The Soundscapes of Béla Tarr

A short essay by Michael Keane
A still from Béla Tarr's 1988 film Kárhozat (Damnation)
Since his 1988 breakthrough film Damnation, Béla Tarr has gained a cult status in the art-house film industry. Whilst his uncompromising brand of black and white films, characterised by the long take and apocalyptic undertones, have been likened to the work of Andrei Tarkovsky, the sonic side of his work is equally impressive in portraying a brutal and unforgiving setting. Sound aids the definitive sense of place that Tarr so convincingly produces. Like the work of Bergman and Bresson, Tarr’s use of diegetic sound produces a sense of authenticity, making the bleak landscapes of Eastern Europe seem miserably real. Both sound and image work together in a series of lengthy shots that provide a temporal and spatial sense of verisimilitude. Neither sound nor image works in turn, but united in the representation of an atmospheric experience.

In the opening of Damnation, the image of the desolate landscape is coupled with the distant sound of clanking and the low hum of mechanical movement, as hanging buckets of coal move across the sky. Whilst the slow zoom out, akin to that shot from Citizen Kane, provides spatial depth, the mechanical clanking of the coal buckets gives us the first real signpost of location: the protagonist, Karrer’s, house. Like the opening of Sátántangó, the diegetic sound allows the audience to gauge a sense of space and distance. Even whilst Karrer shaves in the following shot, the monotonous sound of the coal bucket’s movement can be heard, a fitting soundtrack to his life given the misery that plagues him throughout the film. Whilst the sounds of the coal buckets and then later the incessant rain provide a sonic representation of Karrer’s plight and create an atmosphere of resounding gloom, they also act as audible signs for the few locations that the key characters visit. Places of residence, such as Karrer’s and the singer’s dingy habitats, are backed by the constant mechanical hum and the clank of the moving coal buckets. Even in moments when Karrer’s fortune appears to be changing, such as when he has sex with the singer, he cannot escape the unending, irksome sounds that surround him.

The same technique is used for the Titanik Bar. Appropriately sodden in water, the neon sign gleams through the sheets of rain whilst the din of the downpour supplies a feeling of relief when the camera finally moves inside to the music: a far more comforting and varied sonic space compared to the one-toned drone of the falling rain. The contrast between the comfort of music and the sonic monotony of Tarr’s outside world serves to emphasise the character of this particular space. Like with the sound made by the coal buckets, the sound of rain signposts the Titanik club as a significant location, a place where Karrer’s object of desire is found and his attempts to win her back take place. With recognisable sounds, these locations take on a more definitive character than they would through a purely visual representation.

Foggy images depicting a land of lifelessness and disappointment are made achingly tangible by monotonous clanks and heavy footsteps. Given the audible space by the scarcity of dialogue and music, diegetic sound is given the opportunity to create rhythms and atmospheres without the interruption of a cut. The nature of the sound and the audience’s mode of listening can be forced to change, not suddenly, but in a fluid transition allowed to occur because of the slowness of the film.

Tarr himself encapsulates the way in which his films should be approached and viewed, as he says: “I’m always telling this to my audience, don’t think too much, just listen”. A fitting piece of advice from a director whose films are as sonically rich as the monochromatic images he presents.

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