The Turin Horse

Please note that the following post may contain spoilers.

Béla Tarr’s The Turin Horse is a bleak and beautiful film, one that portrays quite masterfully the frailty of human endeavor, of human civilization.  It does this through breathtaking black and white cinematography captured in long, thoughtful takes.  There is little dialogue, and the music (when present) simply nudges the films along, like the eponymous horse, with its melancholic, plodding rhythm: a funeral dirge for humanity.

The opening narration recounts the following fable:

In Turin on January 3, 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 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 his whip to it. Nietzsche comes up to the throng and puts an end to the brutal scene of the cabman, who by his time is foaming with rage. The solidly built and full-mustached 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.

This has little bearing on what follows, unless you are familiar with the philosophy of Nietzsche; in which case, the film will unfold as both a confirmation of Nietzsche’s anti-metaphysical view of the world as well as a fascinating refutation of his optimism in regard to our relationship to it.

We begin, appropriately enough, on the horse, a pathetically tired animal, as it carts an old man through a wind-swept wasteland.  After this long take, in which the camera follows the weary journey with an upward gaze, the man and his horse arrive at their humble home.  The man’s daughter rushes out to assist her father in stabling the horse and cart.  Meanwhile, the wind, loud and unceasing, continues pillaging the already gloomy landscape.

We stay with the man and his daughter for six days.  We follow them through their daily routine and observe this routine degrade more and more each day until the characters no longer seem to get any pleasure or meaning from it.  The main obstacle is the unexplainable and incessant wind storm, which the man and his daughter simply gaze upon through a window.  The other problem is the horse, which will no longer obey commands or even eat.  It is as if it has simply resigned from life.

The daily routine of the characters consists of waking, dressing, fetching water from the well, cleaning the horse’s stall, boiling potatoes, eating the potatoes, washing the dishes, and sleeping.  I imagine the man would ride the horse into town, but that part of the routine, of course, is disrupted, as others soon will be.

Two notable disruptions arrive in the form of visitors.  The first is a man seeking pálinka (Hungarian brandy).  He cannot find any in town because of the wind storm, our hint that civilization itself is collapsing from the relentless onslaught of nature. The man recounts a fable (a philosophy?) about why the world is the way it is: man’s judgment of himself, god’s hand in all that is terrible, the debasement of the world through touch and acquisition; it is an indictment of sorts.  The character reminds me of the jovial squire from Bergman’s The Seventh Seal.  He seems to take what pleasure he can from existence without guilt and despite horrid circumstances; he is in on the joke that nothing matters.  And if what he says is true, the storm is the means by which the world, though indifferent, will reclaim itself from those who would debase it.  “Come off it,” the old man responds.  “That’s rubbish.”

The second visitation is an unwelcome band of gypsies.  They attempt to take water from the well.  The old man sends his daughter out to disperse them, but he eventually comes out to aid her with an axe.  The gypsies disband, laughing merrily, and they taunt the man and his daughter: “You are weak.  Drop dead.”

The gypsies are a fitting counterpoint to our sad protagonists.  They have healthy horses of which they are in command, they vocally claim the land and the water as their own, and they are not suffering.  Indeed, they appear to be striving–living rather than dying.

The Turin Horse, unlike last year’s visually rich auteurist statement, Terrence Malick’s The Tree of Life, does not depict the world or humanity with any imagined telos (an end goal or purpose).  There is only a tumultuous sense of becoming–chaotic and without reason.  The forms which we inflict upon the formlessness are what give our lives pleasure and meaning.  And those forms (including our routines), as Tarr shows us, are weak, flawed, and ultimately inadequate.  This is where the film refutes Nietzsche’s optimism.  If, as Nietzsche believes, “we possess art lest we perish of the truth,” what happens when art (our form-giving capability) fails us?  What happens when the ugly truth (the valueless nature of existence) is all that remains?  This is why, perhaps, the film opens with the tale of Nietzsche’s resignation to insanity.  Even for him, the tale suggests, the blackness of life became too much to bear.

