As a child I would pretend the world only existed within the confines of my sight. What I imagined were two conical beams of light spilling from my eyes; they’d sweep wherever I turned my head. I was a lighthouse with arms and legs. The beams contained the world as I knew it, experienced it. Trees, school buses, other kids on the playground, I held them all in the strange light of my eyes. I pretended their existence depended wholly on my gaze, and that the world shifted whenever that light moved. Anything caught outside my periphery was suddenly rendered void, nullified, vaporized. Its existence immediately negated without my sight to sustain it. All it took was a little imagination, a tilt of the head, and a special kind of solipsism, that grandiosity of which only the very insane—or the very young—are capable.
I knew it was a game. I knew the world was round and whole and persistent. I knew China was waiting on the other side of the blue-green sphere, and that millions of people existed there, doing just fine. They went about their daily lives regardless of whether I could see them or not. Existence always just soldiered on. I knew that. Even when I blinked, or yawned, or lay down for a long night’s sleep. Over time, I found I could control how much I believed in this game I played. I could fine tune it. Especially at night, especially in bed, when the mind is primed to wander. I would sometimes let myself indulge the fantasy completely. I’d slide headfirst down the rabbit hole of thoughts, always ending up at the same place. Arriving at the center, the logical endpoint, orbiting some strange kernel of pity for each and every person left out in the cold, in the big black nothing, who I couldn’t stash away in the imagined ark of my sight.
Nothing seemed worse, in that moment, then to be condemned to the darkness. Some invisible hand callously flips a light switch to the ‘off’ position, and then poof, no more existence. You’re nothing, and you never were. It’s terrifying, when you think about it.
Which is why seeing Béla Tarr’s The Turin Horse, nearly twenty years later, felt like such a gut punch to that little boy still hiding inside me, all that magic light pouring from his eyes.
The title of the film references an incident in which Frederich Nietzsche witnessed a cab driver brutally whipping his horse when it refused to move. The philosopher—overwhelmed by the sight—threw his arms around the creature’s neck, breaking down into tears. It is believed to be the moment that marked Nietzsche’s psychological break, the beginning of a descent into madness that would claim the rest of his life. This anecdote opens the film, narrated over a pitch black screen, delivered by an anonymous speaker whose voice is so resonant and booming it could almost be God himself.
The film, however, has no interest in Nietzsche, at least not directly—in fact, after this single brief mention the legendary philosopher is shuffled quickly offstage, and the first shot is instead a jarring closeup of the horse and its driver; the two sad, forgotten bit players in the story, always overshadowed by the melodrama of the weeping Nietzsche, his torment and compassion and mysterious epiphany.
The horse trudges against hurricane winds. The camera is unbelievably close to its face; the wind pulls its eyes wide, peels its lips back, flashes those big, flat teeth. Its skull seems vast and alien. The black fur is mottled and filthy, a bit like torn paper. I remember wondering if it was possible this animal had been abused during filming. You never see horses like this on screen. Usually they’re glossy, strong; there’s some kind of cowboy planted confidently on top, and the whole thing is majestic. Not here. The cabdriver (János Derzsi) is faring just as poorly as his horse. He can barely keep his eyes open. The wind is ripping at his coat. He’s going hard on the reins. It feels like the pair could be blown away at any moment, right off the screen, off into who knows where.
The shot goes on for a long time. Every shot goes on for a long time. The film takes place over the course of seven days. This is the first. The cabdriver arrives at his tiny farmhouse, where he lives alone with his daughter (Erika Bók). They put the horse in the barn. Since he can’t move his right arm – the result of a stroke, perhaps – she helps him change clothes. She boils two potatoes; one for him, one for her, and they eat with their fingers, him clawing at the steaming brown skin with his one good hand. They drink brandy from small, dirty glasses; one for him, one for her. Then they both move to the window. They look out at the land. There’s a hill and the rest is flat and always the wind is blowing. This is their entertainment. Eventually it gets dark, so they go to sleep. As they lie there, opposite sides of one room – the only room – the man tells his daughter that for the first time in fifty-eight years, he can’t hear the woodworms. There’s no sound. Nothing but the wind. It’s like they’ve just disappeared.
By the second day the pattern has emerged. You understand the absolute drudgery of their lives. One dreary task follows another, a dull routine that carries on from one moment to the next. The girl heads out into the vicious wind, off to draw the day’s water from the well. The man hitches his horse. Again, it refuses to move, and now it’s stopped eating altogether. They go back to their chores, take turns staring out the window, until later that day when a neighbor arrives. A fat man, making his way down the hill in a giant fur coat, bracing himself against the wind as he approaches the tiny house.
He’s come for some brandy. He says he would have gotten it in town, but it blew away. The town, that is. The whole town just… blew away. He doesn’t elaborate, and neither the cabdriver or his daughter press him for details. They take the news with complete neutrality, so much so that it’s difficult to tell if he means it figuratively or not, but no, he’s being literal. And then he lets loose an epic monologue—the first sustained speech of the film, which hits you like a slap in the face, every exchange between the father and daughter for the past hour having been virtually monosyllabic—about good and evil, about injustice, about the decay of the world, and how it’s been headed in this direction for a long time.
