The Cracks in the Surface of Things: On Béla Tarr, Rancière, and Adorno

Two major studies of Hungarian filmmaker Béla Tarr have been published in English recently, and both are impressively comprehensive, so rather than repeating their work I will take a more focused approach here by working through the key film in Tarr’s œuvre, Damnation. Central to my reading is the relation between the aesthetics and the narrative of the film, which, although resembling Rancière’s model of antagonistic regimes, is rendered more subtle and enigmatic by the ambivalence of the work, an ambivalence that becomes tangible when considered in terms of Adorno’s understanding of the relation between the auditory and visual aspects of film.

In the 1930s a series of films were produced in France that were to prove very influential. They were dark, pessimistic dramas about characters on the margins of society trying, and failing, to escape their circumstances. These films came to be discussed under the rubric of poetic realism, for while they were situated in specific social milieux and dealt with issues of crime and poverty, they were also shot in an expressionist manner and featured scenes and dialogue of an unusually poetic nature. The latter element was the most problematic as critics disagreed over whether the poetic cast of these films enhanced or undermined their social critique, although this ambivalence is precisely what gave these films such lasting importance, particularly in terms of their role as a precursor of American film noir. [1] Despite appearances, Béla Tarr’s Damnation (1987) does not operate in quite the same mode as poetic realism, although its socio-historical background bears some comparison with France in the late 1930s. Instead, we find a form in Tarr’s film that is both more poetic and more realistic, and consequently more ambivalent, and understanding how this is the case is the concern of this paper.
The difference between Damnation and poetic realism becomes apparent when we consider how its style emerged out of the internal demands of Tarr’s earlier films, which leads it to operate with a different sensibility from that of films like La Bête humaine (Jean Renoir, 1938) or Le Quai des brumes (Marcel Carné, 1938). Damnation marks a distinctive change because of a number of factors, perhaps most obviously through the writing of László Krasznahorkai and the camerawork of Gábor Medvigy, the other major collaborators, composer Mihály Víg and designer Gyula Pauer, having also worked on Tarr’s previous film Autumn Almanac (1984), and Ágnes Hranitzky, his editor and long-time co-director, having worked with him since his first film. During the early 1980s Tarr was seeking a new form of expression that would take him away from his earlier realist films, which largely used improvised dialogue and non-professional actors, towards a form that would enable a greater exploration of the texture and dynamics of the lives of the marginalised. This possibility was uncovered through the combination of Krasznahorkai’s dialogue and characterisation with the overt stylisation that had already emerged in the mise-en-scène of Autumn Almanac, which created a fully-integrated form in Damnation, a form that manifested itself through the changes in camerawork. For the most noticeable change that occurs in Damnation is the increase in shot length and camera movement that creates a slow meditative format, immersing us in the milieu but also keeping us at a distance from it.

The narrative of Damnation can be broken down into a series of repeating scenarios:

Karrer at home, looking out of the window. He shaves and then leaves, going past a small fire in the stairwell. He watches from beside a pillar as the husband leaves in a car with his daughter and then walks across the waste ground. Talks to the singer through the door to her flat, he wants to come in, she rejects him. Karrer walks to the pub (daylight, no rain, one dog) where the barman offers him a smuggling job, Karrer declines but says he can find someone else to do it (accordion plays).

Karrer watches the door to the Titanik Bar from across the street (night, heavy rain, four dogs), the husband arrives in the car and runs into the bar, Karrer walks in after him. Listens to the singer, and is then accosted by the husband, warning him off the singer. The cloakroom attendant gives him a further, longer warning about the couple and he then goes upstairs. A man talks to two women about Görgey and Paskevich, and Karrer makes his pitch to the husband and the singer, opportunity in the face of inevitable ruin. Karrer leaves the bar alone (night, rain, one dog). Later at the pub all three are drinking and the husband goes to talk to the barman about the job, the singer then talks to Karrer about her hopes and Karrer’s fatal lack of joy (accordion plays).

Karrer watches from beside a pillar as the husband leaves in the car (daylight, light rain, four dogs), and the cloakroom attendant walks up to him and warns him again (Ezekiel 7: 14-27). When the husband has gone he walks over to the flats, leaving the cloakroom attendant behind. Karrer and the singer relax after sex in her flat. Karrer leaves. He stands looking out of the window of his flat, chewing. Upstairs at the bar a woman breastfeeds a child next to a television, in the next room Karrer invites the singer out and is rejected (their account is settled), they argue and he leaves (night, no rain, one dog). He sits in the pub after hours, listening to the accordion player.

Karrer watches from beside a pillar as the singer leaves a shop, he talks to her and they walk away together (daylight, no rain, no dogs). Outside her flat he tells her that she means the world to him and he would do anything to be with her. They go in and have sex. He looks out of the window while she bathes. They sit at a table and he tells her about his life, how strong he must be to resist the hopelessness of others. He leaves the flat and hides while the daughter passes him on the stairs. He waits by a pillar outside the police station and then leaves without entering. Later he speaks to the barman at the pub about growing old.

Crowds wait in the hall, staring out into the rain. A man dances on his own in the rain. Inside all four are drinking and the husband warns Karrer that, although there are chances to escape, he’ll come to no good. In the toilets the barman tells Karrer that the goods the husband has smuggled in have been tampered with. The singer dances with her husband. A young man recites a poem to a woman. The singer dances with the barman. Karrer watches and the cloakroom attendant comes to talk to him about youth and dancing. The barman settles his account with the singer in the car outside the bar. The dance goes on, forming a large revolving circle, watched by the cloakroom attendant. Later the cloakroom attendant leaves and the young man dances alone.

Karrer speaks to an officer at the police station and then leaves. He meets a dog and walks off (daylight, rain).

The noir aesthetic that operates in the film is, like the words of the song heard in the Titanik Bar, a self-conscious version of the standard that is at times almost parodic in its use of rain and mist, but it is saved from falling into pastiche by virtue of the fact that it operates with a slowness that makes even these hyper-stylised conventions seem naturalistic. [2] After the establishing sequence of shots that introduce us to Karrer (Miklós Székely B.) and his relations to the singer (Vali Kerekes), her husband (György Cserhalmi), and the barman (Gyula Pauer), and the world they exist in, we are then taken onto a new level of narrative evocation with the scenes in the Titanik. Up until this point the scenario has been presented in an almost straightforward manner with a more or less realistic depiction, indeed, we have a conventional noir set-up: a man down on his luck is trying to change his situation by associating with a woman, to do so he must deceive her husband and this is made possible by the job he is offered by the barman. The next scene begins with the exterior of the Titanik and Karrer’s situation is made clear by the way that he continues to walk normally through the heavy rain while the husband runs, and the decision forces itself upon us: does Karrer walk because that is the kind of person he is or is this a representation of his world-view, considering that the separation between the two has not been firmly established in the set-up of the film thus far? What then is the nature of the camera’s gaze if it is unwilling or unable to make this distinction between subjective and objective? Is it because its gaze operates at a level where these distinctions do not obtain?

