This film has to be in this year’s advent calendar. Bela Tarr’s The Man from London (2007) was the very first slow film I watched. It was the beginning of a deep love, and a slowly growing obsession. Re-watching the film brought up nice memories. The first scene, in particular, is something I will never forget. Not only because the lighting was so impressive, and the use of black-and-white was spot on. I sat on my sofa and waited for the first cut. I kept looking at my watch. I wasn’t impatient. If anything I was surprised that it was possible not to cut. You don’t exactly learn this with mainstream film. Cuts must be made, and must be made swiftly in order to keep the narrative going (and the audience awake).
The intro lasts eleven minutes, and is exemplary of Tarr’s complaint that there is a kind of censorship going on if you use film rather than digital. Film would only ever get you to eleven minutes, then you have to cut. A curious, but at the same time valid statement, as I was to find out later when I came across Lav Diaz, a filmmaker using digital. With digital, he’s able to extend his shots, sometimes to twenty minutes and more.
The Man from London is an adaptation of a Belgian novel of the same name by George Simenon. This makes Tarr stand out from other slow-film directors. Other works, such as his seven-hour epic Satantango (1994) and Werckmeister Harmonies (2000) were adaptations of works of his long-time Hungarian collaborator Laszlo Krasznahorkai. Tarr manages to extend the viewing time so that it’s not all too far away from the (book) reading time. Just as a writer gives time to his or her characters, he gives us time to study the screen characters and their development. There is thus a very intriguing link here to the time one spends (is allowed to spend) with a specific medium, and I suppose also how this shapes one’s impression of it.
Black-and-white is used to perfection in the film, especially because many scenes are set at night, so that the whole darkness and all its connotations (evilness, danger, uncertainty) come through. It also helps to anonymise the surroundings. If you really wanted to, you could look up the shooting locations. But as Tarr pointed out in interviews, his films showed events that could happen anywhere anytime. Colours (by day) would make it easier to identify the location, and therefore link it inevitably to that certain location, which influences our reading of the film. The black-and-white allows for a more neutral reading of all of his films in general, and this film in particular.
I could write a celebration of the many achievements of this film, which let my heart jump the first time and still does today. Kelemen as cinematographer gave the film a haunting feeling. The smoothness of the camera makes it feel as if there is a secret additional character, who is observing the events. It’s simply beautiful. And, even more so than The Turin Horse (2011), a wonderful photo album. And because of this, I will say no more, and let you take a look at some screenshots as well as an extract, which clearly demonstrates Kelemen’s superb cinematography.
One last thing, though: Tarr explained that everyone on the set spoke a different language, and they didn’t need an interpreter. There you go – filmmaking, a universal language!