Like a science-fiction time traveler or the radio character Chandu the Magician, Satantango is an entity with multiple—or at least two—coequal manifestations, a monument of late-twentieth-century cinema and a modern Hungarian literary classic. There is Satantango the mind-boggling seven-and-a-half-hour movie by director Béla Tarr, and there is Satantango the legendary novel by the movie’s screenwriter László Krasznahorkai, published in 1985 but only now translated into English.
How does one distinguish between these entities—and should one dare? Let’s begin by acknowledging the unique creative partnership forged by Tarr and Krasznahorkai in the last decade of goulash communism, a period during which even party apparatchiks were pleased to joke that Hungary was the merriest bunker in the camp, and also note that, mocking the futility of collective enterprise and the vanity of Great Works, each Tango is an exemplary exercise in anti-Socialist dirty Realism.
A bleakly absurdist, voluptuously written saga of abject disintegration on the muddy nowheresville of the Hungarian puszta, the novel Satantango had a sardonic prescience. The blighted aspirations of a socialist Hungary seemed to have devolved and merged into the miasmal conditions of the feudal state that preceded it; Satantango is largely set in and around a dilapidated rural factory, with a few families listlessly marooned in a continuously falling rain amid “towering sacks of artificial fertilizer that years ago had been piled one on top of another and had never been moved.” These sodden peasants have been repeatedly duped by the charismatic police spy and false prophet Irimiás (a Hungarian homonym for the Old Testament Jeremiah), who intoxicates them with his promises of a new communal life “free of exploitation.” Presumably that is why they are where they are, although midway through the novel, Irimiás inveigles them to imagine that they are a specially chosen group and abandon their unnamed estate for the nearby, deserted Almássy Manor—with predictable results.
It’s a fallen world. The closest thing to an innocent here is Little Esti, the poor persecuted child who poisons a cat (“I’m stronger than her”) while her mother and the others drunkenly dance the devil’s tango through the night awaiting Irimiás’s rumored return. It’s a distinctively inclement world where the “filthy weather [is] worse than judgment day.” Meanwhile, as the group’s resident doctor observes, central Hungary is sinking into a swamp, a process that began with the mass extinctions of the late Paleozoic Era. Both the batty Mrs. Halics and the mysterious narrator—whose observations are dotted with unattributed, often clichéd, quotations, perhaps taken from the raw data of Irimiás’s police reports—insist that the End is nigh: “The rain was beating down as hard as ever, each drop ‘a sure messenger of doom.’” (Indeed, Krasznahorkai’s sinuous sentences and chapter-long paragraphs create a torrent of prose.)
However specific to Hungary in its references, Krasznahorkai’s tale was enthusiastically greeted there as a universal work, although its weather system did remind some of the town in One Hundred Years of Solitude. The critic Sándor Radnóti praised Satantango for manifesting the self-reflective “deep melancholy” that, according to his teacher Georg Lukács, distinguished “every great and genuine novel.” (Did this reference to the young, pre-Marxist Lukács inspire the ironic title of Krasznahorkai’s second effort, The Melancholy of Resistance? Certainly Satantango embodies the Lukácsian notion of the novelist’s “vain search and then the resignation with which it is abandoned,” a circular motion that completes the novel’s form.)
Meanwhile, Tarr—the heir to the state-subsidized vanguard of Miklós Jancsó and Andrei Tarkovsky, as well as a twenty-two-year-old enfant terrible—burst onto the Hungarian film scene with his 1979 Family Nest, a relentless Cassavetes-style kitchen-sink drama in which three generations of workers (nonactors all) and a blasting TV set are crammed together in a Budapest apartment. Then, after several similarly claustrophobic prole operas and an arty Kammerspiel, the filmmaker encountered Krasznahorkai’s first novel and teamed with the writer for what would be his stylistic breakthrough film, the luxuriantly entropic Damnation (1988), a majestic study of erotic betrayal in an industrial wilderness, notable for its sumptuous cinematography, rapt attention to landscape, and fastidious creation of the dankest possible climate (a Krasznahorkai specialty).
Tarr next undertook his epic adaptation of Satantango, which, in 1994, four years after the People’s Republic of Hungary collapsed, had its premiere at the Berlin International Film Festival and was immediately recognized as a masterpiece of visionary miserablism. Krasznahorkai has written every one of Tarr’s four subsequent movies: Werckmeister Harmonies (adapted from The Melancholy of Resistance), The Man from London (based on a novel by Georges Simenon), and The Turin Horse (an original screenplay). Making cinema out of Krasznahorkai’s magnificently long paragraphs, Tarr developed a distinctive Bazinian film language that privileged sequence shots over montage and based its narrative suspense on brute duration.
