Interview | The Thinking Image: Fred Kelemen on Béla Tarr and The Turin Horse

By Robert Koehler

An aging, partially disabled father and his loyal, hard-working daughter endure six days and nights of a fierce windstorm in their lonely farmhouse while their horse—their means of sustenance—gradually loses its will to work or eat. This could be the stuff of a play, but Béla Tarr’s The Turin Horse consciously contains its action and world to as small a space as possible while expanding his distinctly kinetic and time-stretching film language, nearly always premised on the possibilities of the moving camera. Indeed, as is noted in the conversation with Tarr’s cinematographer Fred Kelemen below, the film’s interior lighting scheme—including dimmer boards and dozens of fixed small lights—directly recalls elements of stage-lighting practice.

But Kelemen and Tarr are radically involved in cinema, as moments of random viewing of The Turin Horse (or, for that matter, their past collaboration, 2007’s The Man from London) amply demonstrate. Because of its black-and-white photography, its intensely celluloid textures and (mostly) minimized dialogue, it’s easy to cite The Turin Horse as a direct descendent of silent film. However, a close viewing, or preferably more than one, indicate that this is only part of the story, and not really the interesting part—much like the film’s text by Tarr and his “permanent” writer-collaborator Laszlo Krasznahorkai can be pegged as a tale of an oncoming apocalypse with great implications for today’s viewers. Such a reading tends to ignore the story’s essential absurdist essence, the will to go on despite all dire signs to the contrary. The Turin Horse is as much tied to Samuel Beckett as it is to Friedrich Nietzsche, whose (fictionalized) rescue of a horse being thrashed on a street in Turin was the wellspring for the film’s story.

If this is Tarr’s final film—which he currently insists that it is, stressing that he intended it to be his final work while preparing filming—then it appears to be a return to essentials. With Tarr, Kelemen—whose own films as director, including Fallen (2005), Nightfall (1999), and Frost (1997), revel in the moving shot—devised a remarkably intricate chain of moving images, never intending the baroque high points of Werckmeister Harmonies (2000), Satantango (1994), or The Man from London, but fully in line with those films’ fascination with the visually dramatic possibilities that the moving camera can produce on screen and then directly to the viewer’s consciousness. This phenomenon is heightened by the deliberately slow tempo of most of the shots, producing a rigorously designed result that Kelemen refers to as “the thinking image.” Moreover, the individual shots always comprise multiple shots—shots within the shot—that actually don’t tie the film to the silent era, when only a handful of filmmakers deployed the moving camera, and the ones who did (such as Dziga Vertov and Abel Gance) bear no real connection with Tarr’s much more gradualist cinema. Rather, the shots-within-shot style is a look back toward Max Ophüls, whose balletic tracks and dollies declare that cinema can be choreographic. (“Choreography” proves to be one of Kelemen’s favourite words.)

Perhaps because of its extreme intimacy and radical denial of much breathing room outside, the images in The Turin Horse become in many ways the inner thoughts of its two characters, even as the characters exist inside the images. A shot that begins with the father looking outside (we see what he sees at first) gradually evolves into a larger shot of the living space until it changes yet again into a view of the daughter sewing; the conventional film grammar would call for cuts, and some would argue that the cut itself is the most cinematic of devices. But Tarr/Kelemen’s way with images argues for a different perspective: that instead of the cut, the ever-changing image in front of us produces a more mysterious, sometimes destabilizing effect, much like the way the mind can wander from thought to thought, or how we see our own bodies move through physical space. The tension between this frequently contemplative flow, a kind of anti-montage, and the harsh absurdities of the life laid out on screen is what energizes The Turin Horse, much like the intensity of the burnished colours in Van Gogh’s The Potato Eaters—a painting which Tarr and Kelemen considered during their preparations, which makes sense as potato-eating is this family’s only dining experience—and pushes against the image’s depiction of sheer, unmitigated desperation.

Cinema Scope: How did you and Béla Tarr meet and how did your working relationship develop?

Fred Kelemen: We met in January 1990 when Béla was presenting a retrospective of his films in Berlin. We saw each other at a café sitting at different tables without knowing each other. The following Monday we accidentally met at the office of the film school where he gave a small workshop of three or four days. He remembered me from the café and asked me to join his workshop. I agreed, and as it was for higher-level students I could not shoot an entire own work, but I did the camerawork for the other students who realized some small exercises. Béla and I immediately understood that we are connected, that we have similar approaches to the art of film and similar ideas about how to move the camera. From that moment, our relationship started. When we said goodbye after the workshop we knew that we would meet again. We did later in Budapest, where I regularly travel to see my family. And whenever he came to Berlin, he called me. So, slowly, we came together and our artistic ways were leading us in a similar direction. The first meeting was the beginning of a long way together that eventually led us up to the shooting of The Turin Horse.

