Instead of a golden watch, the Film Society of Lincoln Center is giving Béla Tarr a complete retrospective for his retirement, along with a theatrical run of his magisterial final film, The Turin Horse. The bleak (and bleakly funny) maestro of modernist black-and-white ruin, Tarr turned the post-communist landscapes of Hungary into elemental playgrounds of loneliness and decay. His films are populated by smoke, fog, and rain as much as the weathered faces of his brooding, binge-drinking protagonists. Tarr spoke with Film Comment about his career before the retrospective began.

Could you talk about joining the Béla Belázs studio, and how that led to the making of Family Nest (79)?

It was really simple. I just wanted to do a movie, and it was one place I could go without a diploma. They said, OK, you can try, and they gave me a little bit of money. I shot it in five days, and it cost $10,000 or something like that.

The actors are all nonprofessionals, working-class folks in Hungary. How did you cast them?

I knew them from before I started the movie. I was close to these kinds of people. I was working in a ship factory, and was always close to the ugly, miserable proletarians. I just wanted to show their day-to-day routines, their striving for a better life. I worked in a factory from 1973 to 1976, when I hurt my back, and couldn’t do physical work anymore.

What made you interested in making films, coming from that background?

I loved the cinema always, and I loved to go watch movies. But what I saw there was just stupid lies and fake stories. I never saw life and I never saw anything about the people I knew. I never saw real passion, I never saw real emotions, or real camerawork. I never saw a real movie. I thought, if they cannot show me, then I have to do my movie.

Were you seeing Hollywood films or local ones?

Everything everywhere is the same. The whole fucking storytelling thing is everywhere the same. That’s why I decided I have to do my movies.

When you did The Outsider (81), how did you find lead actor András Szabó? He has a wonderful face.

He was just a musician. He never acted in any movies. You have to understand that it doesn’t matter if I’m working with a big film star, or someone from the next factory. I’m looking for their personality, how they react… And when I choose them, I’m searching for how they are, like real human beings. When I get into real human situations in a scene, I want them to react how they would in their lives. They have to be natural, they have to be dancers. If someone is acting in my movies, I become mad and I stop them and say, “OK, this is nice, what you’re doing, but not in this movie. I’m interested in what is happening inside of you.”

Szabó embodies that approach, with a very quiet, expressive “being” rather than an act. Where did you meet him?

I was watching one of his concerts and afterward I asked him.

How did you work with Ágnes Hranitzky on The Outsider and other films? She is listed as editor and co-author.

It’s quite simple. I set most things up, in terms of the location and the set. Since the beginning, I prefer that she is there because everything happens once you get to the location, and she has a very sharp eye. She can always see if something is wrong. It’s more helpful to watch a film with four eyes, not only with two.

On Prefab People (82), why did you decide to cast real actors?

Prefab People was the first movie in which I worked with professional actors, and that was the first moment when I moved away from the social aspect toward capturing human connections, of the couple. They were a real couple. I wanted to work with them because I love them, and love watching their personalities.

Talk about the transition from the social realist style of your earlier films to the greater artifice of Macbeth (82).

I don’t like this term “social realism.” If you create a movie, you create a fiction. It’s something that looks real, but of course it’s not real because it’s created. For me, they are not political movies. The real art is to show real human conditions and relations, and that’s all I try to do.

What attracted you to Macbeth?

When I went to film school, my professor said I had to do a kind of examination, and shoot something not in my style, something that’s classical. I was thinking, OK, I can do Macbeth. He was very surprised. But anyway, I did it, and really loved to do it. I loved to do it because my same mania came up. What is the relation between the man and the woman? What is happening within them? We cut out about half of the drama, because I was only focusing on these two people. What are their interests, what is their sexuality? A lot of things came up. And of course I did the whole movie in one take. Because it was video and we could do it. I enjoyed it!

What I like about is that in many scenes, you can see the actors’ breath, as if they were already in the cold of a morgue. Where did you shoot it?

By the end we got the support of TV, and got professional quality support, and we shot it in a castle in Budapest. There is a very long cellar, and we were shooting there.

How long did you rehearse for the hour-long shot? How many takes?

We rehearsed for a while, and I think we did 10 takes. We could shoot twice a day, because afterward everyone was overexhausted. I think we had eight takes. By the end I chose the best.

