16 Apr 2014

Faces of Dignity: On Béla Tarr’s 'Prologue'

by Kristóf Bodnár

‘It passes, but it does not pass away...’
László Krasznahorkai: The Melancholy of Resistance[i]

"I would like to make a film about the end of the world, then quit making films", Béla Tarr declared in a 2008 interview about his future creative plans[i] This aspiration eventually emerged in his 2011 magnum opus, The Turin Horse,  which some critics do indeed consider his ‘last’ film.[ii] Although this thinkingfilm post is concerned with Prologue, a rather unknown Tarr short-film, this quotation is a good point of departure as it draws attention to the idea of apocalypse at play in Tarr’s work. I want to draw out the theme of apocalypse in his work and explain why Tarr’s films generally - and Prologue particularly – are 'doing' philosophy: ‘film as philosophy’.

That Tarr chose the end of the world as the theme of his ‘last film’ is no surprise to those familiar with his oeuvre: he has never made a film on any other theme. But what sort of apocalypse is Tarr showing us? And, more importantly, why is apocalypse so central to his film-thinking? For Pólik, Tarr’s apocalypse starts with the decomposition of the social realm, continues in the moral and metaphysical decline of the individuals’ world(s), and culminates in total ontological and theological catastrophe. This progression is most obviously seen in The Turin Horse. As Pólik points out, the diversity of meanings of apocalypse in Tarr’s movies is crucial to understanding this theme:

Apocalypse can mean, and this is particularly important in the case of Tarr, contemplation (hazon) and inspiration through seeing (nebua). Since Tarr […] uses the medium of film as the means of contemplation – he does not use it to copy or mirror things, neither does he want to represent anything with it, but to apprehend: to apprehend something that can only be apprehended in and through pictures.[iii]

This, in my opinion, is true of all important filmmakers. Indeed, some filmmakers seem driven by the urge to provide us with the ‘therapy’ only art can give. ‘Film as philosophy’ in this sense means not simply depicting or showing (which would be ‘film illustrating philosophy’) but thinking with, and through, film. As Polik puts it: ‘Tarr argues in a similar manner to Nietzsche: if nothing else, art still can save us. Since art is a reservoir of values and ideals confronting nihilism, so is film-art. [And] this art should be like one which undertakes – in its subjective way, even on behalf of philosophy – the task of telling the truth’.[iv] Tarr's films also philosophise by simplifying things – by creating cinematic and aesthetic approaches to seemingly abstract issues that are revealed, on repeated viewings, to be crucially 'practical'.

Prologue encapsulates Tarr’s art and way of seeing like an ocean in a drop. Despite its seemingly mundane appearance, Prologue is an apocalyptic-movie – although of a very ordinary sort: the film presents, in a tacit, modest manner, the daily apocalypse of individuals and crowds. Prologue was a part of an omnibus-movie entitled Visions of Europe, released in 2004. A short black-and-white étude, Prologue shows a simple and all too familiar story: homeless people queue in front of a soup-kitchen of a charity organisation to get bread rolls and a cup of hot tea. In the first half of the film the camera slowly tracks towards the front of the unmoving queue, showing faces in medium close-up, until it reaches the window of the soup-kitchen. Then the camera halts, a window opens, and the crowd quietly begins to move. A young girl starts serving them food, smiling down on each of them. ‘There is not much to see here’, as the well-worn phrase suggests. One might wonder whether, precisely because it is so emphasised, the film’s simplicity and ‘surface’ are deceptive. Passing beyond the veil of mere appearances one might discover the film’s underlying philosophical depth. If you have not seen Prologue, it is well worth watching it now:

Like Tarr's other films, Prologue is showing us symptoms that demand therapy, but it does not offer quick and easy cures: the cure is to be found outside the film-world. What is shown is inscribed in another meaning of the word apocalypse: the epiphany and revelation of things in the End Times. But the director only directs attention, refraining from judging or even signifying the perspective from which it should be viewed. This is similar to Wittgenstein’s technique of offering new aspects and objects of comparison, while simultaneously emphasising the impossibility of determining that one is ‘correct’. Cures are (and can only be) found by the spectators. Or, to put it in another way, it depends on whether we recognise ourselves as suffering the 'sicknesses' on the screen, or as those who must discover new 'cures'.

Like Wittgenstein, Tarr simply ‘re-arranges’ things that have been ‘in front of our noses’ all the time. Of course, this simplicity sometimes masks itself in various ways, such as over-stylisation, over-written symbolism, allegories and (sometimes literally) end-less, unclosed plot lines. This is especially true of Werckmeister Harmonies and The Turin Horse, However, these techniques mirror the difficulty and opacity of the world. They ironically unveil the artificiality and deceptiveness of self-propagated difficulty, and serve to mask the underlying simplicity and banality: the banality of evil, selfishness, betrayal and perpetual decay; the banality of humanity, humanism and dignity.