The movie Satantango draws faithfully on any number of the novel’s scenes, riffs, and images, but thanks in part to Tarr’s defamiliarizing long takes (the film has far fewer shots than the average ninety-minute feature), it’s both more dramatic and less linear—a film that, constructed out of morose chunks of real time, is not so much narrative as experiential. Paradoxically, Tarr’s ongoing collaboration with the hyperliterary author allowed for the primacy of the visual in his work. Emptiness in Satantango becomes amazingly rich, textured, and visceral. Tarr gets an hour of screen time from an eight-page description of one character’s stolid trek through the deluge to get another bottle of pálinka; the even longer titular performance—Satan’s tango—is a remarkable composition in repetitive ranting, drunken strutting, and befuddled dancing to the same mind-breaking musical loop and the tolling bells that Krasznahorkai calls “the lost melody of hope.” (Tarr has always maintained that he shot this scene with the ensemble hammered.)
Much of the novel is a lugubrious farce, opening with its nominal protagonist, the crippled loner Futaki, who has spent a biblical seven years acting as “a kind of funeral director for redundant machine parts” assigned to remove no longer usable components and place them in pointless storage, waking up beside his friend’s wife, the sluttish Mrs. Schmidt, and hobbling out of bed before Schmidt comes home so that he can talk his way into Schmidt’s dunderheaded scheme. For her part, Mrs. Schmidt is awaiting the return (or perhaps resurrection) of the charismatic Irimiás, who, along with his sidekick Petrina, first appears as a derelict—one of the book’s many Beckettian touches. The ensemble scenes in the bar and later on the road to Almássy Manor have the feel of grotesque cartoon splash panels, such as this destructive moment spied through a kitchen window:
Kráner, just raising a heavy duty cauldron above his head, threw it with all his might against the door. In the meantime Mrs. Kráner was tearing the curtains from the back windows facing the yard before motioning the out-of-control Kráner to get out of the way and then dragging the empty sideboard away from the wall and effortfully pushing it over. The sideboard hit the stone flagging of the kitchen floor with a mighty crash. One side of it came away and Kráner kicked the rest to pieces. Then Mrs. Kráner climbed on top of the already broken pile in the center of the kitchen and, with one great yank, tore the tin light fixture from the ceiling, swung it above her head and Futaki had only just enough time to dive before it was flying towards him, crashing through the window, rolling a few yards and landing under a bush. . . . Mrs. Kráner was dripping with sweat and however she tried she couldn’t get rid of the look on her face, clearly intent on havoc.
Havoc, to be sure. The hilarious penultimate chapter concerns the police reports that Irimiás has filed on the novel’s other characters and the difficulties that the clerks have in translating his pungent jeremiads into proper police-state lingo:
As soon as the clerks got to the part relating to Mrs. Schmidt, they immediately found themselves in the deepest difficulty, because they didn’t know how to formulate such vulgar expressions as stupid, big-mouth, and cow—how to retain the import of these crude concepts so that the document should be true to itself while at the same time retaining the language of their profession . . . while they could just about manage turning wrinkled drink-sodden dwarf into the simple ‘elderly alcoholic of small stature’ they had—shame or no shame—no idea where to start with stuttering buffoon.
Supposedly structured on the forward-backward steps of the tango, the novel glides from one consciousness to another, ultimately revealed as a sort of Möbius strip, conjured into existence by several possible authors. The duplicitous Irimiás is an informer who brags of the “enormous spiderweb” network that he has woven around the estate—with real spiders! So too, albeit in a less official capacity, is Krasznahorkai’s surrogate—the obese, alcoholic doctor who, barely able to move, spends his days spying through his kitchen window and keeps a notebook on each of his neighbors, ultimately realizing that he is the creator of a universe: “He had finally become the master of a singular art that enabled him not only to describe a world whose eternal unremitting progress in one direction required such mastery but also—to a certain extent—he could even intervene in the mechanism behind an apparently chaotic swirl of events!”
Tarr’s movie ends with a superbly materialist fade-out as the doctor methodically boards up his window, leaving us with a dark screen. Krasznahorkai is more hopeful, or at least less inclined to obliteration. The doctor’s confidence that he is an artist, with an ample supply of pálinka to last the winter, prompts him to pick up his pencil. At which point, the book begins its “vain search” again . . .
J. Hoberman's most recent book is An Army of Phantoms: American Movies and the Making of the Cold War (New Press, 2011).