Inside the bar we follow the camera around, listening to the song “It’s all over” (Kész az egész), and after a brief altercation in which the husband warns Karrer off his wife we have an enigmatic monologue from the woman in the cloakroom (Hédi Temessy), the first hint that the disparity between the expressionist atmosphere and the concrete milieu is reflected in the characters themselves. To some degree the character of this cloakroom attendant takes on the role of Karrer’s conscience but her intentions, like her words, are not entirely clear and to this degree we enter a different sense of atmospheric evocation in which dialogues or, more accurately, monologues, are delivered without any awareness of their peculiarity, as if their strangeness was neither unusual nor significant.

At this point, having received three warnings of differing directness (if we include the song), we might expect Karrer to go and, indeed, he leaves the cloakroom with his coat and seems to be heading out via some stairs at the back of a storeroom. There is then an odd move that seems to announce a change of tone, for we hear someone talking about the end of the world and in the next shot we see two topless women and a man wearing a coat and hat. The man is speaking in very obscure terms about lifting the veil of Maya and the surrender of the Hungarian General Görgey to the Russian Paskevich that marked the end of the Hungarian Revolution in 1849. A nihilistic desperation is suggested here in which the end of the world is embraced as long as it is not witnessed, as if there might be a chance of getting away with it, of arranging some kind of deal. This snatch of conversation then merges with Karrer’s own words, who we find in the next room talking to the singer and her husband. There has been a lacuna between this scene and the one with the cloakroom attendant but it has been elided as the words of the other man segue straight into the middle of Karrer’s speech, broaching its mood for him. Thus far Karrer has listened to other people but has said very little himself, so it is of consequence that his first long speech should come in such strangely mediated terms, ones that appear to reflect his own position within a narrative of disintegration that, despite its final and irrevocable ruin, may still harbour a means to halt it, one that, as Görgey had hinted, would involve money.

MAN: We’ll know what to cling to once this world explodes. Mouth to mouth, heart to heart, star to star. But there’ll be no shame anymore and the veil comes off. I’m talking about Maya’s veil that obscures people’s minds. Görgey was some strategist, he told Paskevich: “Look, if you want to kill Hungarians, do it in an internal war. All I’m asking is a million, for my honour, who would be witness to that? Who would see about it?”
KARRER: It’s true … I could offer this to someone else but I thought of you. The trip’s only three days. You pick up the parcel and bring it home.
SINGER: How much?
K: 20%
HUSBAND: All right.
K: This way, it’s a nice family story, but it finishes like any other story, because stories end badly, stories are all stories of disintegration. The heroes always disintegrate and they disintegrate the same way, if they didn’t it wouldn’t be disintegration but revival, and I’m not talking about revival but disintegration, irrevocable disintegration, so, what’s about to happen here is just one form of ruin among the million that exist, so if they put you in jail because of your debts, don’t count on temporary ruin, because this ruin is always final, as ruin generally is. At the same time, there might just be a way to stop this ruin, mainly with money, and not by playing the hero. Perhaps a single crack can be covered over … [3]

Before this speech can end the camera has already started to move away, continuing the steady tracking movement from left to right with which the scene started and which was only temporarily halted to allow us to overhear this part of the conversation. These slow tracking movements are characteristic of Tarr’s later films and have been widely discussed, András Bálint Kovács, for example, considers that they bear a kind of material indifference in which everything placed before the camera is treated with the same even disposition since the camera moves independently of the characters (CBT 57, 63). But although this captures part of what is underway in Damnation, it does not account for the slow but restless pacing back and forth of these tracking movements, which is perhaps impassive but not indifferent, as it follows the movements of the characters even if it also becomes distracted by their backgrounds. There is a sense of generosity to this gaze in which every feature or movement becomes of interest, no matter how banal or wretched, as in the first scene where we pass from a shot of the rough grain of the concrete wall to the equally rough stubble on Karrer’s face. This level of observation not only indicates an association between the two but also indicates something of what follows in the sense of a buried richness that the camera will seek to uncover, much like the peculiar dialogue that surfaces out of everyday scenes, out of the cracks in their stories. There is thus a subtle dissonance between what the film shows in terms of the narrative of Karrer’s decline, and how it shows it in terms of the broad material tenderness that it expresses, in which each aspect refracts the other so that it does not fall into the trap of either glamorising decay or annihilating difference.


Although the plot is linear insofar as it follows the decline in Karrer’s situation there is a circularity to the way it is represented, with several repeating motifs and circular movements. For instance, the synopsis I have given shows how the first four acts of the story start with Karrer in a position of observation and end with him visiting the pub, and each time he does it is later in the day. In this way the incipient fatalism of Karrer’s situation is marked from the outset, just as the mise-en-scène, with its rain, stray dogs, run-down buildings, and pervasive signs of decay, also indicates the inescapable ruination of the environment. What then becomes interesting is the relation between Karrer and his environment, which makes it unclear whether his decline is a symptom of the general decrepitude, or whether the mise-en-scène is an externalisation of what is going on within him. The impossibility of discerning the cause only adds to the sense of entrapment, because it is not possible for the viewer or Karrer to know whether his actions can offer him the chance of escape, or if, as further manifestations of its confusion, they will only perpetuate his decline.

This undecidability is emphasised in the soundtrack where sounds that appear to be diegetic turn out not to be the case, and vice versa. For example, in the very first shot we are given a reverse reveal, in that, rather than hearing a sound that we are then shown the source of, we instead see an object and are then shown its listener. In doing so it becomes apparent that what we are hearing is not the actual sounds of the mining buckets being pulled back and forth but a distorted version thereof, which is to say that what we are hearing is perhaps Karrer’s version of the buckets, a subjectively enhanced version of their sounds, which carries over into the subsequent uses of music as a low droning. Conversely, the first scene in the pub is accompanied by the repetitive notes of an accordion that only becomes apparent as diegetic later, suggesting a movement of auditory continuity and transformation from object to subjective enhancement and then back to externalisation, which exemplifies the mutual distortion of character and environment. This effect can also be found in the blurring of the boundaries between inner and outer, as the floor of the pub appears to be as wet and dirty as it would be if it were exposed to the rain outside, while Karrer walks through the rain as if he were crossing a room. Equally, the disparity between the obscurity of some of the speeches and the acceptance of this obscurity by other characters suggests that internal monologue and conversation are not being distinguished.

This may explain why Karrer spends so much time looking through windows or watching across spaces, as the pillars that he stands beside are not just useful hiding places but are also attempts to mark a difference between his position and that of others; he is the one who looks on. Moreover, Karrer sees this separation as a mark of strength that uniquely distinguishes his situation; indeed, he acts as if he had inverted the dilemma that Kafka enunciated when he spoke of the existence of hope, but not for us. Since the lack of hope is the key to the major speech he makes to the singer after they have sex the second time, where he talks about the way that he has to be strong in order to resist the hopelessness of things that want to attach themselves to him. It is thus that he positions himself by windows in order to mark his distance from the world, which is tellingly removed at the end by the fact that he is no longer looking out over the landscape but has become part of it. For the difference in Karrer’s situation is not respected by others as the scene in the dance hall shows: there is a life here that does not respond to him. The discovery of this flaw in his solipsism, which leads him to go to the police, coincides with his fear of children:

The problem is I’m afraid of children, because those innocent bright blue eyes, those blonde plaits, those tinkling voices, hide a stealthy and ruthless power and its purpose is to maintain the madness of hopelessness, to give a new incentive to the reality beating on our eardrums, to ridicule all resistance without the tiniest chance of salvation. Yet they proclaim a minute chance of salvation – resurrection itself – in such a way that we cannot escape its elemental continuity.

