Martin Heidegger begins Being and Time with a question that seeks, in its very repetition, to return philosophical questioning to its foundation: “Do we in our time have an answer to the question of what we really mean by the word ‘being’?” What lies behind the force of that question is Heidegger’s insight that the whole philosophical tradition, in its insistence on metaphysical language and absorption in a positivistic-scientific worldview, has forgotten the original meaning of the word ‘being’. Abstracted from our primordial relations with beings in the world by our relentless pursuit of technological advancements, mankind has henceforth only sought increasing mastery and manipulation over things at the expense of a thoughtful retrospection of the meaning of existence and how the world refracts and illuminates our understanding of authenticity, selfhood and mortality. In contrast, therefore, to the easy answers that we seek in a world dominated by technological concerns, Heidegger wants to restore a fundamental and disquieting stance towards philosophy that is sustained through questioning. In an early essay entitled ‘Question and Judgment’, Heidegger writes that the act of questioning involves the entire subject and his stance towards what is being asked about. In questioning, the subject is thrown into a state of tension, striving towards fulfilment and rest in the answer. Because the question concerns the subject and his entire being, questioning can never be a dispassionate enterprise about a pre-established reality that the subject seeks to dominate through invasive modes of subjugation. Rather, the question illuminates the fact that the questioner is intricately bound up with his world and the beings that are revealed in it. A genuine question can only be lived and experienced. What’s more, a genuine question puts all our interpretations and concepts of the world at risk – a question shows us the most extreme possibilities of being and non-being.
Undeniably enigmatically evocative, the films of Hungarian avant-garde filmmaker Bela Tarr sustain Heidegger’s essential focus on existential and phenomenological questioning by dramatizing social milieus in times of crises and collapse, precisely to probe the moments where things of this world, and Man’s relations to them, become questionable. The often idiosyncratic nature of Tarr’s cinematography, dominated by slow camera movements and long takes, reveals a dialectical tension between stability and breakdown, challenging the viewer to establish his coordinates within this universe while contemplating its eventual upheaval and dissolution. This movement effectively forces his characters and the would-be spectator to consider their relationships with the world of the film and how to negotiate crises of meaning where the possibilities of nothingness and non-being arise. Through a reading of both Damnation (Kárhozat, 1988) and Werckmeister Harmonies (Werckmeister harmóniák ,2000), I will argue that Tarr raises anew Heidegger’s question of the meaning of being, fundamentally in the mode of its disappearance and erasure.
Heidegger’s philosophical output can be defined as an attempt to move thinking past metaphysical language and the sediments of philosophical concepts that obscure genuine and thoughtful reflection. By defining being variously as substance, mind and will, the philosophical tradition had put in place a ‘forgetting’ of the true essence of being, preparing the way for a technological dominance over things that violently wrenches beings from their place in a well-balanced totality and sets them up for calculative manipulation. To correct this wayward notion, Heidegger opposes phenomenological seeing, in which entities in the world are made known to the human subject who grasps their significance in his interpretation of the world. Phenomenological seeing does not disclose a human subject passively contemplating an outside world that he can control and seek to penetrate. Instead, phenomenology is always existential, in that it reveals a totality in which the human being lives and finds meaning in. Beings in the world are never separate from the human being’s hermeneutical grasp of the lived situation that encompasses him.
For Heidegger, this way of seeing the world accords to his conception of truth as unconcealment. Phenomenology uncovers beings and lets them stand in their presence. Heidegger particularly takes exception with the watered-down concept of truth as correspondence, where beings are made to fit ready-made concepts, decontextualizing their meaning and foreclosing the possibility of us encountering them in a totality of signification. Returning to Heidegger’s notion of questioning, to encounter beings in their truth means to encounter them in their fundamental openness, to continually ask oneself the meaning beings in the world have and how I can comport myself to the existential situation I find myself in. Nothing can be further from Heidegger’s philosophy than a settled state of mind; to live authentically is also to experience a sense of uncanniness where beings can surprise us in their strangeness. Heidegger expresses this ambiguity by noting that unconcealment does not negate concealment – beings can disclose and hide themselves according to how the human being approaches them.
