The Turin Horse

While passing through Turin in 1889, Nietzsche saw a horse being whipped by its master. Throwing his arms around the animal, he spoke what would be his final words: “Mutter, ich bin dumm,” (“Mother, I am stupid”). Then he collapsed. 

Inspired by this anecdote, The Turin Horse offers a bleak look at the melancholy of existence. Shot in an austere Hungarian landscape lashed by an interminable gale, the film follows an old man – the owner of said horse – and his daughter. As they scrape a living from their rural farm, the sense of desolation is inescapable; the interiors are sparse, the horizons heavy with dread.

Filmed in a series of long takes (there are only around 30 in total), The Turin Horse tracks the routines of these stony-faced characters as they go about their daily life: eating boiled potatoes, taking shots of plum brandy and making trips to and from the well. Director Béla Tarr described the repetitiveness as “very simple and pure”. By showing the same drudgery over and over, these scenes betray the existential glitch in the system. The monotony is proof that “something is wrong with their world” – it both foreshadows and enhances the apocalyptic atmosphere.

Their farmhouse is a lonely place, but it is still struck by signs of decline. The old man and his daughter are visited by a neighbour who speaks of the end of days; travellers pass by and steal water from their well. And throughout, the eponymous horse becomes ever more recalcitrant – is its stubbornness a show of resistance against the inevitable darkness, or a symptom of it?

Released in 2011, Tarr announced that The Turin Horse would be his last feature-length film – and he has remained true to his word, focusing instead on shorter works. Something about the grim downturn of the narrative makes this finality seem fitting. It is a swansong of sorts; a mournful meditation on the “heaviness of human existence”, to use Tarr’s own words.

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