Bela Tarr, Damnation, Hungary (1988).
The majority of scenes in Damnation take place at night and in the rain. This choice of setting marks the mood of melancholy and the depressing character of Bela Tarr’s minimal plot. Also appropriate to the air of loneliness and dejection is the film’s form. Tarr shot Damnation with an incredibly beautiful stylization of camera work. Shots are very long, and the pans and dolly work that characterizes much of the visuals are very slow. The camera lingers over very little action for prolonged periods of time. The form compliments the mood in that the stylized and dramatized beauty of the camera work imbues the pro-filmic content with a feeling of great and forlorn melancholy, in its slow, contemplativeness and, at times, total lack of action or plot development.
There are just as many scenes in Damnation that (barely) push the narrative or give clues of the plot as there are long takes that seem to be totally unrelated to the story. The plot is discerned obliquely, at best, and is displaced from its traditional centrality. Causality, motives and insight in terms of characters and narrative are totally absent and when there is dialogue or action, albeit absolutely minimal, the spectator is even denied the traditional construction between reverse and counter-shots which are conventionally employed to clarify. Instead everything that occurs throughout Damnation is interrupted and fractured by the beauty of its visuals.
Fate, destiny and misery are common topics of the dialogue but dialogue is scarce. Scenes are often marked by silence. When dialogue does occur it is completely unnaturalistic. It is often poetic and resembles dramatic soliloquies more than conversational speech. The abstract ideas that the spectator is encouraged to consider are appropriately presented through an abstraction of dialogue.
Equally as important as the characters is the world that they inhabit. Sometimes it seems that Tarr gives precedence to the setting over his characters, as they are not always readily recognizable within the frame but are instead often simply part of it, at best. The camera time and again focuses on abstract patterns such as rain, puddles walls and dirt. An extreme close up and slow dolly shot across a wall down which run drops of rain is intensely beautiful. The spectator is forces to focus in on these details of this world that Tarr has created, a world that becomes real and self contained within the frame of the screen and which we are compelled to take intent interest in. Such as at the end of the film when a character walks off the screen and the audience is left to linger over a vast and open, empty landscape of mud and rain. The desolation runs into and across the huge, uninterrupted landscape with only very minimal and slow motion of the camera. The details of this world and of form register with clarity against the silence of the plot.
As thin a the plot is it does deal with great themes of love, loss, betrayal, breakdown, age, depression and loneliness.
The form and lack of plot in Damnation have an effect on the sense of time. Time is stretched out and the movement, or often lack of movement, within the film gives its scenes and events a sense of timelessness. This timelessness works well with the long shots of vast, empty landscape, lack of occurrence and obliqueness of the plot. The relations among characters and their relationship with the landscape are also as oblique and difficult, both for them as well as for the spectator, as the abstraction of the plot. The timelessness affects them as well; the timelessness of their loneliness and the timelessness of their sadness.