Béla Tarr is a green-eyed, white-bearded man of cutting glances and thoughtfully elaborated sentences. In a quiet office tucked away in a small nook of his workshop, the 51-year-old - hailed by foreign critics as 'one of the current five best directors in the world' - briefly recalls when his Communist-era photography teacher informed him that he 'did not have the slightest idea' about filmmaking.
Tarr's work is only just dawning in Europe. For example, three of his films (Almanac of Fall (1983), Damnation (1987) and Werckmeister Harmonies (2000)), only just made it onto DVD in France, where he has lived. The former caretaker claims that he doesn't see differences in his European audiences, but is aware of their cultural differences. 'If as a director you manage to put real existential problems - the human factor - in the spotlight, then your movie is capable of touching the individual. It disconnects from specific countries.'
His latest European co-production The Man from London (2007), celebrates this focus. Shot in France, the Hungarian-French-German movie has a thoroughly international cast, with Czech and British leads (including Tilda Swinton dubbed in Hungarian). The cinematographer is German, whilst the screenplay is based on a Belgian crime novel by Georges Simenon. But after having been interrupted by producer Humbert Balsan's tragic February 2005 suicide and funding issues, the film only made it onto the screens after five long years. Philosophical quotations about time hang all over the workshop's walls - jolting me to my first question.
Your post-Communist Hungarian epic Satan’s Tango (1994) is a seven-hour-and-fifteen-minute long screen fest. Is the time perspective of London similar to Tango's slow rhythm and lengthy black-and-white scenes?
Well, there are no surprises in the storytelling. I want to make the audience see the different layers of things. The length of a scene reflects the importance of a layer that I want to emphasise. I am trying to show some sort of state we are in, and for this movie I expressed it by keeping the dialogue in Hungarian.
Can we expect the return of repetitive symbols such as we saw in Damnation, which was characterised by rain, dance and square imagery?
Absolutely. There is a repetition in a way with this fugue structure. Something similar is coming back, albeit with a totally changed substance, so the meaning is quite different. This kind of monotony is very close to me – I am a fan of applying 'anti-movie' instruments as it were.
More and more Hungarian directors seem tempted by the notion of co-production movies. Why?
Real co-production is rare in Hungary. It's when more participating countries take part not only financially, but in the production process as well, with workers, shooting scenes or actors. I think it's easy to be a 'short-sighted Hungarian' - where the world ends with the Carpathian basin. But I prefer to take the perspective of Ady (a Hungarian avant-garde poet from the early XXth century). He wrote in Hungarian, but always thought universally. That is why I have collaborated at least four times with writer László Krasznahorkai - his way of thinking is similarly universal. But, you have to have a national identity to be able to stay universal in mind.
But are we moving slowly away from Hungarian national cinema?
National film industries are becoming increasingly protectionist throughout Europe. In Hungary, we usually talk about co-financing, where a Hungarian director makes a Hungarian movie with the financial help of foreign investors. I call this 'pseudo co-production' - it's just money being transferred in exchange of certain merchandising rights. The problem in the Hungarian system is that filmmakers act as prostitutes. They only want to satisfy certain specific cultural needs or accommodate screenplays to a mainstream national tradition.
Why are you interested in poorer, socially disadvantaged characters like London's Maloin, who is a switchman at a seaside station, or Werckmeister's travelling circus crowd?
I always had this social sensitivity. People living on the moral and existential edge interest me more than anything else. Their conflicts are much more real. They can be better expressed in this segment of society than in the bourgeois, well-off world, where it's usually swept under the carpet. Of course, that is also an interesting universe, but not for me.
As for me, I never considered myself a movie director. I thought that my only mission was to change the world. Today, it would be good enough if I could just change the language of filming. Of course, filming is also a part of the world, and I am successful in what I do. However, it would be hard to say that this has changed the world in any way. But you can always rely on the sensitivity of people. They are not filthy by nature; they are only sinful if circumstances force them to be so.
How does the post-Cannes Béla Tarr feel?
Well, to relax, lean back and enjoy life is an unknown feeling for me. Being in permanent conflict and continually asking questions is a sine qua non of this profession. For example, the black-and-white film Werckmeister was harrowing to make after three long years of funding problems. But playing it back was the best motivation. It's not just the feeling of satisfaction. It's simply a little bit of peace.
Translated from Hungarian to English by Lorant Havas
Micro photo: Tilda Swinton, the movie's Hungarian-dubbed British female lead (eugene/ Flickr)