This fear is one that the singer had warned Karrer about earlier when she said that he had killed the love and decency within himself while she still desires great things. In this way each of the characters that surround Karrer reflect on his situation, even the poem recited by the young man (Péter Breznyik Berg) seems to comment on his thoughts, as if the whole mise-en-scène was a concrete manifestation of his universe. As such, Damnation inflects the noir form with a poetic richness that provides a greater sense of not just psychological but also sociological realism, for the inter-relation between individual and environment is as much a political critique as it is an existential one, since figures like Karrer are not only the products of this kind of environment, they also enable it to perpetuate itself. So it is just as possible to see Karrer as a less charismatic version of Irimiás in Satantango (Tarr, 1994), or even the Prince in Werckmeister Harmonies (Tarr, 2000), someone who preaches destruction and betrayal as the only way of construing a world in which his own nihilism will not be out of place. Thus, it could be the case that we are being presented with the undermining of a central noir cliché, that of the intellectual outsider or brooding anti-hero, who is shown to be craven and self-serving, and the particular fate that such a figure carries: the loss of humanity. But because it is unclear whether Karrer is like this because of the environment or not, it is still possible to feel sympathy for him as the product of his wretched situation. Hence, if this is a critique, then its object is unclear, for is it a political critique of a terminally corrupt and mendacious regime, or does it operate on a more ontological level as evidence of the inevitable entropy of all systems, biological, psychological, and social?


As Jacques Rancière points out, the significance of Damnation’s opening shot can be shown by comparing it to the standard contextualising shot used in Hollywood films. The opening he mentions is that of Psycho (Alfred Hitchcock, 1960), where the camera, positioned atop a high building, pans across a city before zooming in on a half-shuttered window. There is then a cut to the interior of the room where we see two figures in states of undress. [4] While following the exemplification of the cinematic gaze as that of the voyeur, Hitchcock also gives us a conventional movement from context to focal point: drawing the camera directly into the object of the narrative. A similar movement takes place in the opening of Damnation, for again we move from a contextualising exterior towards the narrative focus, but here the movement is reversed such that the gaze withdraws from an exterior into a room, thereby bringing the camera to a point of discovering, almost incidentally, that this perspective has a subject as well as an object: Karrer, whose view out of the window the camera has seemingly been echoing. Except that there is a disparity between the perspective of the camera and that of its putative subject, which indicates that we are not seeing exactly the same world as him, just as the sound of the cable cars is not presented as we would expect it to be. The uncertainty over whether the stylisation of this sequence is a marker of its objective or subjective reality is emphasised in the next shots, where we see Karrer shaving with a blunt razor and then leaving his flat past a small fire that inexplicably burns in the stairwell. On the one hand these images could be indicators of the actual decay of Karrer’s environment, but given his complete lack of regard for them, they could also be seen as reflecting his own alienated or disinterested perspective.

In discussing the way that the camera pulls back from the endless line of coal buckets to reveal the figure of Karrer staring out of the window, Rancière goes on to make the point that Tarr has avoided what would have been another convention:

the moment arrives in which it is necessary to choose: stop the world’s movement with a reverse shot of the face that saw it and that must now make an expression that translates what it feels, or continue the movement at the cost of making the person who saw into a mere black mass, obstructing the world instead of reflecting it. There is no consciousness in which the universe is visibly condensed. (BT 71-72/65)

Conventionally the camera indicates how the narrative will develop by showing us the subject who will be our guide through it, which is what Tarr fails to do. Instead, his camera pulls back to show us the large silhouette of a figure that we see from behind, there is no face to face encounter with the apparent subject of this perspective but simply its occlusion. For Rancière this displacement is a marker of the universe that the sequence reveals in which each part is given equal weight, which is also shown by the way that the camera in its long tracking movements seems to pay as much attention to objects as it does to people, with the result that “the events of the material world become affects” (BT 71/64). The significance of this equality for Rancière is that it derives from the fact that the camera is not solely engaged with events but is allowing the actual time of the world before us to unfold, which reveals itself in the tension between the two modes of waiting or expectation (attente) that pervade the film: waiting for repetition and also, paradoxically, at the same time, waiting for change.

There is no story (histoire), which is also to say: there is no perceptive centre, only a great continuum made of the conjunction of the two modes of waiting, a continuum of modifications that are miniscule in comparison to normal repetitive movement. The task of the filmmaker is to construct a certain number of scenes that allow for the texture of this continuum to be felt and that bring the play of the two expectations to a maximum of intensity. The sequence shot is the basic unity of this construction because it is that which respects the nature of the continuum, the nature of the lived duration (durée vécue) in which expectations come together or fall apart, and in which they bring together and oppose beings. (BT 72-73/66)

Although it is correct to downplay the significance of the story, by then discussing the film in terms of a continuum of expectations Rancière remains at the level of the plot by only considering the narrative level of the mise-en-scène; waiting being an aspect of the characters’ actions. But these sequence shots are not constructed simply to convey the intensities of this continuum, for this would be to ignore the material presence of the mise-en-scène, which is what counters its plot or histoire. Unfortunately, Rancière has simply assumed that these long sequences exemplify the Bergsonian notion of durée, of time as a singular movement of qualitative change, without examining the complex of factors that unsettle their expanse, as the long takes of Damnation are marked by the disparity between Karrer and his milieu in which they are not evenly balanced. [5]

In this reading, what we might see as key to the opening shot is the way that the figure of Karrer comes to obscure the view through the window without anchoring it as his point of view, since, as I have noted, his perspective does not coincide with the view that we have just seen. This point is highlighted in the very next shot by a subtle contrast that will become central to the disparity between Karrer and his environment, for after the camera has pulled back from the window to reveal his silhouette there is a cut to a sideways tracking movement that passes from a close up of the wall to a mirror in which we see Karrer shaving. The camera seems to remark on the similarity of roughness between the grain of the concrete and that of Karrer’s stubble, but, as was mentioned above, Karrer shaves with a blunt razor that he seems not to notice. This lack of attention is confirmed in the next shot as Karrer walks down the stairs and ignores the small fire that burns in the stairwell. What this would suggest is that although Rancière raises a significant point about the equality of the camera’s gaze, this equality does not extend to Karrer’s own gaze, for in the shot where we see him shaving there is a direct contrast between the attentiveness of the camera as it passes across the wall and the mirror and the inattentiveness of Karrer’s gaze. At this point in the film we barely notice this disparity but it becomes more and more significant as we are given more and more instances of the camera’s breadth of interest, which tacitly exposes and draws us away from the narrow focus of Karrer’s intrigues. [6]  The disparity comes from the fact that Karrer does not realise how deeply enmeshed he is in this world, because he seems to believe that his disinterest keeps him distant from it, and the irony of this trap is that his distance only reduces his chances of escape.

