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DAMNATION (Karhozat) (director/writer: Bela Tarr; screenwriter: short story by László Krasznahorkai; cinematographer: Gábor Medvigy; editor: Ágnes Hranitzky; music: Mihaly Vig; cast: György Cserhalmi (Sebestyén), Miklós Székely (Karrer), Vali Kerekes (The Singer), Hédi Temessy (cloakroom attendant), Gyula Pauer (Willarsky, bar owner); Runtime: 122; MPAA Rating: NR; producer: Joszef Marx; Facets Video; 1988-Hungary-in Hungarian with English subtitles)
“Gloom was never photographed so smartly.”

Reviewed by Dennis Schwartz

Internationally acclaimed Hungarian filmmaker Béla Tarr (“Almanac of Fall”/”Sátántangó”/”Werckmeister Harmonies”) bases this melancholy narrative of love and betrayal on the novel by countryman László Krashnahorkai. It’s a slow-moving tale that features long takes from a static camera, assured direction and marvelously stunning black and white cinematography. The director is less concerned with the slight story than getting closer to his characters and laying out wider metaphysical problems concerning such biblical topics as evil (without him believing in a God), as he lays out his apocalyptic visions of a world he believes humans have fucked up and have created a pile of shit to pick their way through because they have become out of step with the cosmos. It’s filled with the existential doom and gloom that’s mindful of Antonioni, Sokurov and Tarkovsky in their best arty films, but as I look past that nihilism I see things Tarr does with his alienated characters that remind me of Fassbinder; such as, trying to understand how they deal with the grind of everyday life, remain sane and handle their humiliations.

Warning: spoiler in the paragraph.

It opens to coal buckets moving back and forth on wired runners. The shot goes on for a long period of time (a shot no Hollywood film would do), as we hear only its grating sounds until we feel like we have lived in this depressing mining town just outside of Budapest a day too long. The camera then pans to a man shaving as he looks out from his flat at the passing buckets and then to a long shot of a beer garden with a variety of bored looking patrons moping around the bar. Outside it’s raining hard and there are many stray dogs roaming around the industrial area’s wastelands. The film’s main protagonist is an unemployed loner who is seemingly drinking himself to death on cheap brandy in the dumpy Titanik bar and leads a listless existence. But as the saying goes even a blind pig will sometimes find an acorn, as our main man Karrer (Miklós Székely) is screwing the sultry married bar singer (Vali Kerekes) and is bent out of shape that she is aloof, keeps him at a distance and has told him in no uncertain terms that she wants to end the relationship. Her love is seen by him as his only chance to get a better life. She only dreams of advancing her career to the big city. When the shady bar owner (Gyula Pauer) offers Karrer a smuggling job, he sees this as the opportunity to get the singer’s hubby Sebestyén (György Cserhalmi) out of town for a few days so he can be with his wife and offers him the job instead. Not satisfied with so little time with her, he decides to rat Sebestyén out to the police. This leads to a confrontation between the two men when the smuggler returns and the bar owner takes the singer out to his car for sex. Filled with jealousy and self-pity, Karrer the next day rats them all out. In the end the lonely Karrer walks in the pouring rain along a waste dump and confronts a barking stray dog by getting down on his hands and knees until the dog backs off.

In this biting primitive payoff Tarr has not only found damnation for Karrer, who has now even lost his human dignity because he wants so much to be loved, but for society and the world. Gloom was never photographed so smartly, and it’s truly amazing that such a bleak tale that almost glorifies misery as a kind of self-fulfilling martyrdom should turn out to be such a captivating watch. This speaks volumes for how talented is the filmmaker.


Dennis Schwartz: “Ozus’ World Movie Reviews”