Consider the plight of our characters:

First, their horse, their taming of wild nature, no longer responds to their bidding.  Then, their well, their taming of the earth, dries up.  Then, their lamps, their taming of the darkness, do not light.  At this point, we become conscious that even cinema–the film we are watching, which has indeed been beautifying the ugliness of existence for us–even that ultimately fails.  As the light goes out, we, along with the characters, are consumed by blackness.  As the characters resign to nothingness, so too must we. “Tomorrow we’ll try again,” the man says.

The film’s narrator finishes the tale that the camera can no longer tell.  The man and his daughter go to sleep, and the storm, comically enough, subsides.  We see the man and his daughter one final time: eating potatoes, joylessly, as they do.  This time, though, a heavy darkness weighs down on them from above like the pulsating black space of a Mark Rothko painting.  Is this ending hopeful?  Maybe–the storm has ended, and our protagonists can now get back to their daily routines.  But is there a difference between simply sustaining life and actually living it?  The gypsies seem to think so.  But not all of us are as capable of adapting to nature’s frightful whims.  We prefer that nature adapt to us, be tamed by our art, and abide by our laws and routines.  When nature refuses? That is the despairing tale of The Turin Horse.

Further reading:

Doomsday Cinema, Part 2: The Turin Horse

4 thoughts on “The Turin Horse

  1. This is precisely why I felt the need to avoid seeing this film– beautiful as it sounds, I’m not sure I can [mentally/emotionally/spiritually] handle a portrayal this powerful of what I already suspect is the truth of Life, the Universe, and Everything.

    In fact, I was independently contemplating ideas from your tenth paragraph the other day– the concept that constructed art gives form to the chaos of reality, no matter how fractured or fragmented or simply mirror-like the art’s form may be. (Considering the extremes of mannered formal poetry, baroque music, and classical art versus L=A=N=G=U=A=G=E poetry, Charles Ives’ symphonies or Lou Reed’s “Metal Machine Music” or John Cage, or any of various chaos-influenced visual artists I am not cultured enough to know by name.)

    Perhaps that is why “The Turin Horse” seems so disturbing, even at the extreme remove of vicarious verbal summary? It is art that comes the closest to “revealing the Wizard,” art that says “no” not to form but to art itself— art that suggests that we have no choice but to perish from the truth?

  2. Huh. Did I just argue for a definition (or at least a personal one) of art as ultimately escapist illusion, the best possible distraction, but a distraction nevertheless, from the hopelessness of reality?



    As an artist, that bothers me. It makes what I do perhaps even more important (“a momentary stay against confusion,” as Robert Frost phrased it) but sweet jesus it gives credence to a version of reality I quite like to prefer believing isn’t real.


    • I think that art can serve the purpose of escapist illusion, but I don’t think that the definition needs to be limited to that quality. And some artworks (like this film) provide no escape, no distraction.

      “The Turin Horse” is a puzzling film, and by no means do I think that my analysis is the “right” one. I found it profoundly moving and sublime. But as to whether or not it says “no” to art itself, I can’t be certain. Despite its ability to show us the limitations of art and human form-giving, it still seems absurdly hopeful in construct (and it is still a beautiful work of art in its own right).

      I’m debating whether or not I want to go see Tarr’s seven hour “Sátántangó” next weekend.

  3. I just watched “The Turin Horse” on New Year’s Eve. It was a fitting film to watch as I quietly took stock of the past year and contemplated the new one upon us. I found this film puzzling as well, but more than that, hypnotic, beautiful, suspenseful and enlightening. The characters are strong beyond belief and do all their work in harmony and without complaint. When the film was over, I looked around at all the “stuff” I have in contrast with their meager home. And now I am all too aware of the repetitious routine I follow each day, especially in the mornings. There is much to explore in this film, and much to learn. My learning continues. I heartily recommend challenging yourself to see this film!!!

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