Death by Fire and Death by Ice
Another Treefingers transplant.
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A charming poem by Robert Frost ponders whether the world will end in fire or in ice. For a first death, Frost sides with fire, but for a second death, he concedes that “for destruction ice / is also great / and would suffice.” Fire and ice in Frost’s poem are linked respectively with desire and hate, but this is hardly the only way of conceiving the issue. Heat and coldness are not so much opposite qualities as opposite ends of a quantitative continuum: temperature is in fact a measure of the extent to which certain particles are moving. The more movement, the higher the temperature. In this sense, a death by fire is a death by extreme movement, by too much movement, whereas death by ice is death by the cessation of movement altogether. Here I want to suggest that Béla Tarr’s work addresses Frost’s question in more or less these terms, and comes down definitively on the side of death by ice. I will look at this specifically in his films Werckmeister harmóniák (Werckmeister Harmonies, 2000) and A torinói ló (The Turin Horse, 2011). [There are spoilers, and I presume familiarity with the films.]
The defining characteristic of Tarr’s films is that they are slow, but even next to the rest of his films, The Turin Horse is particularly unhurried. Complaints about the film fixate on this: not only is it slow, but nothing happens in all its interminable lethargy. It is a silly criticism, but it gets the facts more or less right. In one striking scene, however, something does threaten to happen. A man walks into the house (of the father and daughter that the film follows) and requests a bottle of brandy. As the daughter refills his bottle, he pontificates on how a mysterious “they” has brought everything to ruin. God takes place in a “ghastly creation” of a debased world, debased because they have touched everything, and everything they have touched, they debase. Meanwhile, the excellent and noble accept this change, refuse to fight, until finally they are brought to the realization they don’t exist.
Here are dealings, movement, change. Underhanded, slow, methodical, to be sure, and not the burning of fire (indeed the image of fire is used, but to describe the excellent, who are distinguished), but it is movement and change nonetheless. But with the father’s “come off it, that’s rubbish”, the prophet of doom leaves, and we are left with only the father and daughter inside the house, and the world outside it. What we find in the remainder of the film (and in what came before) is that this man’s conspiracy theory is far too elaborate and far too interesting to be the truth. In reality there is no “they”, but only the world itself, with its horrible wind. It is this wind that is the agent of death in the film, and it works not by change but by enforcing stasis. In the second scene of the film, we see the father and daughter hitch a cart to the horse and try to ride into town, only to immediately be forced by the wind to unhitch the cart and try again later. The wind forces them to stay inside, and prevents their moving anywhere else. (It is interesting in light of this function that wind, the more it moves, serves only more effectively to cool, and not to heat.)
In the first scene, by contrast, we see the father riding in the cart as the horse draws it along—here is movement. But even in this scene we see the sorry state of the horse, which clearly cannot go on much further. The ensuing film serves to snuff out what movement still remained in this opening scene, starting with the second scene in which the attempt to venture further than a few meters from the house is stymied. Having forced them into the house, Tarr sets about eliminating all other movement. By the final scene, all movement ceases: we see the father and daughter sitting at the table, each with a raw potato in front of them for dinner. The daughter is already motionless, while the father moves slightly, peeling the potato and feebly urging the daughter to eat (“we have to eat!”). But he, too, gives up, and the film ends with what might as well be a painting, the two figures motionless as the screen gradually fades to black. It is death by ice.
In Werckmeister Harmonies, the alternative to such a death is even more fully fleshed out—and thereby even more fully rejected. In the opening scene, we see a bar that is full of movement as Valuska uses drunk men as a representation of the Copernican system. Gradually, the whole bar gets involved, until the bartender kicks out the “tubs of lard.” Here is the first sign that movement will be stopped, but it is, as Valuska says, not yet over.
From that moment on, this sign seems to be disregarded, and Tarr seems to favor death by fire. A travelling exhibit comes to town, featuring a dead whale and a character known only as the Prince, who incites people to riot by a strange, incomprehensible power. The Prince starts just such a riot in the town, sparking brutality as hundreds of townsmen pillage a hospital, beating patients and destroying property. The destructive power of fire is, of course, invoked alongside this brute violence. The film seems to be favoring death by fire—certainly it is giving it a fair shake. But an equally incomprehensible power puts a stop to this violence (this I will not give away), and it is not heard from again.
Which is not to say that its aftermath does not exist; naturally the film explores that aftermath. It is there that we see Tarr’s conviction that the world will end in the cessation of movement, and not in the destruction caused by too much movement, assert itself. Throughout the film, there are numerous shots or portions of shots in which an inanimate object is placed in the center of the shot. It is not called attention to, necessarily, but it is there and after a while you pick up on the trend. In the aftermath of the riot, we see Valuska mindlessly persecuted, forced to flee, until, finally, he ends up in what I take to be a psychiatric ward. Here we see him sitting motionless on a bed (though he is still emitting sounds, as if humming a melody of some sort), framed in the center of the shot. After being primed by the shots that came before, we have no choice but to see him as reduced to being all but an inanimate object. It is, again, death by ice.
This is not just a case of ice triumphing over fire. It is more sinister than that, for the riot, that apparent agent of death by fire, is in fact converted into an agent of death by ice. Just as the movement of the wind in The Turin Horse led to the cessation of motion of the father and daughter, so the riot in Werckmeister Harmonies is ultimately a contribution to the death by ice of Valuska. Tarr thus does not simply come down on the side of ice; he makes room for fire. But he makes room for fire only as the agent of ice, and that, if anything, is more horrifying.