The title of Béla Tarr’s 1994 epic Satantango translates as Satan’s Tango from the Hungarian, the dance from which the film borrows its structure: it is broken into twelve parts, which proceed according to the tango, six moves forward, six back. It is constituted of long sequences, of which there are only about 150 during its seven-hour runtime, unfolding to reveal a world of remarkable richness: a story about authority and its absence, free will and human sociality. Susan Sontag described it as “devastating, enthralling for every minute of its seven hours” and that she’d be “glad to see it every year for the rest of my life”.

The film opens with a near eight-minute-long shot of a herd of cows, wandering between desolate farm buildings before disappearing into the horizon: we are in an isolated Hungarian village, following its inhabitants as they eddy in the aftermath of the collapse of their collective farm. The various trysts and duplicities of the villagers — infidelity, plans to fleece each other, acts of casual violence — are superseded by the return of Irimiás, a charismatic and manipulative former villager who has conspired with the local police chief to spy on the villagers, and is interested himself in swindling their money. The film follows Irimiás as he defrauds and scatters the villagers, sending them finally to different locations in the country, exploding the village and its uneasy coalition. Perhaps the cows at the film’s opening represent the villagers, wandering in the wilderness, individual wills shrunken and abortive in the face of cosmic uncertainty. The events of the film are overseen by the Doctor, frequently drunk on fruit brandy, whose despair and distress provide the film’s emotional counterweight, as well as its narration: the film closes with the Doctor boarding himself into his house and beginning to write the narration with which the film opened.

Two drunken revels in the film signpost a shift in the relationship of the viewer to the people onscreen. During the first, we watch from a window alongside Estike, the distressed young girl who has lost her father and whose brother is conspiring with Irimiás, as the villagers cavort drunkenly to the music of an accordion. When we see the second revel, Estike has poisoned herself, and we are alone. Mahola Dargis writes that at the first party, “the scene seems merely ridiculous; later… the revel has turned into a dance of the damned.” Mikhail Bakhtin wrote that the medieval carnival was a form of social consciousness, “a special condition of the entire world, of the world's revival and renewal, in which all take part”. The revel collapses time and space into a shared social reality, one in which the viewer participates.

Though the film is an exact adaption of the novel by László Krasznahorkai from which it also takes its name — no scene is omitted — the development of the script was, according to Tarr, the least important element in its construction: “we are just trying to find something like a complex or total movie which isn’t only the story… because we have some main characters but the location must be the other main character, as must time.” He rejects the confines of highly-plotted drama: “the people of this generation know information-cut, information-cut, information-cut. They can follow the logic of it, the logic of the story, but they don't follow the logic of life.” The absence of the cut qualifies the meaning of the information: the texture of this reality, void of any organisational oversight and the rawness of physical existence on a hostile landscape, all build to a sense of the fundamental unreality of reality.



Bakhtin later wrote that “while carnival lasts, there is no other life outside it”. Satantango, with its recurrent machinations and recursive music, its insensibility and beauty, similarly contains the world within its seven hours, and while it lasts we are dancing together.

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