Nietzsche sounded as if he would have a walk-on part in The Turin Horse (2011) by the Hungarian director Bela Tarr but this slow-mover is a mediation on more than that famous moment in a Turin street when Nietzsche about to lose his sanity was consumed with pity for a fallen cab horse. Filmed in thirty long takes, it opens with man and horse in a brutal struggle against a windstorm that won’t abate for the rest of the picture. Tarr’s characteristic black and white penetrates to their souls. In fact we never see a town, or another dwelling, just the bare homestead and stall where the pair return each day. The carter, paralysed in his right arm, is cared for by his daughter. This all-consuming wind flays their existences bare. Next morning, and forever, the horse won’t move. The well dries up. The mare stops eating. The fire won’t light.
Nietzsche doesn’t walk in as himself, but arrives in a roundabout way as a desperate lame neighbour who has run out of brandy. A man at his wit’s end sits at the wooden kitchen table and rants. His speech has a Zarathustran intensity without a breath of lyrical respite. Human existence is beyond good and evil. Good and evil don’t figure. The nature of life is a merciless eternal recurrence, but I don’t want to put published words into his savage mouth.
As the story of Nietzsche’s end in Turin – his last message to his mother, ‘Mutter, ich bin dumm’ ‘Mother, I am stupid’ – has been told to us in the opening minutes we know the year is 1889, the conditions of which are conveyed by the only other social intervention in the tale, the passing of a coachload of revellers, pulled by a splendid pair of greys. The excursion party are celebrating their decision to emigrate to America, to escape the poverty that’s befallen swathes of European agricultural life from the Lowlands of Holland and Belgium (see below for why I choose this example) to the Hungarian puszta. They help themselves to water from the not yet dry well. A thoughtful member of the party gives the daughter The Good Book, as the father chases them off. She struggles to read Christianity’s age-old response to the desperation of the brandy-seeker, and to the contempt and the sadness of the now benighted philosopher.
But, as I say, this is not only a film about Nietzsche and the very word ‘about’ is misleading. Nietzsche’s amoralism is this film’s substance. It’s the reason why the camera is slow and merciless and disconcertingly beautiful as Tarr takes visual cues – I think – from the sometime Nietzschean Heidegger. Now that’s also what I want to emphasise: there’s another philosophical presence here. You could play a game with this film and close your eyes and try to name all the everyday objects on which the lens dwells: the wood of the table and the bottle upon it; the upturned stopper and the glass, the plate on the table and the potato within it, the axe in the hand and the splinter of firewood on the floor. If you’ve read Heidegger’s 1935/36 lecture ‘The Origin of the Work of Art’ you’ll know it features such lists: the material conditions of the simple life, baldly and barely stated, although not at all without joy, for all materiality is a prelude to, besides being the condition for, art happening. Materiality happens as art, sometimes, and when it does the sense of our being among beings, among animal and mineral as well as human kind, emerges. Stands forth, Heidegger would say, in what for us is a kind of ecstasy when we consciously live in co-being. With Nietzsche mad and the Good Book in the hands of the stupid who think their lives will be redeemed across the Atlantic, Tarr explores this stark anti-theology which has only the event of art left. But no, that’s not right, for there is normally human routine, which is another prelude to Ek-stase. We see routine here in all its heavy and beautiful monotony, as each day the daughter helps the father to dress and undress, and tacks up the mare and hitches her to the cart, and unbridles her again, unbuckles the crupper and slides the bolt on the stable door. Being-here, Heidegger’s Dasein, is the pitchfork that lifts the soiled straw, and the wooden wheelbarrow that trundles to the compost heap, and the eye of the horse, and the hay in the manger. It’s the bucket, and the water in the bucket, and the drops that fall when the horse refuses to drink.
The Turin Horse, in that it inhabits Dasein in 1889, dwells in fact not in Nietzsche but in Heidegger’s encounter with van Gogh, his experience of van Gogh’s painting Boots with Laces from three years earlier, which provoked a piece of stalwart pastoral in ‘The Origin of the Work of Art’, as Heidegger imagined the wearer of such boots tramping back across the fields at dusk.
In my book A Shoe Story Van Gogh, The Philosophers and the West I’ve tried to explain how Heidegger has been wrongly taken to task for this alleged ‘blood and soil’ passage. Tarr, by contrast, if he has indeed read it at all, has read it just right; read it in the light of Heideggerian co-being.
Which leaves me only to toy with the remaining van Goghian element in The Turin Horse, a thesis not to be dismissed simplistically because Tarr films in black-and-white, and doesn’t work with paint. Perhaps one could construct a line of affinity, influence even, from 1879, when van Gogh was living in the desperately impoverished and sickly mining communities of the Borinage, near Mons in Belgium, learning to become a painter and a human being simultaneously, to the filmmaker (and Eisenstein disciple) Joris Ivens who made a documentary in the starving Borinage of the early 1930s, and now to Tarr reminding us of the feel of material life in 1889. At the time terrible ideologies were growing out of the suffering and the political desire to make these simple lives better, although I don’t think, quite rightly, Tarr has history in mind in that sense. He is an artist, like van Gogh and Nietzsche and occasionally Heidegger, were. All three were also dissenting theologians. You know their biographies, and now you can add Tarr to them, at least in spirit.