“It’s been going on for centuries. This and only this.” His speech is cryptic, abstract. It travels in the bold, pitiless rhetoric of the prophets. The man spits while he speaks. He bangs his fist against the table.
“This is not some kind of cataclysm coming about with so-called innocent human aid. On the contrary, it’s about man’s own judgement, his own judgement over his own self.” He takes his bottle. He makes his way slowly back over the hill.
The world is coming down around the cab driver and his daughter. Their world is broken, cracked, and cracking further all the time. It can barely hold itself together. First the horse, then the woodworms. It’s the end of time, but not any kind we’re used to as consumers of popular entertainment. It’s an apocalypse without drama, without spectacle. There are no zombies or heroic survivalists. This isn’t tight leather and dune buggies and irradiated wastelands. There are no big meaty comets overhead, just waiting to be blown out of the sky by ragtag astronauts.
No, this is the oldest kind of apocalypse; a biblical apocalypse. And yet there are no choirs of angels present, no flaming chariots or golden horns. It’s just God—or some mysterious source of divine influence—simply snuffing out the world, without pomp and circumstance, not one ounce of grandiosity. A harsh force, something beyond human comprehension, blowing away piece after piece with a perpetual gust of wind. Like it’s puffing out a candle. Like it’s stubbing a cigarette in the dirt.
Now the needle moves steadily from monotonous to terrifying. A band of gypsy’s arrive, fleeing the same creeping existential cataclysm, screaming “The world is ours!” There’s little context, but it’s enough to reinforce the sense of anarchy, a certainty that everything outside the farmhouse has fallen to ruins. The world has been reduced to just the barest scraps, and all that’s left are these final loose threads flapping in the wind. By the next day, all the water has disappeared from their well. What are they to do? They pack their meager possessions. Load them up, and drag the catatonic horse over the hill, but where could they possibly be headed? Where could they go that’s safe? There are no rules to this destruction. It’s encroaching from all sides; Existence itself is shutting down. The camera stays rooted on the farm as you watch the trio turn to specks on the horizon; man, woman, and beast, headed towards a sheer wall of nothing.
It all took me back to that game I played as a kid, so many years ago. I thought about the man and his daughter passing over the hill, and how in the world of Béla Tarr’s film, where the bedrock of existence can slip away like a thimble of sand, what guarantee did I have that they would make it over the top? That they’d still be there when they reached the other side, and passed out of my sight? I realized I had none.
These days I live in Philadelphia, and every few months the power will go out. Never for long, never for more than an hour or so, but whenever it happens I’m suddenly reminded just how helpless I am. I remember that I’m really nothing but a small, bipedal mammal in a box; that I’m stacked on top of similar bipedal mammals in similar boxes, and that my fellow bipedal mammals and I depend on vast, abstract corporate entities to provide us with water and electricity; that if these entities were to one day decide to just stop, there’s nothing any of us could immediately do about it. Basically, if the lights go out, part of me goes with them. It’s a part that believes I have far more agency in this world than I really do, that ignores the fact that I am at the mercy of unknowable forces.
There is nothing more terrifying than the arbitrary, the irrational. Yes, the end of the world is always a frightful prospect, but there can be some tiny solace, in understanding how and why it happened. Tracing its causes back to their source. Once we’ve done that, we can reckon with it. We can point the finger back at ourselves and say, “Our greed did this! Our brutality did this! Yes this surely is hell, but at least it’s ours!”
You can plan around it, live through it. That’s the traditional arc of the post-apocalypse narrative. The heroes find something to hold onto, that keeps them going, trudging forward with some small hope clutched tightly to their chests. But with this film, Tarr has built a world in which that same dull trudging is already the status quo. The world itself is already a punishment, so what else could be inflicted upon the sad creatures who inhabit it, besides swatting them down with no warning or reason? To swat them down like flies.
By the film’s sixth day, the lamps aren’t working. The lights are going out. Father and daughter sit in the darkness, picking at their potatoes; one for him, one for her. The only visible piece of furniture is the long, wooden table. Everything else is blackness. Who knows if the walls are still there? If the ceiling is still there? If the hill and the trees and the sad, old horse are still there? The darkness presses in on them, hangs from their shoulders and their cheeks. Any second now it will push in, and swallow them whole.
The world is so fragile, and our existence within it so tenuous. It can be taken from us in an instant. Some freak accident, a tragic car crash. Or quietly, in our beds. We press our heads to our pillows and lay down to sleep, and there is nothing promising us that we’ll wake up in the morning. The world is simply that which is given to us, moment by moment. It’s what we bathe in that strange light spilling from our skulls, day in, day out, a shifting of sets in a play that springs up around us. And if it is to end, if the world is to fold up and die, well that doesn’t necessarily mean there’s some great and terrible fire in the sky. The world doesn’t have to end in ash and brimstone. It ends whenever we close our eyes.