A Film Rumination: Damnation, Bela Tarr (1987)

8/10 (Good) — spoilers in review

Damnation (1987) not only marks the Hungarian director Bela Tarr’s departure from realist dramas but also his entry into the ranks of the best European directors.  Although nowhere near as fascinating conceptually as Tarr’s later works (Sátántango, Werckmeister Harmonies), Damnation (especially the cinematography) is spectacular in its minimalism and reference to other films (Tarkovsky’s masterful Stalker appears to be one of Tarr’s prime visual influences).  Tarr revels in slow panning shots that frequently pause to observe water flowing down walls and unusual textures.  The takes unfold slowly and methodically.  The contents of and actions in a room pass from sight only to reappear in mirrors and reflections.  The pace is glacial.

The plot is equally minimal.  Somewhere in a half-abandoned, dreary, crumbling town Karrer, an alcoholic man, attempts to rekindle his relationship with a married night-club singer.  Most of the time he meanders from bar to bar.  A smuggling job is given to the the husband of singer and Karrer has three days with his lover.  And a series of betrayals occur after an endless drunken dancing party at Titanik Bar…  Karrer eventually breaks down and turns in everyone to the police.

Damnation rises above films with similar plots by the uncanny feelings that the beautiful black and white cinematography and local evoke.  The town feels almost entirely cut off from the world — the only connection is an elevated mining conveyor belt that clanks and clatters over the hills towards the horizon.  In this microcosm of the world the universal themes of alienation, loneliness, and despair unfold.  Words are infrequent and momentous when spoken.  We wait and wander aimlessly with the characters.

Damnation is not for everyone.   Those who can tolerate the a glacial pace and a minimal plot will be rewarded with a beautiful, haunting, experience.  However, Damnation pales in comparison to Tarr’s later film Werckmeister Harmonies where similar themes are utilized to create a truly moving and visceral experience.  As a viewer, I was left uninterested in the characters and the simplistic plot was somewhat detrimental.  This early project is still worthwhile to behold.

5 thoughts on “A Film Rumination: Damnation, Bela Tarr (1987)

  1. …no, no, no! It’s ‘Werckmeister’ that pales. Not only that, but ‘Damnation’ has the better music, too. Kidding aside, I enjoyed the write-up. Have you seen Ilya Khrjanovsky’s ‘4’?

  2. No, I have not seen ‘4’. However, I have read about it…. I’ll check it out.

    ‘Werckmeister’ chilled me to the bones… The imagery, the strange characters, etc. For me, the characters in ‘Damnation’ were plain boring and the plot predictable — the cinematography made up for that. ‘Werckmeister’ combines both beautiful cinematography and plot (however minimal and unusual)….

  3. I have to agree with you. Werckmeister’s music is fantastic. One of the best scores I’ve ever heard. I was only slightly impressed by Damnation. It’s been a while since I saw either though, but I will never forget Werckmeister’s music.

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