English Title: Damnation
Original Title: Kárhozat
Country of Origin: Hungary
Studio: Magyar Televízió, Hungarian Film Institute, Mokép
Director: Béla Tarr
Producer(s): József Marx
Cinematographer: Gábor Medvigy
Art Director: Gyula Pauer
Editor: Ágnes Hranitzky
Runtime: 116 minutes
Genre: Drama/Art Cinema
Volume: East European
Karrer is a sick, angry and unattractive man. He is a depressed loner, hopping from one bar to another, slowly drinking himself to death. The one thing in the world he clings to is the sultry cabaret singer from the Titanik Bar with whom he is obsessed. When Karrer is asked by a local barkeep to pick up a parcel of contraband he refuses, but after learning from the Titanik’s old cloakroom attendant that the singer’s husband has outstanding debts, he sees an opportunity to spend some alone time with the object of his desire. Karrer offers the job to her husband, who accepts the proposal only out of necessity, and during his three day absence Karrer relentlessly pursues his obsession.
Karrer is a middle-aged man living in a dilapidated industrial landscape where it rains endlessly and stray dogs wander the streets. Severed from any real social existence, he roams from one bar to the next as he drinks himself slowly to death. His obsession with the nameless cabaret singer at the Titanik Bar is the only connection to a world exterior to himself. Karrer talks frequently of hopelessness and despair: of every hero’s ultimate disintegration, and even his of own irrevocable disintegration. He is a man who has retreated into his own abyssal self, into his own darkness, and is acutely aware that his obsession will result in failure, yet he pursues it relentlessly, and in his pursuit of hopelessness he finds a perverse pleasure. He revels in his abject misery much like Dostoyevsky’s underground man, for whom: ‘despair can hold the most intense sorts of pleasure when one is strongly conscious of the hopelessness of one’s position.’
Throughout Damnation, Béla Tarr uses lengthy static takes and slow panning shots in which his camera elaborately but slowly arabesques around his actors. At times we are condemned to sit and watch for minutes at a time as buckets of coal are hoisted across the sky or as rain-soaked walls slide slowly by as the thronged inhabitants huddle in doorways, their tankards of beer diluted by the unrelenting rain. We are compelled to meditate and to ponder on Karrer and his world, his turmoil and his angst. There is a profound sense of stasis and immobility: that of Karrer’s entrapment. Despite the ever present sense of desolation and misery, cinematographer Gábor Medvigy, who also shot Béla Tarr’s Sátántangó (1994) and worked on Werckmeister Harmóniák/Werckmeister Harmonies (2000), captures some of the most vibrant and exquisite black-and-white images ever caught on film: and with this the director fore-grounds a tension, a push/pull, between ugliness and beauty, authentic horror and aesthetic representation, and thus between nominal reality and the mediating, transformative power of cinema. Like the titular red technological desert of Antonioni’s 1964 masterpiece, Damnation’s industrial landscape lends itself to the film’s sombre mood and thematic. It is a portrait of post-apocalyptic ruination within which Karrer is condemned to exist, alienated both physically and spiritually, roaming isolated among the dilapidated buildings awaiting his only salvation which, should it ever come, would be his own demise (even though he has neither the strength nor the conviction to face this).
From this perspective there is a telling scene when the old cloakroom attendant from the Titanik Bar emerges from the fog preceded by a coterie of stray dogs and, like a Sibylline oracle, her gnomic utterance warns Karrer of his fate. She quotes at length from the Old Testament prophet Ezekiel, whose vision sees God damning Jerusalem, the city of his own chosen people, and we understand that just as the ancient nation of Israel was damned with no hope of escaping judgment, so too is Karrer’s damnation an ineluctable fact.
The final forty minutes of Damnation are taken up with sequences of music and dance, because for Tarr the dance speaks of mirth, of joy, of transcendence beyond the mundane, where escape from Karrer’s ‘irrevocable disintegration’ is potentially possible. The man that dances, limbs in harmony, attains to a level of dignity and decency and becomes like Camus’ Sisyphus who laughs in the face of endless futility. But Karrer doesn’t dance. After he reports the singer’s husband to the authorities, he finally abases himself as promised, on his hands and knees in the mud and slime barking at a stray dog, before disappearing alone and isolated on the muddy wasteland as the camera closes on a mound of filth. In Damnation, the first collaboration between Béla Tarr and scénarist Lázló Krasznahorkai, can be found one of cinema’s most significant and enduring statements on the condition of contemporary man.
Author of this review: Zachariah Rush