Scope: In Tarr’s films one is always aware of the camera and its relationship to physical space. His cinema and your cinema make the viewer quite aware of the physical space and the relationship—either close or far—of where the camera is to bodies and space. Was that something you were immediately aware of in the workshops?

Kelemen: In those three or four days, it was somehow quite clear that we shared a kind of vision. Before studying in the film school, I was painting. What interested me extremely is that in cinema the picture is moving. So when I began my own filmmaking, I was moving the camera. In my application for studying at the film school, the movement was the essential element. It’s still the most interesting and adventurous thing—how the camera moves through space, how the camera reveals things by moving. It is like the movement of thoughts, your thoughts move and you reveal something. We move in the world and by moving we discover and understand. The human being is a moving being—physically and spiritually—not a stationary one. The moving image is thus a thinking image.

Scope: A fascinating aspect of the moving shot is the difference between the forward and reverse moving shot. My own aesthetic bias tends to prefer the reverse moving shot that gives the viewer more information. I sense that you and Tarr may also share that tendency, since the majority of your moves are reverses.

Kelemen: The very first shot is a reverse shot, and then it moves side to side…

Scope: Yes, it moves around. It reminds one of Ophüls. This must have been something that you’ve discussed.

Kelemen: Well, I can’t say in general…And that’s not to mention the parallel tracking shot going from side to side. The forward and reverse movements create entirely different tensions. It’s a very different feeling going toward an object or person than by revealing more and more of the space by going backwards. It’s not only a question of revelation, but of a different energy. It depends very much on the subject, what you shoot, what you want to say in the moment: one type of movement is better than another. For example, in The Turin Horse, when the daughter is reading the book the gypsies gave her, the camera moves closer and closer, very slowly. And this creates a different emotion than when the camera moves away from a person or an object.

Scope: That would also seem to be at the heart of what we were talking about before, about how you would plan out the shots.

Kelemen: We started with how the actors would go from place to place, and then we would plot out the shot. So the question was often, “How can we go from this starting picture to this ending picture?” For example, it was clear when they’re sitting and eating potatoes, we knew that she had to stand up and go over to the oven, and that’s where the shot would end. So the actors’ movement in the space was ahead of the camera movement. Finding the choreography for how the camera follows the character through space can be a very adventurous thing, almost really musical. We tried to find the optimal way, which means the most fluent. We searched for it together. We shared in the making of these shots, and it’s really an ongoing collaboration and conversation. Often a conversation without words, just with moving the camera and watching and feeling.

Scope: And a central aspect of these shots are the shots within the shots.

Kelemen: For sure. A good example is the shot that moves back from the long focal length shot through the window of the distant hills during a foggy day, which is both a zoom out and reverse moving shot back from the father, pulling back to reveal the daughter sewing at the dining table. Inside this shot are many individual shots, each one emphasizing a particular idea.

Scope: When you first saw the script of The Turin Horse, did the moving images come into your head at that point? Or was it more in conversation with Tarr that the pictures then formed in your own head? I ask that because the viewer is quite aware when watching the film that the cinematographer is a co-filmmaker and that the images seem to be as much yours as they are Tarr’s.

Kelemen: I can’t read without having images in my mind. And when I was reading, I was naturally imagining each scene in the film as a single shot. I never saw any cuts to break up the single shot. Not knowing the concrete space while reading, surely, I saw things differently from the way they actually turned out. I didn’t know where the door or table or a window would be. When Béla explained to me the positioning of all these crucial items and how he imagined certain pictures, and when I saw the set, then it was clearer. There weren’t so many options: the table is here, the door is here and so on. So Béla and I went scene by scene and sometimes we made little drawings of the space, like an architect’s floor plan, with lines for the movements of the actors and camera movements. And since we have similar ideas and imaginations about how to make images, we never disagreed. Béla is a film artist with a strong visual sense. We both know that the art of film is first of all a visual art. During the shooting, it is very rare that the movement of the camera had to be corrected fundamentally or the speed of it had to be changed, etc. according to what was imagined beforehand. Despite our close connection, Béla is the director in his films and he has the last decision—but as I said, we never disagree in these artistic questions.

