MASTER MOMENTS: The Final Darkness in ‘The Turin Horse’

In the Beginning, God created the heavens and the earth.  The earth was unformed and void, a darkness was over the surface of the deep, and the spirit of God was hovering within the new realm of the physical.  And then God spoke: “Let there be light!”  And there was light.

And God continued with The Creation.  Day by day, He added layer upon layer to His universe and saw that it was good.  Each day’s construction built upon the last’s, from morning to evening, and morning again.  For six days did God craft His dark materials, until on the Seventh Day, He saw all He had done, and rested, sated.

This is how we know the story.  But this is not how Béla Tarr knows it.  His final masterpiece, The Turin Horse, tells not of the universe we know, the universe in which we live.  The universe of The Turin Horse was created not by the God of ancient Jewish texts: the God of Adam and Abraham, Moses and David, Jeremiah and Jonah.  Tarr is not a God of salvation, a God of mercy.  The Turin Horse conjures to life a blasphemous, damnable scripture—perhaps one scribed by Samuel Beckett or Albert Camus.  In Tarr’s world, creation works in reverse: we begin with the lonely, damned existence of a man and a woman, and slowly—day by day, layer by layer—the universe grows ever starker, emptier.   God took but six days to create the universe, and The Turin Horse shows that Béla Tarr can destroy it in an equal measure of time.

 Turin Horse 1

We meet the old man Ohlsdorfer and his daughter living God’s promise to Adam and Eve that “the ground will serve you only through painful toil all the remaining days of human life.  Evermore shall it give to you thorns and thistles, as you harvest the plants of the earth.  By your sweat and labor shall you earn your food from the soil, until to the soil you return, as from it you were taken—for dust you are, and unto dust.”  Simply guiding their horse into its stable is a grand, monumental task—as the wind harries and blows about them, stabbing them with every gust, it seems almost a chore beyond imagining.  But inside it goes, eventually, and there is still more labor to be done.  The woman helps the old man undress for a brief respite, while she braves the twisting storm again to fetch water for their dinner.  The ground has given them nothing but potatoes to boil, and these they eat with their fingers, which blister from the root’s heat.

After all this grinding drudgery, the woman cleans her face with the rest of the water, and she and the old man finally retreat to their rigid beds.  “Hey you!” The old man cries.  “Can you hear it?”  “What?” the daughter replies, weary.  “The woodworms.  I have heard them for fifty-eight years.  But I don’t hear them now.”  She listens.  Yes, they really have stopped.  “What’s it all about, Papa?”

“I don’t know.”

And in the silence, the day wanes, and night consumes them.  The End of the First day.

Turin Horse 2

On the Second Day: similar toil, from the breaking of dawn.  The woman lights the oven and braves the now harsher winds to take the day’s water from the well.  She helps her father rise for the day, and they journey to the stable again, for the horse.  Amidst the gales and gusts they chain the horse to his cart.  But as the man pulls the reigns to guide the horse to work, something in the steed drains—she will not move.  There is nothing for it.  Back into the stable goes the horse; back into the stable goes the cart.

And as the woman makes the day’s meal—a pair of boiled potatoes—the man chops the wood the oven will consume tomorrow, wielding the ax with his lone good arm.  The potatoes they eat with their fingers, which blister from the root’s heat.

But then, a visitor!  A neighbor from nearby.  “I’m out of brandy.  Can you give me a bottle?”

“Why didn’t you go into town?” asks the man.

“The wind’s blown it away.”

“How come?”

“It’s gone to ruin.  …Everything’s in ruins.  Everything’s been degraded, but I could say they’ve ruined and degraded everything.  Because this is not some kind of cataclysm, coming about with so-called innocent human aid.  On the contrary.  It’s about man’s own judgement, his own judgement over his own self, which of course God has a big hand in, or, dare I say, takes part in.  And whatever He takes part in, is the most ghastly creation you can imagine.  Because, you see, the world has been debased.  …It’s been going on like this for centuries.  On and on.”  The man continues for a while, then leaves as suddenly as he came, disappearing into the blowing dirt and dust like a specter.

After all this grinding drudgery, the woman cleans her face with the rest of the water, and she and the old man finally retreat to their rigid beds.

And in the silence, the day wanes, and night consumes them.  The End of the Second Day.

Turin Horse 3

On the Third Day: similar toil, from the breaking of dawn.  The woman lights the oven; the wind is worse, yet the water must still be carried.  The woman, again, dresses her father.  The pair, again, open the stable.  But the horse is no better.  It has not moved; it will not eat.  There is nothing for it—no work today.  And the stable doors close.

On this day, the ground has given them nothing but potatoes to boil, and these they eat with their fingers, which blister from the root’s heat.  Then, the man spots something on the horizon.  It is but a wretched band of gypsies, come to drain their well.  The daughter shouts, the man threatens. They throw a book at the woman, then leave angrily, shouting “The water is ours!  The earth is ours!”

After all this grinding drudgery, the woman reads the book the gypsies threw at her.  “Morning will become night; night will be at an end.”  And in the silence, the day wanes, and night consumes them.  The End of the Third Day.