Traditional metaphysics cannot give us answers to these questions because it concerns itself with individual beings and trying to work out systems of thought based on straightjacketing beings into fixed categories. It therefore cannot contemplate the fundamental ground of beings, or the Being or beings. In his text “What is Metaphysics?” Heidegger emphasizes that the only way for philosophy to think about the Being of beings, or their total significance, is to contemplate the Nothing. For beings to fully illuminate their significance, one must be able to consider and deal with the possibility of their nothingness. Tarr’s films allow us to encounter beings in their totality and unconcealment precisely on the premise that the viewer senses the possibility of their disappearance, of the despairing Nothing that shapes the apocalyptic upheavals his protagonists intuit and try to escape from.
The films of Hungarian director Bela Tarr have a distinctive feel to them: photographed mainly in black and white and possessing extremely long takes which evoke a remarkable amount of detail, the films simultaneously aim to present a world in all its dense texture while showing how that world is in imminent danger of dissolving. All Tarr’s protagonists are outsiders, intently observing their surroundings but powerless to prevent their crumbling and destruction. Tarr’s universe is a place sustained by the tension between the oppressiveness of the social milieu and the evanescence brought about by moments of crises and collapses that demonstrate the transience of social significations.
The opening sequence of Tarr’s Damnation demonstrates the dialectic between stability and fragility. The film opens with an extreme long shot of cable cars in the distance carrying minerals. Without discernible human figures in the landscape, Tarr focuses our attention on the technological apparatus that drives the economic production of the community. Everything in the shot is defined by hard, solid lines. By holding his camera still and concentrating the viewer’s attention upon the movements of the cable cars, we may suspect the narrative to be a Marxist fable about struggling workers and the class divide. However, much like Michael Haneke’s technique in the film Caché (2005), Tarr slowly pulls the camera back to reveal a window frame and the protagonist, Karrer (Gábor Balogh), staring out of the window at the cable cars. For Tarr therefore, the frame intrudes and the spectator is further distanced from the scene by the realisation that we are watching Karrer watching the cable cars outside his window. The original stability of the opening shot is compromised by the sudden framing symbolised by the window – it strangely loses its solidity by virtue of its being part of Karrer’s despairing gaze. Tarr makes the point clearer when he pulls away from the window and moves through Karrer’s house, lingering on the objects in it, effecting a strange sense of intimacy between the viewer and protagonist. Indeed, Karrer’s gaze at the world will from this point on be integral to the aesthetic feel of the film, as Tarr’s almost claustrophobic evocation of the objects of Karrer’s world invites us to look at the world with him, from his point-of-view. Tarr’s ultimate focus is on the phenomenology of Karrer’s lived experience with his world, the way he understands it and how he relates to its falling apart.
Karrer’s world in Damnation is dominated by interior spaces – his house, the local drinking bar and the house of the singer he is obsessed with. Tarr’s camera acclimatizes us to these spaces by drawing our attention to the objects that fill these spaces. For example, in the bar, Tarr places the camera in front of stacks of glasses as the diegetic dialogue between Karrer and his interlocutor drift in from elsewhere in the pub, outside of the frame. Chairs, tables and walls press in upon the characters and viewers; Tarr evokes a density and materiality of these lived spaces, asking us to consider the thing-like nature of the beings with which his characters negotiate their lives. However, this impetus is matched by Tarr’s other focus on dissolution and upheaval. The exterior spaces of Damnation are filled with rain, and in an establishing shot of the bar, we see and hear the rain relentlessly pouring down and drenching anybody outside in the storm. Echoing Shakespeare’s evocation of the apocalyptic storm in King Lear, the rain in Damnation implies destruction and dissolution. Indeed, Tarr often shoots protracted scenes in his films when characters dance in a group in bars, as if to escape the coming deluge and the crumbling of their world.
In fact, all of Tarr’s characters are questioners, in Heidegger’s sense of the word – they look into the abyss and question the purpose of their own Being, all the way intuiting the dreadful sense of the Nothing. Karrer’s apocalyptic awareness is distilled when he tells another character that ‘all stories are stories of dissolution’: no narrative can disguise the ugliness of ruin behind it all. The singer tells Karrer that she will survive in the end because of her ‘decency’, but nothing can conceal her profound loneliness and innervation when she sings about the transience of love and existence in the bar. For them, as for Heidegger, the question of the being of things becomes meaningful only because they have sensed, behind the fabric of Being, the Nothing that gapes at them. It is this strange oscillation between the facticity and solidity of being and the possibility of the eruption of the Nothing that torments them. Tarr’s strange dialectic is thus profoundly Heideggerean in that the objects of Tarr’s world reveal themselves as beings in unconcealment only when this world is at a crisis point, only when the possibility of the Nothing is glimpsed.
