Thursday, February 26, 2015

THROWBACK THURSDAY—The Greencine Interview with Béla Tarr (The Man From London, 2007)

With The Man From London (2007), Béla Tarr creates what David Bordwell might characterize as a "grave and majestic" portrait of a conflicted man gripped by a state of scepsis. Tethered to the mundane, Maloin (Miroslav Krobot)—as Tarr describes him—"lives simply, without prospects, beside the infinite sea, takes little notice of the world around him, accepts his slow and inevitable deterioration of life and almost complete isolation. Gradually his contacts shrink and become mechanical." And then something remarkable happens. Maloin witnesses a murder and retrieves a valise of stolen money. "The temptation of a new life of a different quality takes hold over him." But it is exactly a new life configured as "temptation" that thrusts Maloin into moral rupture, a questioning of all with which he has held faith. As Darren Hughes has suggested to me in conversation, the suspense inherent in The Man From London is precisely a question of faith.

Premiering at the 2007 Cannes Film Festival, The Man From London then docked on North American shores at the 2007 Toronto International Film Festival where I was offered the chance to speak with Béla Tarr. A reputed contrarian, I found myself uncharacteristically nervous on my way to meet him. I didn't know what else to do but to be upfront about it. I admitted to him that I was terrified of him; that I had heard he chewed up journalists like me for lunch and spit them out. His piercing blue eyes twinkled, and he laughed, put his hand on my shoulder and, in a warm, honey-thick accented voice, assured me, "Don't worry."

* * *

Michael Guillén: Béla, when I was a young kid, I was taught that it is in the performance of your everyday tasks that your radiance shines through. Your films demonstrate this repeatedly, specifically The Man From London. Can you talk about why revealing the eternal through the everyday is such an important theme for you?

Béla Tarr: I have to go back to the time when I did my first movie, which was about a social problem. In this re-creation, which was terribly concrete, I could find something that was a little bit more than the daily life. Since that moment 30 years ago, I have always been interested in the concrete situation; but, if it's too concrete, I'm really not interested. I've just always tried to find some cosmological significance in this micro situation. It's a kind of microcosmos. I like very much Bartók's "Mikrokosmos"; do you know this piece?

Guillén: Yes.

Tarr: That's all. For me it's always important to tell you something and show something which is really eternal; but it's always happening. It's happening with us now.

Guillén: It's intriguing to me that you would use that term "microcosmos" because the same person who taught me about radiance coming through the performance of everyday tasks likewise used the term "microcosmic-macrocosmic correspondence"—or as the Taoists would say, "As above; so below"—to describe the human relationship to the eternal.

Tarr: Yes.

Guillén: I've seen three of your films—Sátántangó (1994), Werckmeister Harmonies (2000), and now The Man From London, which I've found to be the most accessible of the three. In all three, I'm struck not only by the movement of your camera but the movement of your actors and how your camera tracks their ambulations. There are long tracking shots where the actors walk some distance—distances they're familiar with—and with which the audience becomes familiar, as if becoming accustomed to the everyday routes and routines of your characters. Route equals routine, in other words, and how the route varies signifies a change in routine. Further, this abstraction is compounded by the fact that the faces of your characters are nearly void of affect. They reveal little. Which serves to emphasize that underneath there is a lot of thought and emotion going on, a lot of internalization. It seems you try to remedy this through close-ups on the face whereby glimpses are shown of the internal activity, invariably through the eyes. You do this rather than having them act out anything that reveals what's within. Why do you take that taciturn approach?

Tarr: That's really a part of the practical work. I know two kinds of directors. One who reads the script and is concentrating on the story line. That is something I never do. I'm always listening for the characters and the personalities of the actors. For me, the most important thing is to show you how they are living, how it goes for them in their real life, and how they communicate. Normally, it's mostly eye contact. If you watch someone's eyes for a long time, it's not necessary to use any words because you will begin to understand and will see what is happening. You can see what is happening inside because his or her eyes will tell you and show you. That's why I trust my actors and trust, of course, the situation because the situation has to be perfect physically, psychologically. At every point the situation has to be perfect and comfortable because, in this case, the actors are not acting anymore; they are just being. You can see the real life and you can see the real personality of this actor or the character. You can go with them. It's not necessary to tell and tell and tell. I'm fed up with this whole narrative thing because the movie—you know what?—without the narrative, the movie has a chance; you can show something. It's not necessary to tell. Do you remember the end take of the Werckmeister Harmonies? When the old man goes to the eye of the whale?

Guillén: Yes.

Tarr: Nobody can ever tell you by words what is happening in this old man and in this sad eye of the whale. But I can show you and that's enough. I trust your eyes and I trust your heart and I trust your emotions. I really trust the audience.

Guillén: Speaking of what's said with the eyes, in The Man From London there were two scenes that brought my heart to my throat. The first was when Maloin comes to take his daughter Henriette (Erika Bók) away from her abusive employer, the butcher's wife. Her anger, registered through her eyes, could have stopped a clock! Who is that actress and how did you come to cast her?