Tarr’s dialectical, self-questioning mode of representation is a central concern of my reading of Prologue. ‘Self-questioning’ and ‘self-reflection’ gather another meaning in Prologue. At first, one might expect something graspable (a ‘conclusion’ or solution), from this seeming documentary of a group of downtrodden homeless people. But as the short run time comes to an end, one might wonder whether this ‘story’ is much more about oneself and one’s relation to what is on screen, as opposed to any content or ‘message’. 

Another reason that Prologue is film as philosophy is its minimalist form: the almost total absence of a storyline or 'plot', the lack of monologue or dialogue, and the seeming hiatus of any drama. Are we presented with a story without action, or actions that do make for a coherent ‘story’? In a sense, all we are presented with is time, the most ordinary world: life itself. When asked why he makes films, Tarr answered: “One desperately hangs on to the camera, as the only depository of the supposed truth. But what should I shoot when everything is mendacious? Because I hate stories, since stories make people believe that something has happened. However, nothing happens; we are only fleeing from one state into another. As today only states exist – all stories are out-dated, have become inferior common-places, ceased to exist or are dissolved. Thus nothing is left but time. Probably that’s the only true thing – real time: years, days, minutes and seconds. We die either of making films or of not making them. But we cannot get away with it. For our fate can only be corroborated by the films we make.”[v]


To understand how this sparse film can indeed do (dialectic, therapeutic or otherwise) philosophy, I shall first turn to the title. At first glimpse it seems – just as the whole film – rather simple. ‘Prologue’ derives from the ancient Greek πρoλογος, which means foreword. It is important to note that the second particle – ‘logos’ – is understood and used in different senses, most commonly (but not exclusively) as words, speech, reason, ground, essence and truth. This analysis relies on some of these meanings, but focuses mainly on its use as word and truth, essence. It is also worthwhile considering the semantic richness of the ‘pro’-particle in Prologue. We can understand it as the word ‘before other or more important words’ (as in literary or academic texts), or in the broader sense of words that anticipate other words, before any word can – or should – be articulated. Both are present in this movie, and play an inherently functional role.

To begin with, the film is a prologue in a much straightforward sense: it was the opening movie of the New York Film Festival in 2004. This date is also important from another perspective: in 2004, its release date, Hungary became a member state of the European Union, so the film’s ‘foreword-ness’ can be understood as: before we ‘enter’ Europe, we have to talk about this first - we have to talk about what should be left behind before we enter the ‘land of freedom, equality and fraternity’. Thus understood, Prologue can be seen as exposing a common fear shared by opponents of ‘poor’ Eastern European countries lining up to become members of the EU. In this sense, it is an allegory of ‘poor nations’ awaiting the ‘free-meal’ granted by richer member-states.

In a more abstract sense, the title, as the mirror of the whole film, alludes to the primacy of pictures over words, of showing over saying. Showing tacitly, not propagandising by ‘shouting’ – for in a trivial, yet important sense, we only see what Tarr is ‘talking about’ (we only see the girl in the soup kitchen saying: ‘Bon appetite!’). On a structural level this afore-ness is reflected in the camera-movement. One might think at first that when the camera halts one can leave behind this sad waiting mass. The slow lateral camera movement yields a feeling of an eternal, teleological precession or development that might raise one’s expectations of a possible salvation or solution: ‘a cyclical process returning to itself while having to create the illusion of moving forward’[vi]. This is juxtaposed to the extreme slowness of the tracking, the casual close-ups on the faces, and Mihály Víg’s hopeless, ever loudening waltz-like soundtrack. But when the camera stops, what seemed to be the fore-word becomes the word – the logos – itself. 

Logos – now understood as truth –  is something that is, philosophically speaking, always on the move, ‘captured’ only in its dynamicity. The ‘fore-ness’ in this sense, is a mirror of the expectations shared by these downtrodden people hoping to bread and tea. There is a small, but important joke here: the girl starts dispensing the food before she is ‘supposed’ to, the clock shows that it is only nearly twelve o’clock. This is the crucial point: after this ‘fore-word’ the ‘climax’ (the ‘word’) unfolds in its absence. It is a foreword to nothing, to a nothingness – yet, to a nothingness that, means everything for those standing in line

As Bíró notes, Prologue’s crowd scene has its parallel, and predecessor, in the famous crowd scene in Werckmeister; while we are initially unaware what these people are doing, there is an uncanny, even doomed aura to the scene. Werckmeister ends in a scene of the destruction of a hospital, yet in Prologue the 'end' is a failure to produce any similar conclusion. The crowd’s silent and patient waiting for something always just to come is the ‘real thing’, the ‘real’ logos. It is, metaphorically, time itself. It is not a pro-logos, not a fore-word in the sense that there would be something better to come. This eternal movement (the movement of the queue, the caring movements of the girl) is the only logos, the only truth per se. Yet, this chain of movement can be interpreted as the lack of any movement, too, since the movement of the camera and the movement of the mass – given their opposing directions – cancel each other out. History cannot be divided into proto-states and end-states. There is no eschatology, no messianic, teleological direction of history in Tarr’s films. There is no end of history to write a prologue to, no (r)evolution. All we are left with is time itself, the eternal present, the eternal presence of the need and demand for care.