In Tarr’s Werckmeister Harmonies, the question of the being of things presents itself clearly in a moment of breakdown and crisis. The central event of the film involves the arrival of a travelling circus, with its main attraction being the display of a huge life-sized whale. The very monstrous intrusion of the whale into the community precipitates a violent uprising starting in the square where the whale is displayed. With its inscrutable presence dominating the film, the whale could symbolise the momentous unconcealment of Being which illuminates the social situation of the town and the relationships of the townspeople to each other. This revelation however, also brings to light the fact that society is in the midst of an upheaval due to that awareness. The angry mob that forms starts a conflagration in the square and proceeds to wreck a hospital. In the film therefore, the moment when the significance of the beings in the world (societal structures, other human beings, etc) is revealed most clearly is also the moment when the will to destruction is most prevalent, which is also the will to reduce Being to nothingness.
To return to Karrer in Damnation, he is deciding whether or not he should continue speaking to people throughout the film. We can read his anxiety over speech and communication as an anxiety over the possibility of continuing on in the face of the Nothing. Heidegger describes this existential mood as existential angst in the face of the world and Man’s mode of being in the world. Karrer has realised that the things of his world hold so little significance for him that it would be useless to even communicate his ideals to another person. For him, life continually perpetuates the Nothingness that is Being’s ineluctable shadow. By the end of the film, Karrer is reduced to barking at a dog on fours whilst in a barren wasteland. This is the ultimate apocalyptic climax of the film, where Karrer gives voice to the nothing of language, which signals the final breaking down of all significations. Tarr thus stages Heidegger’s concept of the Nothing through the stark minimalism of the final shots.
Tarr’s gloomy focus on the processes at work in the dissolution of Being may strike the viewer as irredeemably bleak and pessimistic. However, may there not be transformative potential in this dissolution, a moment where the structures of Being may be radically reconfigured to give rise to new social relationships? Alain Badiou’s neo-Heideggerean focus on the ‘event’ may be useful here: for Badiou, the event signals a moment of radical departure from the truth-conditions of the present that happens in order to usher in something completely unforeseen and radically new. It is a complete upheaval of the subject’s ontological foundations that could potentially result in a changed relationship to Being. Tarr’s dramatizations of these moments of breakdown and rupture can be read as belonging to the ‘event’: there is the hope of a new configuration of Man’s place in the universe and his understanding of human relationships and social reality.
I think we can glimpse one such moment in Tarr’s Werckmeister Harmonies that functions as a crucial turning point in the narrative. As the angry mob starts to march into a hospital, we follow their every moment in an unbroken shot. We notice them getting increasingly agitated and wrecking hospital equipment. They also violently assault some of the patients in the hospital. The violence of the mob is indiscriminate – they seem bent on destroying everything in their path. As the structures of Being collapse around them, their sadistic energies grow stronger. However, as the violence threatens to reach catastrophic proportions, the mob encounters a naked old man shivering in the bath, absolutely vulnerable and defenceless against their force. In a deeply affecting moment of pathos, the angry mob silently withdraws and leaves the hospital. What is presented here is nothing less than a revelatory moment in which the mob realises that their revolutionary ferment has turned them against the people in society who most need help. It is, in Levinasian terms, the bare presentation of the naked and vulnerable person which solicits us to respond in an urgent and life-affirming way. It is thus in this instant, or ‘event’, of crisis that a new configuration of human relationships may be sought that is based on authentic principles of compassion and responsibility for the neglected in society.
Heidegger has always prized thoughtful reflection as a means in which Man can break free from the grip of technological stultification in order to stand in a more truthful relationship to the beings of his world. By making films that invite us to consider Man’s relationship with his world, Tarr repeats Heidegger’s questioning of the meaning of Being in a way that forces us to consider Being’s dissolution into the Nothing, while also liberating us to think about the ways it can be generative of new meanings and significations.