I use this faintly ironic term – now an oddly established genre – hesitantly due to the fact that once gripped to the filmmaker’s particular rhythm, momentum is sparked, gently driving us forward as we firmly invest into these deceivingly slender plots. With each carefully arranged, prolonged take, philosophical intrigue and characterisation thickens. Sátántangó’s opening shot, following a dysfunctional herd of cows (lasting close to 8 minutes) is an ominously apt prologue to anticipate their human counterparts. It’s precisely this formal militancy and an ensemble of finely illustrated characters that shape a compelling whole.
When commenting on this technical distinction the director proposes a “special tension” is generated, pushing the audience to be “much more concentrated.” This statement reveals a clear wish for spectatorial engagement, employing the long take in a strategic manner. Being a technique structured around duration, Tarr wastes none of it. Each lengthy shot bears meaning, bringing us so close to a set of spiritually amputated figures that our moral compass strangely points towards all of them.
Metaphorically, it’s hard not to recognise the conveyance of Communism’s decline in Eastern Europe, though the film delivers a universally resonant message of our complex human issues. Beneath the social and existential gloom is Sátántangó's impassioned care for humanity. From floating behind and around a besotted doctor to treading unflinchingly in front of the neglected young girl Estike, the camera’s uninterrupted flow expresses our moral implications.
A paradox has already emerged from earlier on. Despite the removal of time during my own viewing, this defining element remains an integral plank of the aesthetic structure. From the outset we are made to feel its weight, while the clarity of storytelling trumps our acknowledgement. Other mammoths, like Claude Lanzmann’s 1985 documentary Shoah (544 minutes) or, more recently, affiliate Filipino filmmaker Lav Diaz’ edge of the commercial radar work (some touching 11-hours), share the same ability to lucidly maintain their epic chronicles. They sound like thumb-fiddling follies. If Leo Tolstoy (War & Peace) and Ayn Rand (Atlas Shrugged) or musical bands Pink Floyd and Sun Ra’s Arkestra are entitled to produce immense material then why aren’t filmmakers? The explanation for this may stem from our accustomed theatrical programming. But we’ll leave this topical issue for another article.