Scope: You are very much a part of the creation of the shots, including the tempo of the camera moving in a particular direction, and also your decision to use an optical zoom to enhance the movement one way or the other. As camera operator, you have a considerable amount of control over the images’ look and dynamic.

Kelemen: That’s something I really like about this kind of shooting because it gets to be a physical performance. Naturally or intuitively, when we’re doing the work, we let the camera fly through the space. For sure, Béla is controlling the image via a video monitor.

Scope: Does that include the zoom shot, which Tarr told me the other day that he doesn’t much prefer?

Kelemen: It depends on how it is used. The zoom can be very disturbing if it is used in a rough way and it can ruin the whole feeling of a film. But if you use it carefully to frame your image and support the movement of the dolly, for example, you can produce a very nice, tender effect of dolly movement and zoom movement in one. It can become very fluid.

Scope: It’s quite elastic.

Kelemen: Yes, it’s very elastic, like a material you can form, like hot wax. It is like dancing with the world around, and while moving creating it. A quotation of Nietzsche comes to mind—that we have to be able to give birth to a dancing star.

Scope: And this is where this film in particular is also different from silent film, because in silent cinema you didn’t have this kind of optical elasticity you’re talking about. This is what makes The Turin Horse a very modern film, while at the same time drawing much inspiration from silent cinema.

Kelemen: Cinema is fundamentally a visual art, as I said, not dependent on literature, it has much more to do with music. You can take the words away and you still have a film, but you can’t take the image away. And even a black screen is an image. So automatically, when you talk about silent cinema, you’re at the heart of cinema. I always prefer to focus on the visual and express what we have to say by way of the image and not by words.

Scope: And we see that in your own films.

Kelemen: Well, it’s a natural tendency. My view of cinema as primarily visual guides my work, whether I’m making my own films or working with, for example, Béla.

Scope: What do you both talk about in terms of the film’s ideas? This is not all a technical exercise for you. There’s clearly a great deal that goes on in terms of expressing the ideas that emerge in front of the camera.

Kelemen: For sure it’s not just a technical job. It is an artistic creation. As I tried to express before, the cooperation between Béla and me has a magical aspect. It is a rare human and artistic connection. We have the same point of view, we understand each other without words, we have the same heartbeat concerning the soul of the images, the timing, the framing, etc. It has to do with ideas but it’s also a matter of energies, intuitions, and a sense of the physical space, the feel of it, to use the images to tell something, to create an atmosphere. We don’t sit around having intellectual conversations. We shoot it in the way we like it.

Scope: Did you ever discuss Nietzsche?

Kelemen: Almost never. During one break we sat down and read one part of a text by Nietzsche. I have been familiar with his texts for a very long time. When I was 13 or 14 years old I read a text by him for the first time. Before studying at the film school, besides painting I studied philosophy. But the film is entirely understandable without any knowledge of Nietzsche at all, because it is simply human.

Scope: While watching it a second time, I found that it was funnier and that I was laughing more. And I realized that I was thinking much more of Beckett than Nietzsche.

Kelemen: When I was reading the script, I was thinking of Beckett, and that was something I really liked about it immediately. There is a convincing radical minimalism and an awareness of our human condition besides all illusions. The humour you discovered is a hidden and fine one. And for sure, the movie is not dark or depressing—it is rather purifying.

Scope: On some practical points, how large was the crew and how did you come upon the film’s unusual location?

Kelemen: We had a pretty small crew. In my department I had four technicians, two people in my camera team and the grip. The final choice came down to two different locations. We felt that the location with the hills and the lone tree was the perfect place, with more than enough room to build the horse stable and the house—it’s in Hungary.

Scope: And the horse?

Kelemen: The horse Ricsi is female. The name was given to her before. Béla found her. I was not present, so it is his story to tell. Ricsi is living on a farm now. We are pretty sure that she was poorly treated in her life before the film. She had this deep sadness in her eyes and she didn’t like to move with a carriage.

Scope: Just like Nietzsche’s horse.

Kelemen: Yes.

Scope: Ricsi even had an effect on the casting, right?

Kelemen: Béla had to find an actor, playing the father, who could work well with the horse.