Almanac of Fall (84) is another step towards greater artifice after Macbeth. Was it shot in a studio?

It was shot in a real flat, which I used like a studio. We wanted it to look fake, like a cathedral of lies. About each person’s interests and how they betray each other and fight with each other. And how the fucking money and these interests destroy the human condition.

The characters are like zombies circling a void. And this is the first time you worked with Mihály Vig, whose droning scores seem well matched to your films.

He was in a rock ’n’ roll group and made some really beautiful music, so I thought why not, we should try. And you know, he’s a poet, a very clever man.

Next was Damnation (88), your first collaboration with László Krasznahorkai. How did you meet and conceive of this project?

A friend of mine, who is a college professor here, was reading the manuscript of Satantango, Laszlo’s first book, and he called me and said, “Here is a beautiful work for you.” He explained to me that it was Laszlo’s first book, and that I had to read it. I read it, and fell in love immediately. Afterwards I called him, and we sat together, and I don’t know how it happened, but our first discussion was totally OK, and we became friends.

We wanted to make Satantango into a film immediately, but no one let me do it, and I was in really deep shit. I had no chance to work in Hungary because the politicians here really didn’t like Almanac of Fall, saying it was decadent, really ugly and dirty. It was stupid. Anyway, we were thinking of something else to do, and I thought we should do a simple thing. So we wrote what became Damnation, and went to the Hungarian Film Institute, the Hungarian Film Archive, which had a small amount to give, and the lab, and somehow we made this movie. It was really cheap, but we were independent of the state censorship.

Damnation has elements of film noir, from the torch-singing femme fatale to the regular guy getting caught up in a web of criminality. Was American film noir an influence?

No, not at all. If you go to a small Hungarian town, a miner’s town, you don’t need American film noir. You have the real thing.

The central character in Damnation is one of many passive observers in your films (like the Doctor in Satantango). Instead of delivering the package himself, which he would do in a traditional crime film, he simple passes the job off and watches from the outside.

You know, it’s a very cheap story. It’s not about the story. I wanted to show more than the story, because all stories are the same. But I really love the people, and I wanted to show you the people.

The landscape seems to become more and more important to you as well.

The landscape is one of the main characters. The landscape has a face. We have to find the right location, like we have to find the right music. That’s why I need the music before shooting, because music is also one of the main characters.

Then came Satantango (94). How were you able to get it made?

Damnation went to the Berlin Film Festival, but in Hungary everybody hated it. The politicians hated it, and they told me very clearly that I could not make movies in Hungary any more. We moved to Berlin, and lived there. When we were there, the wall fell down. Afterward, I went back to Hungary, and started to make Satantango.

How much of the book is in the film? The English translation is finally coming here next month.

We kept the structure of the book. Like the tango, it’s six steps forward, six steps back. We kept the chapters, and we kept a lot of things. It is not a direct adaptation, because literature is one language, and film is another. There is no direct way between the two things.

But do you think your use of long tracking shots is a way to translate Laszlo’s winding sentences into film?

The takes get longer and longer to go along with my thinking. I don’t know how my takes are getting longer and longer. It was good meeting Laszlo, because his point of view—how he was watching the world and how I was watching the world—it was similar. And that’s why we work together. We never talk about the movie, we never talk about the art, we are always just talking about the life. Of course he is a very good writer, he writes beautiful sentences, and I have to find a way to show them, in the real. When you shoot a movie, you can only shoot the reality, something that definitely exists. You know, the feel of this movie is very concrete.

And you can see that in the actors you use.

They are not actors, they are friends. It was a big mess.

A mess?

Yes. Because everyone was totally crazy about this shoot. It took two years. We could not shoot in the summer, because of the leaves on the trees, and we could not shoot in the winter, because of the snow. We could only shoot early spring or late autumn.

I think Satantango is your funniest film.

All my movies are comedies! Except The Turin Horse.

Werckmeister Harmonies

Agreed. The comedies continued with Werckmeister Harmonies (00), and the casting of the pinched-face Lars Rudolph. Is it true you had no intention of making it until you met Lars?