Now to the other sense of prologue, i.e. ‘fore-ness’ now understood as ‘before any word can or should be spoken’. The deed of the homeless people is waiting itself. This is a real action, and not merely the absence of an action. We have here the ability, in the form of a silent and modest action, to wait until one becomes strong enough, human-enough, to perform an act. Care just for the sake of caring, care just for the sake of the Other. But the demand for care cannot (and should not) be said – it is manifest. To rephrase this in a Levinasian manner: the transcendence, the imperative of care, should not be sought in the heavens or in ethical and philosophical handbooks, but on the face of each and every individual. This silent demand is shown through the slow, modest, and at the same time inexorable depiction of faces. It simultaneously presents individuality and universality, unity and diversity, particularity and generality. This differentiates Prologue from either propaganda or mere illustration. And another of Levinas’ ideas – ethics as optics – is also present in this film, through cinematographic means and approaches. This film speaks - about ethics, about dignity, about ourselves and the others – in as much as it ‘simply shows’, questioning our responsibility and ethical stances.

Prologue’s silent dialectic can also be understood in light of Wittgenstein’s imperative: “Don’t think, look!” Firstly, one can take it at face value: don’t think about humanity or dignity, just look at it - recognise it without reflection. But then we can turn the table, and reverse the imperative: “Don’t just look, think about it - for the superficial interpretation can be deceptive and shallow. Watching it over and over again, and thinking with it, one might return to the ‘first’ interpretation: to be able to think about dignity and humanity one need only open our eyes and recognise for the first time what has always been staring us in the face on the faces of the others. As Péter Balassa puts it in his analysis of the Werckmeister Harmonies: ‘Tarr, again as a disciple of the old great masters, chose the hard way both in professional and technical respects, since the crowd in his works (is) never fully faceless, not a mere mass. Béla Tarr’s camera always succeeds to highlight a portrait. His art of face and crowd, trained on Rembrandt and Eisenstein, is impersonally personal … the mere act of the slow and detailed presentation of the face preserves, without an exception, the memory of dignity, fallibility’.[vii]

The real ‘therapeutic’ potential of Prologue lies in the recognition that we must question our attitude toward what we see on the screen and when leaving the movie-theatre, heading back out into the street. The closing credits of Prologue disallow our seeing the crowd as a nameless mass: it is made up of individuals, each one of them logos, truth per se. This question of identity, and the problem of individuality and its relation to community is the film’s central concern. 

Auguste Comte famously claimed that the individual is always a mere abstraction abstracted from the only positive, actually existing reality: the reality of community. When we catch sight of the crowd, we could, in a sense, perceive them as a ‘mass’ and ourselves as detached passers-by. One might be inclined to think about ‘them’ in political, sociological problems, in terms of ‘social theory’ or ‘social science’. Then, when we stop - when the camera halts – they become individuals. Yet again, Tarr’s greatness lies in his ability to show this duality. We do not see the faces when we occupy a ‘fixed viewpoint’. We only see the movement of individuality. Cinematography can capture this duality: Immobility in movement, and movement in immobility. Either we are moving or the world is 'moving'; the face and the Epiphany of the demand for care is showing itself on the faces of the community. The face of the Other (ourselves) is always speaking to us. All we have to do is to see and listen care-fully. "Don't think: look!"


The final word should go to Tarr himself, talking about this film at the opening ceremony of a documentary film festival dedicated to human rights: 
Given that I am a filmmaker, I have brought you a movie instead of words. Faces. Looks that are talking about human dignity. That is what we are to show: the dignity of existence. I would kindly like to ask you to love those people who these movies are about, it is not enough to feel solidarity. We demand more, people demand more. We have only one life, it does make a difference, how it is like. We have to live it with dignity...

Edited by Emma Bell

Kristóf Bodnár is part-time lecturer at the University of Debrecen Medical and Health Science Centre, Behavioural Sciences. 

[i] Tarr, cit. Kovács, A. B. (2011) ‘Az utolsó Tarr-film', Filmvilág 54:3, p.4
[ii] See: Kovács (2011), and Pólik, J. (2012) ‘A végpont igézete', Alföld 63:11, pp.95-108
[iii] Pólik (2012), p.97 (my italics)
[iv] Ibid, p.98
[v] Tarr, cit. Kovács A. B. (2008) ‘The World According to Tarr, Kinokultura www.kinokultura.com/specials/7/kovacs.shtml
[vi] Kovács (2008)
[vii] Balassa, P. (2001) ‘Zöngétlen tombolás', Filmvilág 44:2, pp.8-15

No comments:

Post a Comment