Scope: An interesting aspect is the film’s lighting. When people see the film they might not be conscious to the degree that the film is painstakingly lit throughout. Could you go through the process of the lighting scheme?

Kelemen: It was clear for the interior setting that no sources of artificial light would be visible in the frame, except for the lamps in the night shots and the glow from the oven. During the day, all the light should look like its source originates through the windows. The natural light coming into the house that was built for the film was so low that without adding artificial light, the image would come out black. So all the interior shots are lit with a lot of lamps, trying to create the feeling that it’s a dark place with all the light coming in from the windows. The lighting was made for the space and according to the movements of the actors and the camera. When I lit a space, I had to know who’s going where. I had to make an architectural and choreographic plan so I could build up the light, knowing that as I move through the shot I may have lights to the camera’s left, and then lights to the right, and say when I walk through some darkness that would be a nice place to have a little light to touch the actor at a certain moment, for example. It has to do with movement and the rhythm of the film. There’s a music of light in the film and a logic of light.

Scope: So the lighting would change based on the movement in the scene, and you’d have to reset the light?

Kelemen: We created a basic light scheme inside the house, and for sure the place always had to look the same, but as well we changed the lights or their position, depending on the shot.

Scope: So depending on where the camera was, alterations in your lighting scheme had to happen. Just like in a studio.

Kelemen: It was like a studio, only more difficult, because we had the natural daylight entering from outside. We decided that most of the time the outside should be visible behind the windows when we’re in the house. I had to take care of the outside lights. If the light outside was dimming during or at the end of the day, I had to lower the lighting inside. So it was necessary permanently to create the right relation between outside and inside light.

Scope: Did you have dimmer boards?

Kelemen: Always.

Scope: So it was almost like you were lighting for the theatre.

Kelemen: Yes, but we also had this elasticity in the lighting like we had for the camera. Sometimes we would change the lighting inside a shot, so we put it up or put it down. We had notes on all these moves for the technicians on the crew. It was a precise work to move the power of the lights or even lamps according to the movement of the camera and the image we wanted to create. It is painting with lights. We had around 30 practical lights of various sizes set in and outside the house and around 15 practical lights in the stable.

Scope: Can you describe the shooting schedule?

Kelemen: We couldn’t shoot in summer since it would give us too much sunshine, we didn’t want to have rain, we didn’t want to have snow, and we didn’t want to have vegetation. So we could only shoot between winter and spring or between autumn and winter, and we had to stop in spring when the vegetation was too strong, and we had to wait for autumn to end for early winter. This was in 2009, and then we resumed last year. The necessities made us shoot in very limited parts of the year to get this dry, almost desert landscape. Nature forced our hand, so we had to constantly wait for the weather to be right whenever we were viewing the outside. It was extremely foggy one day, and it seemed as if it would be impossible to shoot. You couldn’t even make out the distant hill. But the more we looked at it, the more it seemed that it would be beautiful to shoot and it ended that an image from that shooting day is the one that’s used in the film’s poster art.

These specific conditions of nature presented some interesting challenges. For example, I was very concerned about making sure that the horse was going to be visible onscreen during the shots looking into the stable. The stable is fairly underlit, and if we were shooting later in the year, the horse would have shed her summer coat and become much darker as we moved into fall. I wasn’t sure at first that she would be viewable in the stable’s heavy shadows.

Scope: Where did the idea for the constant, driving wind come from?

Kelemen: It was in the script.

Scope: And how did you create the wind?

Kelemen: We had a huge crew and they were all blowing. (Laughs.) We had some old wind machines and sometimes we used a helicopter. The machines would have to move with the camera, so this was yet another choreographed element. We didn’t have wind machines big enough to blow the whole area, so, for example, when the camera is moving out of the house following an actor, we had to keep the wind machines following along so there would be no visible gap of calm in the shot as the actor is moving. Everything is moving, everything is part of a big choreography: the wind, the lights, the camera, the actors.

Scope: You must have questioned as to why the father and the daughter, once they’ve packed up and left, return to the house after they go over the horizon.

Kelemen: It’s very easy. They see something—you can only imagine what it is—that makes it not worth staying.

Scope: It seems like the most Beckett-like moment, because as bad as where they were, wherever they were heading was even worse.

Kelemen: No matter if it’s better or worse, but it’s something that stops them from keeping going. In this world there is no other world than this one. There is no escape. It does not matter where you are, but who you are and how you deal with yourself and others, and the conditions of life of which death is surely an integral part.