It is only in the dance scene that this distance collapses, which for the first time starts without Karrer. Indeed it is some way into the scene before we see Karrer clearly as he is forced to confront his change in circumstances as he watches the singer dancing with the barman, at which point the cloakroom attendant appears again and offers him a final chance to escape, which he is unable or unwilling to hear. What has taken place here is barely remarked but utterly transforms Karrer’s position, for after giving his long speech to the singer in which he tries to persuade her to leave with him because he is strong enough to resist the hopelessness of others, we next find him speaking to the barman about cowardice and growing old, about the sudden discovery that one is no longer strong. This reversal seems to have come about through the accidental encounter with the singer’s daughter on the stairs, an encounter we are not shown but which we can infer by the differing times of their movements that reveals that Karrer has hidden to avoid the girl. This unrevealed encounter has apparently forced Karrer into engaging with his environment, unlike the fire on the stairs that he had earlier ignored, and it is this discovery that seems to have unsettled him. With the dance scene we are introduced to the world without Karrer: what has been in the background now becomes the focus, a background that is in constant movement in contrast to the mostly static tableaux seen thus far.

But the background has been integral to the way that the reality of the scenario has been developed. If we recall the opening scenes, we can readily see a conventional plot developing around a character whose situation is explicated through several key interactions, but this character is not given any sense of priority in this sequence as the camera spends just as long on the milieu, which seems to absorb him as soon as he leaves his flat. The substance of the reality we perceive is not constructed through narrative or editing but by slow immersion in a concrete audio visual milieu, and the more this milieu becomes concrete the more ambivalent it becomes. For as the environment intrudes into the camera’s gaze it displaces our view of what seems to be going on by suggesting that there is something else here, which is its material profusion. When the scene in the pub at the beginning of the film starts by focussing on a pile of washed beer glasses, obscuring our view of the conversation we can hear, this introduces a different point of focus. Alongside the negotiations between Karrer and the barman there is another world whose flotsam bears an equal significance on the development of the scenario.

Closer attention needs to be paid to the way that the scenes are constructed if we are to understand how this milieu is developed, for each sequence creates a particular spatiotemporal expanse that operates within strict limits. If we look at the first scene again, we can see how the retreating line of the coal buckets is echoed by the reverse tracking movement of the camera, opening out the space between their opposite movements, a space within which Karrer is found. But there is more, for this space is also opened by the mechanical sounds of the buckets that fill out the space and give room for the camera to move back. [7] This interaction of sound and movement plays a central role in the construction of the sequences, which Rancière has failed to notice, and occurs through an echoing effect in which the camera moves within a limited framework by iterating certain tracking movements, which echoes the manner in which the music develops through its own repeating movements. This can be seen by comparing the loose tracking shot around the Titanik as we listen to the lilting chords that introduce the song, as against the oscillating camera movement in the pub as the barman arranges the deal with the husband that is in keeping with the limited range of the accordion’s tune. Apparently, Víg wrote the music before the film was shot, according to a sketch of the scenes, and Tarr then played this music whilst shooting so that it could help “in creating the exact rhythm of the long and complicated camera movements” (CBT 18-19). [8] This does not mean that the film is merely the visualisation of the music, but rather that its construction takes place according to a non-narrative logic that sees each scene as a specific audio visual sphere in which the spatiality of the camera’s movement is offset by the temporal iterations of the soundtrack, including those scenes where there is only speaking when the camera is mostly static. [9] Karrer’s room in the first scene is literally occupied by the sound of the coal buckets being dragged back and forth, which both opens out its closed space and also fills it, providing it with a structure that would otherwise be lacking (which also occurs in the exterior spaces through the presence of the rain), even if this is a structure that does not operate at the level of the human.

But it needs to be recalled that the grating mechanical sound that we hear is unnaturally distorted, which makes it apparent that there is a lack of identity between sound and image. Thus from the first scene we are given images that lack an objective unity and so do not appear as an immediately comprehensible reality. Hence, we cannot say exactly what it is we are being presented with here, as the conventional filmic language in which sound and image are inconspicuously unified is notably absent. The form of this defamiliarization takes place through Víg’s orchestration, which reformulates folk rhythms through a repetitive minimalism and subtle electronic distortion. This sense of pervasive estrangement lies behind Adorno and Eisler’s response to film, where the emphasis lies on disrupting the immediacy and homogeneity of the form through anomalous or contradictory elements: “It is not a matter of composing in a usual way (Gebräuchliches) for unusual (ungebräuchliche) instruments. It is more important to write unusually for usual instruments”, which could stand as a motto for the distortions found throughout Damnation (KF 103/73).

Everything in the film – the dialogue, camerawork, lighting, soundtrack, acting, and sets – operates under a slight distortion from what would be expected given the conventions of film naturalism, which gives it the ambiguity of being neither naturalistic nor non-naturalistic. For while each of the elements of the film bear a strangeness that makes them noticeable they are also natural enough to be followed easily. The key to the integration of Damnation is thus the manner in which each of its elements is distorted in a similar way, which enables it to operate as a work while nevertheless estranging each image and thereby putting their status in question, individually and as part of the whole. In this way the viewer is both drawn into the reality of the film but also made aware of its construction, potentially enabling a position to be reached from which the nature of its images can be assessed, how they have arisen as they have, except that such assessment only reveals that the basis of these distortions is unclear, which thus continues to provoke us to their examination.

This montage-effect in the relation of sound to image displaces the use of montage within the image, which has become naturalised as part of the cinematic gaze. Consequently, the prominent use of the long take in Damnation comes from the need to find a form of gaze that is both derived from the material and yet remains strange. By developing this form the film can present sequences that are true to the milieu but that also bring out its internal disparities so that it is not dogmatically representational. [10] For if film were actually left to blindly represent everyday life, Adorno remarks, “the outcome would be a construction alien to the visual habits of the audience, diffuse, and outwardly unarticulated. Radical naturalism, which the technique of film suggests, would dissolve all surface coherence of meaning and turn into the most extreme antithesis of familiar realism” (MM 93/142). That Damnation does not simply turn into an associative stream of images is due to the disparity between the images and the soundtrack, and also to the temporality of these sequences. [11] Rancière has stated that the time of these shots operates in the mode of waiting, but rather than being part of a lived duration that is essentially a passage of becoming, there is instead a time without issue, since not only are its moments of transition concealed but it also repeats itself without beginning or end. Yet this is not a repetition that is empty, we do not find here the moments of dead time that occur in the films of Antonioni, for instance, as there is movement, albeit one of slow, steady, and inevitable decline, but as this is a time that has become untethered from any beginning or end it is necessarily a decline without conclusion. Kovács follows Rancière by speaking of this time as one of slowness that creates a tacit sense of expectancy, that something might change, that there might be some avenue of hope, but this slowness is only apparent to us as the viewers, rather than to the characters for whom the endless cycle of time is simply their Sisyphean medium (CBT 121).

