The opening narration of Bela Tarr’s The Turin Horse recounts the story of the German philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche’s encounter with a cab driver seen beating his horse in the street; Nietzsche is said to have flung his arms around the animal’s neck, sobbing in protest. Following this incident, Nietzsche lived out the remainder of his life in despair and madness, but Tarr’s narrator tells us that “of the horse, we know nothing.” In Tarr’s imagined ending to her story, the horse suffers a fate arguably as bleak as Neitzsche’s. She is driven home by her master, a white-bearded peasant who lives with his daughter in a cottage that appears to be situated at the edge of the universe. Over the course of the next six days, the horse first refuses to pull the cart, then refuses to eat, then refuses water. Inside the cottage, father and daughter eke out a meager existence characterized by punishing routine (she fetches water from the well; she boils potatoes; they eat in silence). Outside the cottage, a heavy wind blows.
There’s an apocalyptic feel to The Turin Horse, with its ominous weather patterns and its characters—the horse central among them—whose basic functions gradually proceed to shut down. Furthermore, Tarr has said that it will be his last film (though he won’t be standing idle; he has plans to open a film school in Croatia). Inspired by the incident that apparently drove Nietzsche insane, and structured around what appear to be the last days of the horse and her masters, it’s a film about endings and the traumatic events that precipitate them. But, as Jonathan Rosenbaum suggests on the DVD audio commentary, The Turin Horse is an oddly hopeful film, and even an oddly funny one. J. Hoberman has similarly suggested that the film draws on the bleak absurdities of Beckett, whose characters repeat mindless tasks and reiterate meaningless exchanges with Sisyphean futility, but who draw a kind of perverse strength from their plights. They go on, in spite of not knowing why or even wanting to. Tarr’s characters are similarly locked inside lives of numbing repetition. Plot is reduced to a rhythmic, looping sequence of events. The film may suggest, sardonically, that we can look forward to death, or the end of the world, as the only guaranteed interruptions of our daily routine.
Long, slow-moving, and unsparing in its refusal to sentimentalize, The Turin Horse is a difficult film. But it’s also some kind of masterpiece, a film so sure-footed and confident in its vision that, watching it, you feel that you’re in the presence of a great artist. Even when nothing appears to be happening in The Turin Horse, it is somehow riveting, if for no other reason than that it unfolds within an entire fictive universe of its own creation. Tarr succeeds in immersing us so totally in the imagined world of the film—a world bounded by the four walls of the cottage and shrouded by the white winds that howl and swirl outside the door, rendered in pristine black-and-white cinematography—that there’s never a moment when we don’t feel transported.