Béla Tarr's Turin Horse opens, uncharacteristically, with a joke. Both the film's haunting poster and its opening voiceover recount the (possibly apocryphal) incident on 3 January 1889 that triggered Friedrich Nietzsche's mental illness, when he saw a cabman flogging a horse in Turin's Piazza Carlo Alberto, threw his arms around the creature to protect it and collapsed, weeping, before a neighbour took him home. Nietzsche uttered the 'obligatory last words', "Mutter, ich bin dumm" before living another decade in silence, intellectuals forever arguing over the meanings of his published words, especially after they were appropriated by the far Right. And the joke?
"The fate of the horse is unknown."
We never see Nietzsche. The only people we do see are a cabman (János Derzsi), his daughter (Erika Bok), and then briefly a neighbour, and a group of "gypsies", everyone nameless. We're led to assume that this is the horse whom Nietzsche touched so catastrophically, but we're never told, and the lives of the cabman and the woman could have been led around 1889 or any other time. Alone in a remote farmhouse, they survive on boiled potatos and brandy, water from their well, and, it seems, intermittent trips to the city to trade (what they trade remains a mystery, like so much here). The crucial point is that like the philosopher, the horse (Ricsi) is finished with the world: it refuses to eat. The cabman and his daughter desperately try to persuade the horse, knowing that its premature death will ruin them, but over the narrative's six days, the darkness closes in, reflected in Tarr's shot composition, increasingly devoid of light.
The film is made with Tarr's frequent collaborators, co-director Ágnes Hranitzky, scriptwriter (and novelist) László Krasznahorkai and composter Mihály Vig, whose Werckmeister Harmonies soundtrack was particularly memorable. Tarr's monochrome images of the wind outside the farmhouse and Vig's repetitive score - a single three-chord phrase played on violin and organ -synchronise perfectly with each other, and occasionally with the woman's words - it is this texture, rather than the minimal plot, that lends Turin Horse so much of its power.
An invigorating thinker in the right measure and intoxicating if over-consumed, Nietzsche proclaimed that 'Each great philosopher had one thing to say'. In the films of his that I've seen (all of his full-length features besides the seven-hour Satantango), Tarr has maintained a consistent sentiment: that the intrusion of complex ideas into simple worlds has a destructive effect that can never be reversed. In Damnation (1988), it is sexual convention, as the protagonist becomes obsessed with a married bar singer. In The Werckmeister Harmonies (2000), it's politics and religion, in the form of a circus that visits János's town, consisting only of a 3ft prince who doesn't speak the local language and the world's largest whale, dead and stuffed, transported in a truck. In The Man From London (2007), adapted from Georges Simenon's novel, it's capital, as a switchman at a seaside railway station witnesses a financially motivated murder, irrevocably altering his life.
Here's, it's existential awareness: having been embraced by a man whose insight has driven him insane, the horse is the first to realise the horrors of mortality, and of knowledge. The cabman refuses to engage with the Nietzschean philosophy introduced in a brief visit from a neighbour, who speaks forbodingly of "acquisition and debasement", "losers and victors" before departing, and he's deeply suspicious when his daughter welcomes the "gypsies" who come over the hill on a carriage, promising to take her to America, scaring them off with an axe. After these interventions, nothing can be the same: once she makes tentative attempts to read the scriptures, she is doomed, like Werner Herzog's Kaspar Hauser on being introduced to Enlightenment 'rationality', and one suspects that her going to America would be as calamitous for her as it proves for Herzog's Stroszek.
As in those Herzog films, here's bleak humour here, with Beckett influencing the film as much as Nietzsche. The punctuation of the "gypsies" recalls Pozzo and Lucky's short meeting with Vladimir and Estragon in Waiting for Godot, neither they nor the cabman realising that these intruders may restore vitality to their lives - something that Nietzsche aimed to do for all who read him. The opposite happens after the cabman rejects them: the well runs dry, and the couple are nearer to their end. The point where the cabman and his daughter decide to take their cart over the hill and towards civilisation, before immediately turning back, reminded me of the scene in Murphy where Beckett's 'hero', playing chess in an institution, moves his pieces out and then systemically returns to their starting points. Indeed, Jean Anouilh's famous pronouncement on Godot - "Nothing happens, nobody comes, nobody goes, it is terrible" - describes Turin Horse perfectly, in all its forbidding magnificence.
This is to be Tarr's last film. Having left us with several idiosyncratic masterpieces, he's retiring to set up his own film school, where students might be inspired by the esoteric plots, long takes and sparse dialogue that made his work so distinctive, and shift them into something else. But, it seems certain, from Tarr himself there will be silence: perhaps he stared too long into the abyss ...