (True story). Nietzsche, we are told, spent the rest of his life in a mysterious torpor, writing no further works.

Is the horse in the movie that horse? Who knows. We are told nothing, we are just shown. In a tremendous opening sequence we see the mare towing her cart, straining against mist and wind to carry her bearded, whitehaired master back to his smallholding in a blasted, howling plain. We see the daily ritual whereby the daughter dresses and feeds the father (one boiled potato each, in a wooden bowl), helps him harness and feed the horse, fetches water from a well made almost unreachable by the violent wind, undresses the father for bed……

It’s all in black and white, like a commercial for despair. Or a plea for the final (dis)solution. The horse goes off his food, the wind lays ever fiercer siege, the bottle of palinka (a stomach-firing liqueur) dwindles to dregs. Over the 150 minutes or five days of story time the dwelling is taken over by a kind of slow-motion chaos, a spiral of doom. Halfway through, a cartful of gypsies visit in a macabre vignette, rowdying at the well and stealing water. (The well dries up the following day). One gypsy leaves the daughter a book full of crypto-scriptural warnings.

The film’s trajectory is surely a reverse Creation: a progress towards no-life and even, in the last scene, no-light. Instead of “lux fiat”, “nox fiat.” Sin and transgress enough (Tarr seems to say) – and who knows what covert biblical misdeeds this mysterious parent-child couple have committed? – and God and providence will blacken the world. Either that or providence does it all itself, with no need for moral justification and no credit for an omniscient judgment call.

That’s a comfort for unbelievers. They like to believe the world can do its own self-destruction. Enact its own back-to-front Genesis. Reverse creation? Style fits subject. Visually and aurally THE TURIN HORSE reinvents the wheel. It even uninvents it, restoring us to a primitivism where the still image barely reaches out to other images to spark the miracle of Persistence of Vision. It’s a film of blazing stasis, dazzling inertia. It exercises a choke-hold on the viewer, who can’t and won’t escape. This kind of incarceration is too good not to endure and enjoy.     

CORIOLANUS takes us forwards, not backwards. Instead of uninventing the wheel, it fast-speeds us towards a modern inferno. Rome and Antium, though keeping their names, are in Serbo-Croatia. Costumes are today’s battle fatigues. TV newscasts blurt about a “Roman food crisis” and a “Volscian border dispute.” The titular Tiberside general – played by shaven-pated Fiennes with a ferocity he hasn’t shown since SCHINDLER’S LIST – conquers Volscian leader Aufidius (Gerard Butler). But victory is followed by a leadership election in which Coriolanus refuses to bare his wounds (ancient Roman equivalent of kissing babies). He storms from his city, damning its rejecting citizens. The new ally for revenge, for re-invasion is who but Aufidius?

This is the Shakespeare who wrote about spin and pressing-the-flesh, about Realpolitik and reality electioneering, centuries before those concepts became commonplace. By modernising the play – and hiring HURT LOCKER’s Barry Ackroyd as cinematographer – Fiennes reminds us of its eternal topicality. We even see a hint of THE MANCHURIAN CANDIDATE in the hero’s manipulating mother Volumnia. Vanessa Redgrave plays her as a kind of living human effigy, dry, gaunt, tindery, constantly re-ignited by her passion for power. She goads her son to compromise his principles to attain high office. When that fails, she chases him to the border on his armed return to beseech him, in a blaze of eloquence, to relinquish his vow of vengeance.

Where better than Berlin for this CORIOLANUS to be premiered? Here its key line, “What is the city but its people?” has a defining acoustic. For so long Berlin was everything but the people: a monstrous, mutating plaything of its civic masters. Now the will of the people has triumphed; it is their city. They have terraformed the political desert. They have banished the monsters of right, then left, who thrived in its barren byways and highways.

Both these movies are warnings as well as celebrations. Warnings that chaos can come again and so can confinement. The invisible wall of warring elements that encircle Bela Tarr’s characters belongs in this city of freedom that was once a jail. Or worse: a jail that looked out across a divide at the mocking pageant of freedom occupying the other half of the city and, beyond, the other half of the world.

In CORIOLANUS the atavistic threat of old aggressions, old spites, returning to their native city holds up its warning. An ancient Rome (even if disguised on screen as a modern Serbo-Croatia) speaks to a remade Berlin beset at times by all the old bigotries, the old ethnic hatreds. Time never sits still, even though it playacts doing so in THE TURIN HORSE. The words “never again” are too often the preface to the next apocalypse. They should be uttered only as a prayer, never as a certitude.




©HARLAN KENNEDY. All rights reserved