The Politics of Satantango
To trim one’s thoughts on Bela Tarr’s 1994 seven-hour magnum opus Satantango down to a single blog post would almost certainly leave out many important aspects of the film by risking a simplification of Tarr’s multi-faceted portrait of life in Hungary. When discussing an epic, complicated film such as this one, one may do well to talk specifically about the political framework to which the director wishes to steer the audience’s attention. Most American viewers might be confused by the political context of Satantango. Some uninformed American viewers might take the characters’ comments about living in a time of “apocalypse” to be literal (Tarr). The apocalypse that the villagers face in Satantango is the onslaught of poverty and hopelessness under the authoritarian rule of communism in eastern Europe, likely during the 1980s when Laszlo Krasznahorkai’s original novel was published. In this film, Tarr critiques authoritarian leaders who refuse to take care of their constituents. The film exemplifies how a political system supposedly built upon tenets of equality and community ironically leads to an environment wherein relationships are fragmented and citizens are alienated from one another. Tarr also seeks to illustrate the alienating effects of poverty and the likelihood for violent outbursts when inequalities exist.
The con man Irimias, in spite of his status as a villager, acts as a kind of authoritarian leader for the impoverished members of the failed collective farm. Right from the film’s first vignette, “The News is They Are Coming,” Irimias is espoused as a kind of holy figure who, like Christ, has returned from the dead. Futaki states, “Everything’s going to change. You’ll see. Irimias the wizard” (Tarr). Irimias is endowed with the cult of personality that many unjust leaders must establish in order to maintain legitimacy. The myth of infallibility surrounding Irimias, who is like a “wizard,” leads the villagers to believe his return will coincide with social change and progress (Tarr). This unrealistic high status of Irimias in the community is further accentuated in the “Rise from the Dead” vignette, when Irimias yells “Quiet!” in a crowded restaurant and the surrounding villagers stop moving and cease talking. The influence of Irimias, it seems, is so powerful that he is able temporarily to transcend the realism of Tarr’s film.
Furthermore, the unrealistic devotion to Irimias parallels the other skewed value held by the villagers, namely the idea that money and individualism are more important than their community. Of course, this profit-over-people mindset is a consequence of the abject poverty present in their community, and people feel the need to adopt this mindset when their very survival is threatened. They themselves are not the cause of this dehumanizing skewed worldview, nor is it innate within them. If external circumstances (caused by the lack of assistance from the government) were much different, the people on the farm would not have to live solely for self-interest. This sociological explanation for violence in communities is apparent later on in the “Comes Unstitched” vignette, when the child Estike is clearly frustrated with her socioeconomic standing. She says to her friend, who is helping her grow a “money stalk” by planting money in the ground (which he will later steal when she leaves), that she hopes to be the envy of other people (Tarr). She later acts out this aggression and frustration by resorting to animal cruelty, since it is, within her worldview, the only way she can exert any kind of influence over others. Indeed, the people of the collective farm feel they must have some sort of way to manipulate others to quell their anger because they themselves are being manipulated by the inattentive government and the opportunistic Irimias.
Visuals play heavily into our understanding of the problems present within the failed collectivist setting. Tarr uses symbolism of spiders and webs, slowly spinning near the passed out drunken villagers, to show the harmful influence of the opportunists when members of society fall complacent (in this case, the complacency is caused by a night of drinking and dancing at the local bar). Tarr also shoots Satantango, as with nearly all of his films, in stark black-and-white imagery. During the scenes wherein Irimias and his cohorts make long treks down the windy, polluted pathways, the negative space surrounding the shadowy figures contrasts sharply with the bright white sky ahead of them. This method of framing the characters’ movement helps alert us to the fact that Irimias and his gang are suspicious and that we should be wary of them.
Satantango, due to its long, meditative shots (complimenting Krasznahorkai’s long stream-of-consciousness style of prose that flows through paragraphs that are not indented) and its strange, alienated environment, is a film that almost resists, yet desperately must be put into for the viewer’s enrichment, a political context. This dense style of storytelling on Tarr’s part actually serves to accentuate the political issues that are always present as the meandering plot unfolds. Tarr’s film is a negative portrayal of opportunism and politically irresponsible behavior. Through the actions of the characters of Satantango, we see that self-motivated people who live for greed can badly harm the people around them, and we also see that the powerless people in these kinds of settings can, in turn, cause harm to one another.
Krasznahorkai, Laszlo. Satantango. New York: New Directions, 2012. Print.
Tarr, Bela. Satantango. Vega Film, 1994. Film.
(Image courtesy of: https://letterboxd.com/film/satantango/)