Tarr: She's Kati Lázár. I've worked with her before in Werckmeister Harmonies. She was in the newspaper office and the post office. She played the woman who selected the newspapers. She's an actress in Hungary working mostly in the theater; but, I like her very much.

Guillén: The other scene I loved was when Mrs. Brown (Ági Szirtes) realizes that her husband—"The Man From London"—has been caught up in something more than she can cope with. I don't know how you did it, maybe it's the sheer magic of the camera, but her tear as it wells in the corner of her eye glitters and sparkles. It is so beautiful and moving.

Tarr: I told her, "You have to do this process." From when she gets the news to when she understands how she's been blackmailed. How they are pushing her. That was also important. One thing is sure, we are really doing movies about human dignity, which is always being destroyed throughout the day. The challenge becomes finding actors who can show you the dignity of the character. In such a situation, you can get real human reactions. That's terribly important for me; that my actors have a strong dignity.

Guillén: There's a genuine momentum to your actors. Their actions don't appear staged. They seem to come right out of the situations they're in, from the storyline.

Tarr: From the situation, not the storyline. We never talk about the story because it's not important. We just talk about the real situation, the physical situation.

Guillén: In this situation then, where you're adapting a novel, which has its own narrative integrity, how do you work with your actors? Do you single out specific scenes or situations that have a psychological validity for their characters?

Tarr: No, no. The script is written. László Krasznahorkai and I decide together how we want the script. I've worked with him for 25 years. Before filming, we decide what kind of situations are going to be in the movie and we write that down. On the other hand, we change things during the shooting. Several times we reduce the text, allowing more chance for the meta-communications than the verbal communication. It's absolutely necessary because several times the actors speak different languages. For example, Maloin was Czech, Tilda Swinton was Scottish, the daughter in the movie, she's Hungarian. You know, she was the small girl from Sátántangó? Now she's 22. I'm very faithful. I like to work with the same people.

Guillén: I imagine they understand what you're going for better?

Tarr: Yes, it's much easier. I don't talk too much during shooting. Maybe just something like, "Louder. Lower. Faster. Slower." That's enough. Because if you have the right cast, if you have the right situation physically and psychologically, and if they are able to be, it is not necessary to direct. I'm not directing. It just looks like a conductor. If you have good musicians and a good musical piece, if you trust the whole staff, then in this case you just say, "Okay, now." That's enough.

Guillén: Part of the artistry of your work, however, is that you have fully thought things out way ahead of shooting. You arrive to the set prepared. The sinuosity of your camera, your track shots, are amazing and require prolonged choreography. How do you set up that choreography? What's your relationship with your camera man? Do you try different things out?

Tarr: No, no. First of all, you have to know I'm terribly autocratic. I have a very strong imagination about the picture and I know very well the whole movie before we start to build the set. They build the set for what I have imagined. When I hunted for the location, it was very important for me to find the geographical conditions for what I imagined. When I found the place, then we could start to build the signal cage and put in the train tracks and the train and the boat. We put everything together and then afterwards it was very easy to build the track for the camera and it was ready.

Guillén: What is it about the long take that you love so much? You're famous for this and your long takes are sinuously eloquent. Why do long takes serve your vision?

Tarr: There are several reasons. First of all, the long take has a different tension. If you are shooting short takes your actors have a chance to escape. Short takes are terribly boring for me.

Guillén: It becomes more editing than filming?

Tarr: No, no, it's just boring. I don't feel I'm creating something. With long takes, you build together the actors and the situation and the camera movement. Building step by step is what I enjoy very much. Here is the first thing, and then you move from here, and this is the turning point, and then here comes a close-up, and then in the next moment we open the picture wide to the landscape, and then another close-up cutting this wide picture, then we move further, and finally, we will arrive to the entry. It has to be very well-composed. The technicians have to be very well-trained. Everything has to work together in a long shot. This is a special tension for the technicians, the camera crew, the actors. The actors have no chance to leave because we are watching their eyes. We are watching longer and longer and longer. That's why everybody is really under pressure. That's why you can watch something finally; what you cannot see if we do the movie in a different way, or the traditional way.

Guillén: I found it incredibly suspenseful when Inspector Morrison (István Lénárt) is deducing what's happened, replicating the actions of the opening murder sequence, which is being filmed with the same camera movements as the opening sequence. However, there's this added layer of the audience (as Maloin) watching Morrison figure it all out. When Morrison goes down to the dock, looks in the water, and then looks back up at Maloin's signal cage, you know he's got it and that Maloin (and you as the audience) have become incriminated.

Tarr: It's a similar shot but it's not the same shot.

Guillén: Can we talk about your score? The music for your movie? You have a hypnotic accordion that keeps playing the same melody throughout the film. It's as if you're purposely mesmerizing your audience through a prolonged contemplation. Would you consider your films to be contemplative cinema?

[Tarr grimaces.]

In the press notes you use the term "pure cinema."

Tarr: Yes.