It would seem inappropriate to describe this as a time of boredom or ennui as it is not a time where nothing at all happens, for although nothing may change a minimal level of occurrence happens at the material level, things happen rather than events, and it is in the face of this entropy, which is the material form of time, that the characters struggle to configure themselves. For in this time of endless decay the question of whether “it made sense to speak at all”, as Karrer phrases it, has been answered in the negative, while elsewhere, as the cloakroom attendant points out, movements and glances have their own way of speaking. The problem with Karrer, as the barman tells him, is that he sees things from his angle, and thinks that it makes a difference what he thinks, whereas things themselves have their own order that he cannot do anything to upset. It is as if he has seen the cracks in the surface of things and sought either to cover them over or to escape through them, rather than seeing them as the form of things in their concrete disintegration.


The disparity between the aesthetics of the film and its narrative is apparent in the fact that, on the one hand, there is, on a literal reading of the plot, a wretched morality play at work in the decline of Karrer, where we see what comes of someone who is manipulative and cynical, which could in turn be a reflection on the kind of environment that has given rise to such a character, a reading that perhaps contextualises it into the milieu of Eastern Europe in the mid-1980s. [12] On the other hand, the intense stylisation of the film provokes a very different reading, which is less concerned with any narrative or histoire but is rather focussed on directing us towards the peculiarity of a world in which there is an undying eccentricity alongside such ubiquitous decay. Such a reading steers clear of aestheticising poverty and disintegration through the strict equanimity of its gaze, which instead directs us towards the material vibrancy of the milieu, the joy and beauty as the singer calls it, that inexplicably, stubbornly remains within the fabric of decay and yields a sense of nameless fascination. This latter aspect is evident at every level of the film and is a deliberate strategy that makes us respond to the narrative as that which is neither realist nor removed from realism, since everything we see and hear is part of the milieu but is also subtly enhanced and allowed to express its own eccentricities. [13] It is as such that Karrer is both of his environment and also estranged from it, that which is produced by it and that which allows us to see how this environment expresses itself. So these differing aspects do not undermine or sublate each other, for they pull in different directions, and it is this ambivalence that gives the film its unique sense, Kovács describes this well when he states that:

One of the functions of the length of the time he dedicated to showing certain sceneries is precisely to let the viewer discover the close cohesion between the characters and the landscape, or their textural similarity. The more the visual analogy is tangible, the more striking is the characters’ invisible, interior desire to be detached from this environment. This is what produces tension in the characters, and it is this ambiguity which underlies the ambiguous effect of Tarr’s long takes. (CBT 60-61)

As noted above, Kovács understands this effect of the long take to be balanced by the apparent independence of the camera in its tracking shots, which in moving independently of the characters provides a perspective that is detached from their own. I would argue for a variation on this reading that modifies the sense of independence Kovács refers to, for the camera is not detached from the movements of the characters entirely, which is his understanding of independence; instead it seems to have difficulty holding itself in a fixed relation to them, which is a significantly different sense of relation. In the scene where Karrer waits for the singer by the shop, Kovács describes the lateral tracking movements that the camera makes that first discover the characters and then leave them. We start with a view of the shop and the camera tracks slowly to the right to discover Karrer who is also watching it, the camera then moves back to the left until the singer comes into the shot and walks towards the camera where Karrer steps out to meet her. The camera then tracks back to the right as the two walk out onto the road and then stops while they walk away from the camera and out of shot, at which point the camera then continues its rightward trajectory until it comes to rest before a fence. There is then a false match cut to the next scene, which begins with the camera facing a wall in the stairwell of the singer’s flat, and then tracks back to the left to reveal the two characters now speaking outside the door of her flat.

As Kovács points out, the actual time the camera spends tracking the movements of the characters in the first part of this scene is small compared to the length of the scene (5 seconds compared to 170 seconds), but however weak their gravitational force they nevertheless form its centre (they are on screen for 102 seconds), for without them there would be little motivation for the camera to move at all. Indeed, it could be the case that the camera is attempting to follow the characters as well as it can, given the constraints of its fixed distance from them. After all, Tarr is not Michael Snow, but is constructing a film with a recognisable plot, and it is in this way that the realism of the work refracts its stylisation, just as the reverse is the case. The camera still follows the movements of the characters here, but rather more crudely or more generously than we are perhaps used to and this difference is significant, as there is a sense that the camera, rather than offering an independent and unfocused survey of the environment, is loosely following the characters but either through some sense of inertia or distraction finds itself moving around them in very broad ambits. Which is to say that the camera, like the characters themselves, is suffering under the same environmental ambivalence that was noted above, in which it either finds itself slow and clumsy in its relation to its aims, or is instead caught up in the immense material strangeness of its environment that catches its gaze and leads it away from the characters. This ambivalence cannot be resolved as it arises out of the material itself. As such, the expansive nature of the gaze is reflexive, albeit inconclusively, as it expresses and describes the network of relations in which the characters, and principally Karrer subsists.

It is not simply a case, as Kovács suggests, that the movement of the camera relative to that of the characters implies a distancing that leads us to observe them as immobile elements of their environment, for the scenes are constructed in such a way that they are each given a material prologue and epilogue, which has the effect of not only situating the characters in their environment but also of indicating the latent vitality of this background. Tarr has reaffirmed Godard’s preference for editing in the camera, which corresponds to his understanding of tracking shots as ones that are inherently concerned with morality, since the equanimity of the camera’s gaze in these long sequences brings out the whole world of the characters in the moment of their coexistence: their concrete reality in both its extension and its variation. [14] Rancière discusses this material balancing in terms of the way that Tarr establishes a different mode of physical situation in which “it is not the individuals who live in places and make use of things. It is the things that first come to them, that surround, penetrate, or reject them” (BT33-34/27). However, for Rancière this is made possible by the way that Tarr works with what he calls (following Flaubert) an absolute sense of style, that is, a style that is not subordinated to a narrative goal but is “an absolute way of seeing things”, one that in being independent of subject matter “gives to the visible the time to produce its own effect”, leading to “a vision of the world become creation of an autonomous sensible world” (BT 32-33/26, 69/63). [15] While such an understanding of style is geared towards the revelation of the specific durations of the world before us, as was discussed above, in its absoluteness it ignores the question of how the movements of the camera or soundtrack are necessarily related to the material of the film, and thus how the disparity between narrative and aesthetics arises from the milieu.