Turin Horse 5

On the Fourth Day: similar toil, from the breaking of dawn.  The woman lights the oven; the wind is worse, yet the water must still be carried.  But today, this cannot happen.  There is no water in the well.  It is bone-dry, as if it had never been full or even seen a single drop in all its days.

Desperate now, the woman opens the stable to see the horse.  It has not moved; it has not eaten.  Its eyes droop, and now it refuses even to drink.  There is nothing for it—the woman closes the doors, leaving the animal in darkness.

Desperate now, the man begins to pack up his belongings and implores his daughter to do the same.  “We cannot stay here.  Pack up!”  There is folding of clothes, clanging of metal, closing of cases.  Amidst the gales and gusts they drag the cart from the stable, and only with great difficulty load it with their tiny life.  They drag the horse from its pen; it cannot carry such a load, so the man drags the cart from the house with his one good arm, as the woman drags the cart with all her might.  They drag themselves far, to meet the horizon.

Then, they turn back.  It is too much.  The wind, the weight.  Their belongings go back into the house.  The horse goes back into the stable.  There is no water, so there is no food.  In the roar of the wind, the day wanes, and night consumes them.  The End of the Fourth Day.

Turin Horse 6

On the Fifth Day: The woman dresses the man.  There is no water, and only a pittance of brandy to drink.  In the stable, the horse has not moved, has not eaten.  Its eyes droop. Its head hangs.  The wind blows so ferociously, it kicks up all the earth around the house, as if the world itself were closing in upon them.  The woman sets out potatoes, heated in fire without water.  These they eat with their fingers, which blister from the root’s heat, until the man gives up, and stares out the window at the shrinking world.

Darkness consumes them.

“What’s this darkness?” The daughter shouts.  All the lights in the house have gone.

“Light the lamps!” says the man.  The woman takes a bit of fire from the oven and lights a lamp.  The flame takes, so she lights the other ones.

Slowly, they fade.  No light shines from outside.  The lamps, though full of oil, do not light.  The woman brings embers from the fire, and still the lamps do not light.  They are surrounded by darkness, until even their faces diminish, and we see nothing.  A vast, blank screen.

“What is all this?” the daughter asks.

“I don’t know.  Let’s go to bed.”

There is darkness.  The terrible, awful drone of the wind, worse than silence, through the weak walls of the house seems to be consuming even itself now.

“Even the embers went out.”  Here, my breath stopped, my heart stopped, the uncertainty so unbearable, I would have closed my eyes had there been a point.  There is darkness.  The terrible, awful drone of the wind.

“Tomorrow, we’ll try again.”

There is darkness.  The wind dies.  There is silence.  The storm is over.

Turin Horse 4

On the Sixth Day: there is darkness.  The woman and the man stare, raw potatoes on their plates.  The man tries to eat, but there is no point.  The daughter sits motionless.

“Eat,” says the man.  “We have to eat.”  He stops.  He stares.  No one moves.  There is darkness.  There are no more days.

Turin Horse 7

And on the Seventh Day of Annihilation, Tarr rested.  The Turin Horse is purported to be his last film, ensuring that the Seventh Day will stretch out into eternity, and the abysmal void carved with his last cinematic wonder will endure forevermore.  His ultimate darkness, his haunting, final master moment, will continue, will never die, will extinguish all things.

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  • I think approaching The Turin Horse as you do here – an unraveling of sorts of the Creation fable – is inspired. Additionally, you offer perhaps the clearest explanation I’ve read to a film I know I loved – but was either too fearful or too lazy to determine what precisely it means to me. I genuinely appreciate the poetry within your piece, and you have effectively energized me to find 150 minutes this very weekend to give it a second look. I know it’ll be on my year-end list, and I am happy to see you likely will as well.

    I guess my personal pick for the film’s “Master Moment” would be a moment you actually mentioned, when father and daughter move beyond than horizon, disappear, and return home mere moments later. With no words offered, no explanation for their actions, watching them return to their barren homestead is as portentous and dread-inducing as it is quizzical. Your explanation as to why they turn back — “It is too much. The wind, the weight. Their belongings go back into the house.” — is the most straightforward, and perhaps most correct explanation. But what really got under my skin when I saw the movie was when I found myself asking the question “why then?” What did(n’t) they see on the other side of that hill? What might they have said (or didn’t say) to each other? What was going through their mind that they should elect their empty shelter over what they have(n’t) seen beyond that horizon? That was the moment where I felt like I was watching something truly great — because it asked questions to which answers would never be in reach. For me, it is the year’s most deeply haunting movie scene. I’m glad you touched on it – even briefly – to discuss Tarr’s visual mastery of those final days in darkness.

    Truly, thank you for this write-up, G Clark.

    • Thank you, Justin.

      Actually, in early drafts I did have something about the moment when they turn back. I was trying to compare it to The Truman Show, in that they get to the edge of the world. But their spirit had been broken, so they turn back instead of fighting forward like Truman. I couldn’t quite make the language work with the faux-Biblical tone I was reaching for, but I think there’s still something to it.

      Nothing says you can’t write a Master Moment on it, right? I think it would be very interesting to read two different MMs from two different writers on the same movie.

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