Bela Tarr’s The Man from London

To describe Bela Tarr’s starkly ravishing new film The Man from London as film noir is, I think, to miss the point substantially. It’s like describing Hamlet as a murder investigation. Tarr’s film is so much more – a celebration of aesthetic possibility, a testament to the unflinching power of the camera’s gaze, an uncompromising vision of what film, as a medium, is capable of. Every shot, every frame in this film is put together with the skill and patience of a master craftsman – producing an effect that I can only compare to the best work of Bergman and Tarkovsky. Whether it’s a wizened old man crumbling bread into his soup; the same old man balancing a billiard ball on his nose while an accordion plays in the background and a man dances around him with a chair; the abstract image of a ship’s prow, the central line dividing the screen into two parts, light and shadow, life and death; the clockwork of figures descending a ship’s gangway and stepping into a waiting train, like the souls of the damned arriving in Hell; or just the image of a man standing alone in the gleaming glass cage of a railway switchbooth that becomes a metaphor for man’s fundamental isolation – every scene in this film is pure poetry, every scene combines the bleak realism of a Hopper painting with the immaculate lighting of a Cartier-Bresson photograph. And Tarr’s shots of the human face reveal a nakedness so severe, so absolute, that you almost feel like his film should be rated NC-17. Bergman, in an interview about Nykvist, says that the greatest achievement of cinematography is that is has conquered the human face. Watch The Man from London and you will see exactly what he means.

Tarr’s focus here is on the overlooked, the unobserved. What he is trying to do, I think, is to push the envelope of the seen, defy our expectations of what the camera should focus on. When a man sitting in a chair takes off his shoes and steps away, our instinct is to follow him; when a grief-stricken human face stares out at us, its eyes brimming with tears, our reflex is to look away. But Tarr does not look away – instead he insists on leaving his camera right where it is, forcing us to see what we would otherwise have missed. The result is a kind of a discovered beauty, an apprehension of the luminous glory of everyday objects, of presence transformed into radiance by an alchemy that any still life painter would recognize. Through his rejection of time, Tarr reveals a world of images that are timeless, immutable; fragments of a universal aesthetic that exist independent of the story the film is trying to tell. Admittedly, this can be exhausting, and Tarr demands of his audience the kind of superhuman patience that he brings to the subject himself. This is not an easy film to watch, but it is the artist’s right to demand such effort of his viewers, and it is a film that richly rewards those who are willing, in the words of Donne ( the whole poem here): “to feed on that, which to disus’d tastes seems tough”.

But Tarr’s purpose in pursuing this vision is not entirely aesthetic. What he is trying to do, in using these stark black and white images to portray the life of his protagonist – a railway worker who witnesses a murder and gains possession of a suitcase full of stolen money – is to create a landscape of suffocation, a working class purgatory of narrow streets and defeated horizons whose inhabitants live out their monotonic lives (reflected in the one note accompaniment of an accordion that runs through the film) in an atmosphere of quiet desperation. It is this bleakness, this poverty of hope that gives the film its moral weight. In a world where frustration works as a kind of gravity, holding everything in place, the prospect of great wealth seems like an aberration, an absurdity. Destiny, in the shape of a limping police inspector, sits waiting in the margins of this film, and while Maloin, the film’s protagonist, makes a few half-hearted attempts to break free, he soon comes to realize the impossibility of doing so, and like a starving man who chokes on the first bite of food, surrenders himself to his fate. It would be easy to ascribe Maloin’s reluctance to use his windfall to practicalities – how does an impoverished switchman living in the shadow of communism spend large amounts of foreign cash without questions being asked? – but the true pathos of Tarr’s film runs deeper, and has all the inevitability of Greek tragedy.

But the slow stillness of Tarr’s style serves, I think, a third purpose. I said earlier that to call this a film noir is misleading, but for all that it is a suspenseful, gripping film. Very little happens in terms of what we would normally call ‘action’, but underneath this inactivity lies the growing tension of not knowing how the story will play out. Watching The Man from London is a little like watching a cinematic chess game – the actual moves you see seem trivial, almost random, but behind them lies a mental wrestling match of possibilities considered and discarded, scenarios envisioned and foiled. Much of this comes from the inscrutability of Maloin himself (played marvelously by Miroslav Krobot) – it is almost impossible to tell what this man is thinking, what his plans are, how he intends to get out of the situation he’s put himself in. And the suspense of not knowing what’s going on inside Maloin’s head is the key to the film’s dramatic power – a suspense that Tarr, masterfully, leaves unrelieved, with an ending that leaves the question of just how manipulative and / or evil Maloin is open to interpretation.

I could rhapsodize for hours about what a work of genius this film is, but I’ll content myself with sharing one last scene with you – perhaps my favorite scene in the film. Towards the end of the film, Maloin goes to confront his rival Brown in a small woodshed where he has Brown locked up. This is the dramatic high-point of the film, the moment that the last two hours have been building inexorably towards. Maloin reaches the door of the hut, unfastens the lock, opens the door a little, says “Brown” once, and then steps in. A lesser director would have followed Maloin into the hut, would have used its dark interior to create a moment of ‘suspense’ before Brown appeared and made whatever move he planned to make. Tarr, on the other hand, chooses to stay outside, his camera focused unwaveringly on the door that Maloin has shut behind him, all sound drowned out by the plaintive notes of the accordion that has haunted us throughout the film. We just sit there, staring at this Schrodingerian door, trying to imagine what is happening behind it or what will eventually come through it, living through a dozen different scenarios of where this film could go in what feels like an eternity but is really only the minute or two before the door opens again. Hitchcock couldn’t have done it better.

[cross-posted on 2x3x7]