Sátántangó is the kind of film that if you see with a date from OKCupid she either starts a hashtag calling for your cancellation, or both of you get married the next day. Running for over 7 hours, featuring cat torture and child suicide, full of “takes” that last over 10 minutes, it’s not the kind of movie that’s coming to your local suburban multiplex any time soon. It’s also widely considered to be one of the greatest films ever made.
If Susan Sontag described Sátántangó as “devastating, enthralling for every minute of its seven hours,” a film that “she would be “glad to see it every year for the rest of her life,” it’s no accident that Sontag also published a famous book about photography. Sátántangó is the mirror image of Chris Marker’s short “photographic novel” La Jetée. In La Jetée, still photographs become cinema. In Sátántangó, Hungarian director Bela Tarr uses a series of “takes” that run up to 11 minutes, which would have been even longer if Tarr had been working in the digital age. You can only load 11 minutes worth of film in a 35mm movie camera. The pace of Sátántangó is so slow, Tarr holds the focus for so long on each minimalist set up, that 24 frames per second effectively become 1 frame every 11 minutes. Cinema has not only become still photography. It has become the equivalent of getting dragged into the International Center of Photography at gunpoint, and made to stare at each photograph longer that you would have ever thought possible.
The plot of Sátántangó, as simple as it is, can also be misleading. Is Tarr’s 1994 film, which is a faithful adaptation of László Krasznahorkai’s 1985 novel, a meditation on the human condition under communism? Or is it a satirical take on what happens to people, raised in a totalitarian society, who unsuccessfully try to make the transition to democracy? How do the fall of the Berlin Wall and the end of Communism in Hungary, both in 1989, reflect on the basic outlines of Sátántangó plot, which, as far as I know, don’t change from the novel to the movie.
Sátántangó takes place on a dilapidated, mostly abandoned, no longer working collective farm in the wasteland of an unspecified place in Hungary. I’m not familiar with the history of collective farming in Hungary, but I would guess that Krasznahorkai’s and Tarr’s collective had originally been founded by the Hungarian Communist Party as a way to give jobs to otherwise unemployable people reclaiming land that could not otherwise be farmed. When the film opens, the only people still living there are the dregs of the dregs of society. Futaki, Mrs. Schmidt, her husband, Kráner and Mrs. Kráner, a feeble-minded little girl named Estike, her prostitute mother, and her brother Sanyi are all waiting for a payout due to them out of the liquidation of the collective. There are three things preventing them all from leaving. The money for the payout, which some of them are plotting to steal so they can have it all for themselves, simply isn’t enough for any of them to start a new life. The autumn rains have started, making travel almost impossible on the poorly maintained roads. Most of all, however, they are trapped by their own passivity. An alcoholic doctor, a sick, morbidly obese man who only leaves his house when he runs out of fruit brandy, an educated, cultured man who nevertheless chooses to spend his time watching his neighbors from his window through a pair of binoculars, reflects the impotent, dying surveillance state of Communist Hungary.
The surveillance state of Communist Hungary, however, doesn’t intend to go down as passively as the residents of Tarr’s collective farm. While Futaki, Schmidt, and the residents of the collective plot against one another, Irimiás and Petrina, two scam artists and petty criminals, are meeting with their parole officer, a secret police captain with a menacing Prussian-style dueling scar on his chin and an intellectual’s penchant for quoting Greek philosophy. He offers them a deal. If the two men agree to spy on the collective farm, where both of them used to live, he won’t throw them back in prison. They agree, but Irimiás, played by the handsome, charismatic Mihály Víg, who also wrote the film’s musical score, has his own agenda. He plans to scam the members of the collective farm out of their severance pay, trick them to move together onto a new collective farm, then blow them all to kingdom come with a bomb.
After the feeble-minded little Estike commits suicide, kills herself with the same rat-poison she used to murder her pet cat, a striking image of the seed corn of a dying civilization consuming itself, Irimiás sees his opportunity. Having bribed Estike’s brother Sanyi years before to spread the rumor that he was dead, instead of in prison, he appears to the villagers at Estike’s funeral like a vision from the past, an avenging angel sent by God to punish them for the neglect of their children. Estike had been driven to despair, not only by Sanyi’s having cheated her out of her small allowance, but by her mother’s indifference to her existence, having spent the night drinking and dancing at the local bar along with Futaki, the Schmidts, the Kráners, and the rest of the miserable little village. The dance, a hilarious, 10-minute long “tango,” but which looks more like “the gargoyle hop,” and which the little girl observes through the window of the bar on a rainy night, is the Sátántangó of the film’s title, the gleefully comic expression of their passivity, and moral depravity. Irimiás, who’s both a communist tyrant and a capitalist false prophet,the bridge between 1985 and 1994, guilt-trips the villagers over Estike’s death, and talks them out of their money. He leads them on a wild-goose-chase in search of a better world he knows doesn’t exist, scatters them across the country, the writes a scathing report back to the secret police mocking the people he just defrauded.
That Irimiás works as both a communist and a capitalist oppressor, as a Eastern European secret police snitch, and as a slick, smooth-talking spokesman for a Ponzi scheme, points to something larger than politics. Sátántangó’s glacial pace, its slow, detailed examination of a small community of Hungarian peasants, makes it clear that no political system can reach people whose character has been formed by centuries of oppression. As the obese doctor, the only man who did not chose to leave with Irimiás painfully walks about the village, we hear bells. But how? The voice over narration has already told us that the only bell tower anywhere near the collective farm was not only 8 kilometers away. It had been destroyed during the Second World War. The mystery is resolved when the doctor meets a mysterious, ghostly figure, standing in the ruins of church, ringing a hand-held bell, and saying over and over again “the Turks are coming. The Turks are coming. “ The bell wringer is a ghost. All through the movie, the bells we’ve been hearing have been an echo, coming down through centuries from the Middle-Ages. We are back in the 15th Century, when there was no communism, and there was no capitalism, but there were still gullible, ignorant peasants like the Schmidts and the Kráners, and scam artists, tricksters, tyrants and frauds like Irimiás.
Sátántangó is certainly not for everybody, but if you have an extra 7 hours you’re not using, it’s worth checking out.