Yes. I read the book [Melancholy of Resistance] and loved it, but I could not conceive making a movie out of it, because I didn’t think anyone could play the main character, Valuska. Later, I was in Berlin, doing a workshop with young filmmakers. One of them did a casting call for her short movie, and I watched him sitting in the corner. He wasn’t an actor—at this time he was a street musician. I was watching him and I thought he was amazing, that he could be Valuska. Then I called Laszlo and said, I think now we can do the movie, because I found Valuska.

What was it about Lars that made him perfect for the role?

I loved his personality and his presence, which is totally enough for me.

You have said how much you hate stories, but with The Man From London (07) you adapted a very famous storyteller in Georges Simenon.

It’s not an adaptation, I just loved the atmosphere of the novel. I read Simenon’s novel 20 years ago, and I only remember it for the atmosphere, images of a man over 50, who has a very monotonous daily life, with no chance for change. He sits in his cage alone, while the city is sleeping during a dark night. He is a really lonely man. I just wanted to do a movie about the loneliness. Someone over 50 who has no chance. And what happens when he gets that chance, a temptation.

It is one of your more oppressive works, and seems to move even slower than the others. You used a new DP, Fred Kelemen here. What was his input?

Fred was my student in Berlin in the beginning of the Nineties, his first years in film school. Afterward he became a filmmaker, and we made a short video together for Hungarian television called Journey on the Plain. On pre-production for The Man From London, I started thinking he could do it. I called him, and he came. And he did it perfectly. He was always very close to me.

The presence of Tilda Swinton in the film is a bit jarring in the context of your usual performers. How did she get involved?

It was a funny thing. We had everything cast, except for the mother. Ágnes went through actors and agencies, and she found a small photo of Tilda. But her name wasn’t on the picture, just an ID number. And so we were asking, “Who is this woman?” It was an unknown picture of her. And then they told me, and I thought…fuck. So I was calling her and asking her if she wanted to come, and she immediately said yes. I loved to work with her.

Now on to your first non-comedy, The Turin Horse. How did it originate?

When I first met Laszlo, it was 1985. We just started to talk, and became friends. Once he had a lecture in a theater, and in closing he read this Nietzsche anecdote, but he added this question about what happened to the horse.* After this moment, we would always discuss, from time to time, what happened with the horse? We always came back to that question. I decided after The Man From London that it was over, that I was going to close the shop. But I was thinking and talking with Laszlo, this is our debt. We have to answer this question, “What happened with the horse?” We talked about it, and I knew it would be my last movie.

How did you meet Erika Bók, who is the daughter in The Turin Horse and an important part of Satantango and The Man From London as well?

She was a small girl in an orphanage. She really looked like a wild girl. Somehow we domesticated her. She wasn’t able to say hello, because she was incredibly closed. But she had these beautiful eyes and looked like a small rabbit. She was always in the corner, always afraid. She has grown up, and has a special presence, and was an amazing experience working with her.

The character of the neighbor who gives a philosophical rant about the state of the world in The Turin Horse is representative of a lot of holy drunks and fools in your work. Who wrote this particular speech and what affinity to you have for these end-of-the-bar prophets?

It was written by Laszlo. It just came up during the situation of the shooting, but it was written by him. It’s a normal human situation. If you are going to the next bar, and people are waiting for a drink, they are always talking, talking, talking, and then he gets the bottle…

Your films have some of the greatest boozing scenes in history. What do you yourself get out of drinking?

A kind of joy. And of course it is part of human life. We have to show the joy. The quality of the joy comes through much more clearly and the quality of the life.

* What happened with the horse, according to the epigraph to The Turin Horse: “In Turin on January 3rd, 1889, Friedrich Nietzsche steps out of the door of number six Via Carlo Alberto, perhaps to take a stroll, perhaps to go by the post office to collect his mail. Not far from him, or indeed very far removed from him, a cabman is having trouble with his stubborn horse. Despite all his urging, the horse refuses to move, whereupon the cabman—Giuseppe? Carlo? Ettore?—loses his patience and takes the whip to it. Nietzsche comes up to the throng and that puts an end to the brutal scene of the cabman, who by this time is foaming with rage. The solidly built and full-moustached Nietzsche suddenly jumps up to the cab and throws his arms around the horse’s neck, sobbing. His neighbor takes him home, where he lies still and silent for two days on a divan until he mutters the obligatory last words: “Mutter, ich bin dumm,” and lives for another ten years, gentle and demented, in the care of his mother and sisters. Of the horse…we know nothing.”