The scene in Damnation that is most representative of this disparity is also one of the most distinctive, in fact it is two scenes that seem to bear no relation to each other or to the scenes before or after them, and these are the two sequences that introduce the dance scene. In a manner that has already become familiar, the first part of this introduction involves a long tracking shot from left to right across the front of the dance hall that follows the passage of the rain across the façade of the building and the crowds that wait impassively in its doorways. The explicit association between the faces of the people and the roughened and dilapidated façade emphasises the sense of immersive material situation that Rancière discusses, but this aspect is offset by the music, which, although repetitive like all the music in the film, is not downbeat like the accordion music but quite buoyant. However, it turns out to have no relation to the music that we come to hear when we get to see the interior of the hall, it simply accompanies this tracking shot to introduce a sense of expectancy and to mark it off from the preceding scene in which Karrer complains to the barman about growing old. This is the other life that has been in the background through the development of the film, but which we are now being shown in its peculiar vitality. As this shot comes to a close the music gives way to the sound of the rain until there is a cut and we are presented with a very different image. Some time has passed as it is now dark and the rain is falling much more heavily, and before us is the solitary figure of a man dancing enthusiastically in the rain. Much like Karrer he seems unperturbed by the downpour, but the dance he performs bears no relation to the music we have just heard or to that which will appear at the end of this shot, instead, there is simply the sound of the man’s steps on the wet paving stones that seem to generate their own rhythm. Slowly the camera pulls back from this scene and into the hall, which is now full of activity, and as it does the music from the band becomes audible, but it is much more upbeat, almost rock and roll, and rhythmically unrelated to the dance that preceded it.

These two scenes contribute nothing to the plot and could have been removed without jeopardising the narrative, so their significance must lie elsewhere and this would seem to lie in the contrast between its figures (between the one and the many, the mobile and the stationary, and the preoccupied and the expectant), which has underpinned the relation that Karrer has sought to negotiate between himself and his environment. Its introduction at this point in the film therefore suggests a moment of submerged criticality, and when, at the very end of the dance scene, we again see a solitary figure dancing without music we recognise that some kind of transition or decision has occurred. But despite this sense of narrative transition there is also a subcutaneous affect in this sequence in which, whether through its slowness or its stylisation, we find our attention expanding beyond the simple line of the plot and becoming involved in another form of experience, one that is not focussed on Karrer’s story but on its milieu, which bears a material vagrancy that is not entirely entropic. It is here that we can discern the latent political import of the mise-en-scène, for beneath the morality tale of Karrer’s duplicity and decline lies an undercurrent of vitality that, however obscurely, persists.


As André Bazin remarks, however “decisive” the art of Marcel Carné in Le Quai des brumes or Le Jour se lève (1940), “his editing (découpage) remains on the level of the reality he is analysing”. [16] The major change that came about through the work of the Italian neo-realists was one of finding a way to respond to the facticity of the world as it is through the use of deep focus and long takes, which for Bazin provide an uninterrupted view of reality within which the viewer’s gaze can move at will, thereby allowing for an experience of the world in its ambivalence. In this way, we can see that the world of Damnation has taken a middle path between poetic and neo-realism that brings a greater symbolic density to the latter and a greater material density to the former, in order to do justice to the broader sense of realism being pursued. For a photograph is not simply a representation of reality, it also bears, as Bazin insists, its own material presence as well, the reality of the image in the absence of the world, a mechanically produced impression of actuality, which “realises the strange paradox of moulding itself to the time of the object and, moreover, taking the imprint of its duration” (QC 151/97). Such a moment is not that of a Bergsonian durée, not simply because it does not involve an open-ended creativity but also because the time of the mise-en-scène, in being filmed, is reflected and compounded, doubling its sense of endurance. Thus the filmic image becomes as ambivalent as reality itself in that it bears an objectivity like its object and also conveys that object into a time outside time, enabling both the subjective and objective times of its reality to be expressed by recording and describing them without uniting them, but instead leaving them in a state of paradoxical co-existence.

It is in this way that the poetic and realist elements of the film do not merge together but remain distinct even as they inform and refract each other, but it nevertheless departs from the classic form of poetic realism as there is no other world the characters can turn to, no figures of escape or hope that might indicate an alternative way of life. Thus the poetic element must arise from within this world, from out of its own texture and dynamics, and can only do so to the degree that it does not offer any transcendence that would violate the sense of that milieu by introducing something extraneous to it. There is thus a strange paradox about the form of Damnation, for it is fully-integrated aesthetically but nevertheless offers a narrative that expresses a significant lack of unity. But in doing so it offers a view that is true to the world that it engages with, but is not so rigid that it refuses those moments of peculiarity that expose its errancy and disunity. It is out of this disparity that the film can still present an oblique political import, which is significant precisely insofar as it is oblique for in this way it supplies a critique that is more subtle and enduring, since in its discretion it slips under the gaze of the narrative and persists subcutaneously as an indicator of what remains beyond nihilism.

It can be seen that the disparity in Damnation between the aesthetic and the representational regimes, as Rancière calls them, conforms to his idea of an instability in the film format that prevents it from presenting simple stories (or fables, in his terms). This tension lies in the way that film mobilises an audio visual experience alongside its ostensible narrative that does not fully conform to the intentions of this narrative. Within Damnation this lack of unity is at once more obvious and also less explicit, insofar as the relation between narrative and non-narrative elements is apparent but is not presented in any explicit manner. Instead, the relation between them serves to complicate any sense we may attempt to make of the motivation of the film’s development, which is why it retains a sense of enigma. The final scene where Karrer encounters the dog is clearly a point of realisation or discovery, but it is not entirely clear what this point is or how it has been reached. We could say that, having lost his connections to human society, Karrer has been swallowed up by the landscape, but it is perhaps not until the camera finally comes to rest on a black mass of overturned earth that we recall the same silhouette that was the putative subject of the opening shot and the displacement that this implies, which has been present throughout. In this way, despite the richness and mutually expressive relation of the narrative and the mise-en-scène, there is still a sense of lack or incomprehension, which is highlighted by the scene on the stairs with the singer’s daughter that is all but unnoticeable on the first viewing, or, alternatively, by the mysterious motivations of both the characters (as far as their monologues reveal) and the camera (as its own errancy demonstrates).

Consequently, there is less of an explicit tension between the aesthetic and the representational here than a confusion that undermines the possibility of their being so designated, alongside an extremely rich interchange between the material and the semiotic aspects of the images that yet leaves them enigmatic. It is the latter that I have discussed under the name of integration and that leads to the uncertainty that pervades the film in which we find it difficult to determine the status or sense of the images that we see. This notion of the work is closer to Adorno’s thinking than to Rancière’s, for rather than the two regimes working against each other and thus generating a tension between them, there is an integration of image and narrative in which each derives from and refracts the other leading to the film being fully worked through in a dialectical sense, but nevertheless retaining an enigmatic quality that prevents it from being totally determined. This lacuna is for the most part not sensible, it is, as I have said, subcutaneous, developing slowly and without clear aetiology to displace our sense of the film from both the aesthetic and the representational towards the strangeness of historico-material complication, in which their mutual dialectical inflections are experienced (the historical becoming material in the form of decay, and the material becoming historical in the form of fate, which come together undecidably, as we have seen, in the figure of damnation itself) but without this being fully explicated. [17] Part of this can be grasped but there remains much that is not, as if the thread had become lost along the way so that it is now unclear what it is that is being shown. Like the confusing monologues or long camera movements, which are by turns fascinating or alienating, the film moves in time into a foreign landscape so that how and where this movement has taken us is obscure, which is the nature and reality of the historico-material estrangement at work here.

