Hungarian filmmaker Béla Tarr, along with his script collaborator Laszlo Krasznahorkai, knows a little bit about patience. Patience is at the core of his craft and is also essential to understanding a film like Damnation (Kárhozat; 1988). This is not to say that Damnation is tedious, because it's quite the contrary. For all of its quiet moments and its near-glacial pace, it never ceases to involve its viewer--all because of the gift of patience.
Karrer (Miklós Székely) is a broken man living in an isolated industrial town. Cut off from the outside world, he is trapped within its borders. Large metal buckets travel along overhead cables carrying things he cannot see to places he cannot go, and he watches them longingly, as if they would transport him out of the purgatory he inhabits beneath them. They are always there, and when they can't be seen, they are heard through the grind of metal and the metronomic tick they create. In watching them, Karrer is like the movie's audience--a spectator to something outside of himself that moves according to its own pace. If he lets the buckets go, perhaps they will reveal to him the secret he is missing. So it is the same for watching Damnation: let the scenes play out, let the characters go about their business, and a reward awaits you.
I called it a "purgatory" because the setting of Damnation is indeed a sort of middle state. It could merely be a metaphor for life, which itself is what we do in between birth and death, when we wait for something else to come along. Yet, there are also higher metaphors here. Karrer is pulled from two sides, between the longing of his spirit to be free, and the longing of his body that ties him to the cabaret singer he lusts for. Similarly, there are two polar influences at work on his conscience. First there is Willarski (Gyula Pauer), the dark-haired owner of the local bar. His establishment has been aptly named Titanik, and he is always there to listen to a man who wants to talk about himself, indulging the individual's selfish desires before luring lost souls into crime. Second is the white-haired older woman who works in the club's coat room (Hédi Temessy), protecting the outer shells her clients use to protect themselves. She doesn't listen, but instead proclaims. Whenever the coat-check woman arrives, she has words of advice for Karrer. In at least one case, they actually come from the Bible. Yet, for as positive as they may be intended to sound, they often sound like judgments.
Karrer sees an opening when his Beelzebub offers him a job smuggling goods. Rather than take it himself--he feels he is not allowed to leave the area--he offers it to the husband (György Cserhalmi) of the singer at the club (Vali Kerekes), knowing the man's debts will force him to take it. When the husband is out of town, he can make a move on the wife, whom Karrer loves. On his return, however, the husband will give Karrer his final piece of advice: "There's always a chance to escape. There can be cracks in the fabric of things." Like the old woman's speeches, this ends up sounding more like a threat than it does a design for life. Words are important to how people perceive themselves. More than once, Karrer refers to life as a story, one that any individual can close the book on any time they want, starting over again on a new page. Yet, since when have participants of any story been their own construct, capable of their own action? Mustn't they always wait for some larger force to enact change? The other way is the way of hubris.
Music also plays a central roll in Damnation. Through most of the film, the tunes are quiet and sad, sparse instrumentation and plaintive vocals representing the absence of feeling. As the movie reaches its climax, the music speeds up, representing the lack of control Karrer's actions have created. In fact, all the characters are being punished for the actions they have taken. That is the illusion of their lives: they dream of getting out, but the more they try, the less patient they are, the more stuck they become. The betrayal of music is of particular irony to the singer, who dreams of going to another city and being famous. As the dance escalates, the humiliation she suffers--and it involves her precious throat, even--is possibly the worst. Everyone else at the Titanik follows the band, dancing themselves into a happy oblivion while Karrer and company sit the revelry out in order to forge ahead with their own undoing.
Béla Tarr uses his camera to show us how inextricably linked his characters are to their environment. Taking a cue from the Antonioni of L'eclisse, he often leaves the central action, slowly panning away from his characters to look at a broken fence or an empty wall. The people are as dilapidated as the village they have built, and just as the buildings wait for repairs, the viewer waits for the camera to find its way back again. There is a constant layer of rain on everything, and dogs roam the streets of their own accord. It's as if everything is out of balance. In fact, when Karrer is finally off the deep end, it's his humanity that he gives up, instead becoming one of the animals. Midway through the picture, he suggests that all life ends in disintegration. Tarr's continued focus on the landscape reinforces that: just as buildings crumble, so shall man. In the final shot of Damnation, Tarr gives us the most grim reminder of all: no matter how much we struggle, our fate is no more than a mound of dirt. Be patient, and it will come.