Long ignored by the marketplace, which has no use for austerity in film, the Hungarian auteur Béla Tarr has fermented in obscurity long enough that he's been transformed from a filmmaker into a personal fetish object for cinephiles. His movies are notoriously long and trying, and if you saw one once at a film festival some indefinite number of years ago, it's not surprising that you might be inclined toward overblown pronouncements about their genius. Susan Sontag was a fan, though her praise was characteristically canny: "I'd be glad to see [the seven-hour epic Sátántangó] every year for the rest of my life." (At first this sounds like hyperbole, but then you think: once a year? Merely glad? And exactly how much time did Sontag think she had left?)
Facets Multimedia is now releasing all of Tarr's major films—his trio of social-realist movies came out last year, and the metaphysical epics that made his reputation are next. The discs aren't being finessed Criterion-style (subtitles aren't even optional, even though the dialogue is half beside the point), but the fetishists will be glad to own them, and the rest of us can see what all the fuss is about.
Damnation will go on sale on Tuesday. (All of Tarr's later films have dour titles.) I could tell you that it's a black-and-white movie from 1987 about adultery, but to be honest, it's hard enough to distinguish between the characters without trying to figure out who's harassing, haranguing, and cheating on whom. The little bursts of plot are incidental to Tarr's main business: long, lulling takes of rain hitting puddles, or a man who peers around columns, or bucket-trams of coal ascending and descending a mountain. There's a still shot near the beginning of a hill of glasses and steins, beautifully composed and accompanied not by the busy clinking of drinks but by the meditative clack of off-screen billiard balls. It's a shot worthy of a gelatin-silver print, except more mesmerizing. You don't just want to look at the scene, you want to look at it while seated in that rural dancehall—drunk, with a bleary gaze that makes the lights curve and run together. Obviously it would be better, more enveloping, on film in a darkened theater. But throw it up on a plasma screen in the corner of a particularly existential party, and Damnation would still do its thing.
Tarr's most recent film, Werckmeister Harmonies (2000), which is already available, is a bit more demanding. The story of a feral naif named János (Lars Rudolph) and an uprising sparked by an unseen demagogue Prince who comes to town as part of a traveling circus, Werckmeister Harmonies is a strange and wonderful fake allegory. On DVD, however, the pacing leaves something to be desired. The problem is that the best scene is at the beginning, a scene so obsessive in its detail and yet so tenderly antichoreographed that it makes Tarr's subsequent rigorous tracking shots look limp in comparison. János goes to a bar and begins an impromptu lesson on the solar system, forcing the drunks to stand and twirl around one another like the planets. It's tentative and all wrong and incredibly beautiful.