Because Adorno made no sustained attempt to discuss film, Rancière’s work goes some way to showing how a dialectics of film aesthetics might work, but to the same degree it is disappointing that he does no more than apply a pre-existing model to his reading of Tarr. For the sense of style as absolute, which Rancière draws from Flaubert and that is foundational for his understanding of the differing regimes of art, cannot simply be applied to a film like Damnation without investigating how its style necessarily arose out of its material as that which derives from and reflects its milieu, as I have shown in regards to the development of the long take, something the notion of “absolute” style can only obscure. Equally, the notion of aesthetic and representational regimes is not in the end a subtle enough tool to discuss a film where the relation between what is shown and how comes under pressure from the start. For the difference between the images and the soundtrack is already to be found within them both in terms of the disparity between their import and their distorted forms. Just as folk rhythms or mechanical sounds are interwoven to displace their natural provenance, so too do images of figures and objects become unfixed, as in the action of the rain that grants materiality an expressiveness while drawing the human into an animal world. Such inter-relations then become undecidable when they are doubled by the different movements of the images and the soundtrack, which renders the film inexhaustible to the viewer’s own variable and inconclusive experience.


Theodor W. Adorno, Minima Moralia. Reflexionen aus dem beschädigten Leben, ed. Rolf Tiedemann (Frankfurt: Suhrkamp, 1979); tr. E. F. N. Jephcott as Minima Moralia: Reflections from Damaged Life (London: New Left Books, 1974).
Ästhetische Theorie, eds. Gretel Adorno and Rolf Tiedemann (Frankfurt: Suhrkamp, 1971); tr. Robert Hullot-Kentor as Aesthetic Theory (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1997).
– ‘Filmtransparente’, in Ohne Leitbild, ed. Rolf Tiedemann (Frankfurt: Suhrkamp, 1977); tr. Thomas Y. Levin as ‘Transparencies on Film’, in The Culture Industry, ed. J. M. Bernstein (London: Routledge, 1991).
Adorno and Hanns Eisler, Komposition für den Film, ed. Rolf Tiedemann (Frankfurt: Suhrkamp, 1976); tr. Norbert Guterman as Composing for the Films (London: Athlone, 1994).
Dudley Andrew, Mists of Regret: Culture and Sensibility in Classic French Film (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1995).
André Bazin, Qu’est-ce que le cinéma? (Paris: Editions du Cerf, 1985); tr. Hugh Gray as What is Cinema? (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1967).
Nicole Brenez, ‘T. W. Adorno, cinema in spite of itself – but cinema all the same’, tr. Olivier Delers and Ross Chambers, Cultural Studies Review 13.1 (2007): 70-88.
Jean Domarchi et al., ‘Hiroshima, notre amour’, in Cahiers du cinéma, the 1950s: Neo-Realism, Hollywood, New Wave, ed. Jim Hillier (London: Routledge, 1985), 59-70.
Miriam Hansen, Cinema and Experience: Kracauer, Benjamin, Adorno (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2012).
Olivia Harsan, ‘The Cinema of Béla Tarr: The Circle Closes by András Bálint Kovács’, Screening the Past 37 (2013):
‘Béla Tarr, The Time After by Jacques Rancière’, Screening the Past 38 (2013):
András Bálint Kovács, The Cinema of Béla Tarr: The Circle Closes (New York: Wallflower Press, 2013).
Jacques Rancière, Film Fables, tr. Emiliano Battista (Oxford: Berg, 2006).
Mute Speech, tr. James Swenson (New York: Columbia University Press, 2011).
The Politics of Literature, tr. Julie Rose (Cambridge: Polity, 2011).
Béla Tarr, le temps d’après (Paris: Capricci, 2011); tr. Erik Beranek as Béla Tarr, The Time After (Minneapolis: Univocal, 2013).
Jonathan Rosenbaum, Placing Movies: The Practice of Film Criticism (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1995).
Martin Seel, ‘Sitting Unobserved: Adorno’s Outline for an Aesthetics of Cinema’, tr. Steven Lindberg in Adorno: The Possibility of the Impossible, ed. Nicolaus Schafhausen (Berlin: Lukas & Sternberg, 2003), 25-30.
Ginette Vincendeau, ‘Noir is also a French word: The French antecedents of film noir’, in The Movie Book of Film Noir, ed. Ian Cameron (London: Studio Vista, 1992), 49-58.