Guillén: Can you explain what you mean by "pure cinema"? And would pure cinema be comparable to contemplative cinema?

Tarr: [A deep, patient breath.] I'm able to tell you only one thing. What we are trying to do is more and more and more pure cinema, which is maybe less and less and less story, less and less details, and of course, I really would like to go deeper and deeper and deeper in the human soul. I want to understand something because I'm always just discovering, discovering, discovering something, some new thing, some new possibilities in the film language. Of course, I keep some things but I'm always finding new things I can use. I really like to listen to people. I don't like the artificial anymore. I want to go in like a miner, deeper and deeper. That's what I think. That's why I think I can do it always in one way if I'm more and more simple. What we are doing, it's really on the edge. It's a risk.

Guillén: Returning to your music if we may. Most scores in films are manipulative. They signal what the audience is supposed to feel. Your music, however, is not manipulative.

Tarr: It's a part of the movie.

Guillén: It sets a tone of attention. It says, "This is where you mind has to come to in order to absorb the images that are on their way." How did you decide on the music?

Tarr: It's a very simple step. I've been working with the composer Mihály Vig since 1983, about 24 years. He's a poet and a rock musician. He's also writing something. He's a very energetic man. He's a part of my family. We are always together when we are working. Before the shooting, I tell him what we think about the movie, how we believe, and I ask him to do some music. He goes to his studio, he records something, and then he comes back to me with his disk. We listen, we choose, we discuss. Maybe he goes back, maybe several times he goes back to the studio to change something. Maybe he just changes an instrument and then he comes back. Afterwards, the music is ready and we use the music during the shooting.

Guillén: So the actors are actually listening to the music while you're shooting?

Tarr: Yes. The actors are listening, the camera crew is listening. When we watch this stupid, small monitor, we see immediately the movie. We know how it will be. There will be differences of course, because some of the actors will have to be dubbed in; but mostly, the whole staff is ready during the shooting. The post-production is a short period of time. When we finish the movie, it's ready. We cannot change anything on the editing table. We use the editing table only for a few days.

Guillén: I don't know how you'd be able to edit some of your long shots.

Tarr: No, no. We just put it together. That's why I have to know, and everybody has to know, how is the whole movie going to be? We have to know, okay, this take is going to finish in a white out and how will the next one connect and how will we do the lighting?

Guillén: The lighting in The Man From London is phenomenal; the term being commonly used is "noirish." I especially liked how you lit the night scenes with the buildings in the background illuminated from ground level. Is your lighting designer, Fred Kelemen, another individual in your production ensemble with whom you've been working with for years?

Tarr: The director of photography, the gaffer and me, this is our job. I have a strong imagination and we are always discussing the lighting. It has to be perfect.

Guillén: It's lustrous! You've perfectly captured night's luster. Throughout the film you fade to black-outs and yet you make the choice in the ending close-up shot of Mrs. Brown's face to fade to white. Why that choice to fade to white?

Tarr: Because while I was shooting her face, I noticed her face was getting whiter and whiter. So we put the lamps a little bit closer to her face and a little brighter and then finally we did it in total white.

Guillén: Not having read Georges Simenon's novel upon which The Man From London is based, I don't know whether the scene where Maloin takes the food to Mr. Brown is as it was written. Was it your choice not to show us what happens?

Tarr: Something has to happen but you don't know what, yes.

Guillén: Why that exclusion? Why not show us?

Tarr: Because I think it's much more powerful if you don't see. I'm really not an action director. I really don't know. If I tried to direct action, I would become ridiculous. What we wanted to show you was how he went into the shed and then how he comes out. The difference is what is totally important. Afterwards you can understand why he confesses.

Guillén: What I was trying to say earlier about how your characters move in your films—they carry the burden of their own truths. The gravitas is embodied. They don't have to show it all in their faces. Their bodies express the weight of who they are. This is particularly evident in Maloin's body language when he emerges from the shed. He's a different person for what has happened in there. You don't necessarily have to see what happened to know its effect.

My final question: Your casting of Tilda Swinton as Maloin's wife. How did that come about?

Tarr: She immediately said yes when I called her.

Guillén: Was it her face you wanted?

Tarr: Yes, her eyes. Her personality. I must say that, for me, she's not a Hollywood actress. You know she was working with Derek Jarman, she played Orlando, she did some serious acting in Europe, and for Europeans, she's not just somebody from Hollywood. She's really a European intellectual. She's a very clever, well-educated, intelligent woman who is full of sensibility and that's why it was totally natural to work with her. There was no question. It was really nice to work with her and we still love each other. This work couldn't destroy our relationship.

Guillén: You really helped me focus on just how beautiful and unique her face is through this movie. Well, Béla, they're signaling me to stop. This has been one of the highlights of my filmwriting career. Thank you so much for your time, your kindness, and your beautiful film. I hope it's received with an open heart and an open mind.

Tarr: I hope so too. That's important. Thanks a lot.

(Originally published on the Greencine website, February 3, 2008.)