[1] The world of poetic realism has been widely studied, particularly in terms of its influence on American film noir, but the best analysis remains that by Andrew, Mists of Regret. Vincendeau provides a brief but very useful overview in “Noir is also a French word”.
[2] As Kovács notes, this song was written by Víg as a parody of mournful love songs when he was with the group Trabant in the early 1980s, but it has subsequently become very popular. See Kovács, The Cinema of Béla Tarr, 152. Hereafter cited as CBT. Very helpful reviews by Harsan of this volume and Rancière’s essay (see note 4 below) can be found at Screening the Past.
[3] I have used the subtitles on the DVD of Damnation produced by Artificial Eye (ART 249: 2003), unfortunately no details are given as to who made these subtitles. Kovács provides some quotations from the film that he has translated himself, but for the sake of consistency and availability I have remained with those on the DVD.
[4] Rancière, Béla Tarr, le temps d’après, 33; tr. Béla Tarr, The Time After, 26-27. Hereafter cited as BT, with references to the French volume first, followed by the English, translations have occasionally been emended.
[5] Rancière extends the reference to Bergson by referring to Deleuze’s work on the time-image (although neither are mentioned directly) when, in regard to the camerawork of Damnation, he states that “From this point on a Béla Tarr film will be an assemblage of these crystals of time in which the ‘cosmic’ pressure is concentrated. More than all others, his images deserve to be called time-images, images in which duration is made manifest” (BT 41/34). But Deleuze’s time-image is crystalline because in it shots of different temporal relations are edited together without effacing their autonomy and incommensurability, which makes the actuality of time visible as an interval of becoming, and for which he finds the most concrete examples in the films of Resnais and Ozu. Damnation does not operate under this logic at all, since it is not becoming that is made manifest in its long takes but the Seinesgleichen of the everyday, as Robert Musil would call it, its existence as the same. If Rancière is attempting to reclaim the notions of duration and time-image from their original contexts (as his critique of Deleuze in Film Fables, 107-23, suggests), then the point is still problematic, since what the long takes in Damnation indicate is the endless decay of time, or at most its slow turning on the spot, in which there is not lived experience but limbo.
[6] Although the context is not film, Adorno usefully states that “in the long, contemplative look that first unfolds people and things the urge towards the object is always broken, reflected. Consideration (Betrachtung) without force, from which all happiness of truth comes, is dependent on the fact that he who considers does not assimilate the object: nearness of distance”. See, Adorno, Minima Moralia, 98; tr. Minima Moralia, 89-90. Hereafter cited as MM.
[7] The process by which music animates the cinematic image is emphasised by Adorno and Eisler in their treatment of film music: “The bodily image as a phenomenon in itself lacks motivation for movement; only indirectly (abgeleitet), mediatedly, do we realise that the images are moving, that the reified impression of reality seems to have kept a touch of just that spontaneity that was withdrawn from it by its fixation: that the petrified marker (Kenntliche) is testifying to a kind of life of its own. At this point music intervenes, as it were supplying gravity, muscular energy, and a feeling of corporeity (Körpergefühl). It is thus in its aesthetic effect a stimulus of motion, not its reduplication”. See, Adorno and Eisler, Komposition für den Film, 77; tr. Composing for the Films, 52. Hereafter cited as KF. Despite his criticisms of the culture industry, film is important for Adorno because it is an audiovisual medium, which means that it is uniquely gifted with the possibility of engaging with the divergent trends of the auditory (towards the subjective) and the visual (towards the objective), a contradiction that film music should make productive, rather than trying to obliterate (KF 71/48). Seel pursues this possibility further in his “Sitting Unobserved”.
[8] In general, Rancière is insensitive to the fact that the films directed by Tarr are not auteur pieces, quite the opposite; Tarr is committed to the collaborative practices developed in his early works and Damnation is clearly introduced as a film by Krasznahorkai, Medvigy, Pauer, Víg, Hranitzky, and Tarr.
[9] One of the earliest responses to Tarr’s works came from Rosenbaum, who wrote in relation to Damnation that “the story and the mise en scène are constructed in counterpoint to one another, like the separate melodic lines in a fugue”, such that, as he goes on to point out, the space and time of the film is constructed as much by the movements of the camera and soundtrack as it is by those of the characters and plot, see Placing Movies, 57-58. Which is to say that what we are watching is not the movements of the characters per se but a specific mise-en-scène in which the characters play a part.
[10] As Hansen points out in, Cinema and Experience, 207-50, Adorno raises three major problems for an aesthetics of film (arising out of the falsely natural analogies between photography and objectivity, editing and temporality, and sound and image): firstly, the sense in which film’s susceptibility to the material world facilitates a non-critical immersion; secondly, the manner in which visual montage becomes naturalised as a convention of narrative disruption; and thirdly, the way that the construction of image-sequences operates like the instructive codes of writing. What is significant about Damnation is the way that the relation between image and soundtrack disrupts all three of these modes through which film risks becoming a commodity.
[11] This is the point that Adorno will take up in his later sketch, “Filmtransparente”, 355; tr. “Transparencies on Film”, 180. See also, Brenez, “T. W. Adorno”, for a useful overview of the ways in which Adorno thinks film may avoid this potential trap.
[12] On this point Tarr is very clear, what we see in Damnation is what is actually there in these dilapidated former mining towns. On the other hand, Pauer provides a fascinating insight into how this realism was constructed out of many different locations, such that what we see is not anywhere in particular, but everywhere (CBT 62-63).
[13] The deliberately artistic quality of the film also indicates its strong historical context, as Kovács details. There is not only the conspicuous presence of figures from the Hungarian underground art world, like Gyula Pauer (who will provide the set and costume design, and also play the barman, a role he will reprise with variations in the remainder of Tarr’s films up until The Man from London (2007)), as well as Krasznahorkai and Víg. But there is also the figure of the young man who dances on his own at the end of the long dance scene, who is explicitly citing a similar dance he had performed in a film by László Najmányi, The Message of the Emperor (1975), and whom Tarr hired for that purpose (CBT 70). It is telling then that Damnation would be roundly condemned by Hungarian critics when it was released, but would become a success on the international film festival circuit, and would be very influential amongst later Hungarian filmmakers.
[14] For Godard’s comments on tracking shots see the discussion of Hiroshima mon amour (Alain Resnais, 1959) in Domarchi et al., “Hiroshima, notre amour”, 62. Tarr refers to Godard in Kovács (CBT 53).
[15] Rancière is recalling the letter that Flaubert wrote to Louise Colet in January 1852 in which he notes that prose bears a style that is absolute insofar as it can say anything or nothing. This discovery is central to Rancière’s notion of the aesthetic regime of art and its displacement of the representational regime, which he discusses in many of his works but especially Mute Speech and The Politics of Literature. As Rancière shows, the apparently unadorned nature of prose, which grants it the ability to say anything, bears an absolute status that is contradictory, insofar as its lack of rhetorical hierarchy is politically democratic but linguistically material, which is then taken up in the divergent tendencies of writers like Zola and Mallarmé. In translating this idea from literature to cinema, in relation to Tarr, Rancière drops the nuances of this analysis in favour of an absolute vision whose sole quality is that of revealing the durée of a world by abstaining from any plot, blurring the internal tensions of Flaubert’s discovery and obliterating its material basis.
Although his reading of Tarr is hampered by this lack of depth, in Film Fables Rancière goes into more detail on how his understanding of the differing regimes of art operates in relation to film. The aesthetic regime of film does not just surpass the representational regime of theatre by displacing dramatic plotlines with a sensitivity to materiality, as that would suggest that cinema is fully subsumed into the aesthetic, which is clearly not the case. Instead, the passivity of the camera’s gaze, which opens it up to the materiality of the audiovisual, also renders it vulnerable to market forces that draw it back into a representational framework. So the task for the artistic filmmaker is to counter this passivity by emphasising the activity of the machinic gaze through montage or, as we have seen, obtrusive camera movements, or even through a revived but transformed dramatic narrative (in the Brechtian tropes adopted by Fassbinder or Trier, or the reductions deployed by Bresson or Haneke). There is thus no simple teleology to this dialectic as the aesthetic may have to go by way of the representational in order to counter it, which entails its own countering by the representational, in which neither achieve dominance.
Despite this, Rancière’s model still lacks the subtlety of Adorno’s understanding of aesthetic material because it lacks a worked-out dialectic of natural-history that would situate artworks in their contexts, and because his attention to the antagonism of the two regimes omits those aspects of inassimilable negativity that would destabilise their dialectical interaction. Ultimately, there is too little attention paid to how the matter of the aesthetic and the representational assist and resist conceptualisation, which only a thorough and careful analysis of particular works can reveal. As a result, the analysis of the two regimes remains at the level of narrative affect, rather than seeking to understand the film’s construction as a work.
[16] Bazin, Qu’est-ce que le cinéma?, 72; tr. What is Cinema?, 32. Hereafter cited as QC.
[17] Adorno, Ästhetische Theorie, 191-92; tr. Aesthetic Theory, 126-27.

About the Author

William S. Allen

About the Author

William S. Allen

William S. Allen is an independent researcher at the University of Southampton and the author of Ellipsis: Of Poetry and the Experience of Language after Heidegger, Hölderlin, and Blanchot (SUNY Press, 2007), as well as articles on Blanchot, Benjamin, Heidegger, and Adorno, which have appeared in MLN and Research in Phenomenology. He is currently completing a project on aesthetics and materiality in Blanchot and Adorno.View all posts by William S. Allen →