CAPSULE: DAMNATION (1988)

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DIRECTED BY: Béla Tarr

FEATURING: Székely B. Miklós, Vali Kerekes, Gyula Pauer

PLOT: Karrer pines for a married nightclub singer and passes along a smuggling opportunity to her husband.

COMMENTS: The subdued tragedy, utter pointlessness, and active ennui that oozes from this beautifully shot film is probably Damnation‘s goal. From its opening shot of coal bins slowly traveling along a suspended wire track to its closing shot of a mound of earth littered with barbed-wire-looking roots, there’s a great heap of scant going on, with the vivaciousness provided only by the (comparatively) seductive and jaunty film score. It is arguable there is beauty to be found within Damnation; it is inarguable that the viewer is provided countless minutes to keep an eye out for it.

Karrer (Székely B. Miklós) is introduced by his favorite past-time: silently observing full bins of coal traveling off in one direction and empty bins traveling in the opposite. He stares out his window; then we stare at him as he stares into a mirror, shaving. He has an awkward encounter with a woman through a chained gap in a door; she claims to have had enough of him, he claims he should be let inside. A jolly bartender (Gyula Pauer, the only ray of light in the overcast cast) chats amiably with Karrer about the slow destruction of body and soul before getting sidetracked from his chuckling existentialism in order to address the actual topic at hand: a parcel needs picking up, and the retriever’s fee is “20%”. (“20% of what?”, some may ask—it matters as much as Hitchcock’s suitcase full of incandescent distraction.) The woman from behind the door is a nightclub singer. Her husband has had enough of Karrer. So what’s the sporting thing to do? Offer the singer’s husband the job and the reward.

The camerawork somehow sludges into fascinating. Under the direction of Gábor Medvigy, the lens practically skulks its way through the film, slinking languidly left to right across sets as (in)action takes place in the fore-, mid-, or back-ground. It idles over unlikely figures, such as the bar’s accordionist noodling through an ambiguous melody; or the waiter snoozing on a chair; or a film extra sitting in absolute stillness amidst rhythmically pacing dancers. This circle of revelers—if one could be so generous as to call them that—is a metaphor, encapsulating Tarr’s obsessive message of cyclical tedium and its inevitable, meaningless disintegration.

Despite my intentions, I appear to be suggesting that something profound occurs in Damnation. Perhaps there is, but the question as to whether this is a story worth telling remains. Toward the end, something of an expectable twist limps from the narrative, and on the heels of that subdued reveal comes what may be the film’s most famous sequence: Karrer’s psychological descent into caninity. But Tarr should take note, as his bartender puts it to protagonist, that “[y]our problem is you see things from your perspective.” A biting societal commentary loses its edge if left to dull for two monotonous hours.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“. Tarr’s fascination with their ennui is profound, and while his statement about them isn’t lacking in visual power and philosophical heft, it’s also questionable whether it’s the strongest statement an artist of his caliber can make.” -Jeremiah Kipp, Slant Magazine

Where to watch Damnation

3 thoughts on “CAPSULE: DAMNATION (1988)”

  1. I saw this film for the first time when the restoration streamed as part of NYFF and it really is beautiful.

    I would call it mesmerizing, rather than monotonous, but I’ll admit I could watch those shots of the coal bins going by all day. This is the kind of movie to watch not because of what happens, or because of the meaning, but because it evokes such a strong mood, even if it is one of pointlessness and ennui.

    1. I would have been more forgiving in my review if the movie didn’t immediately veer into art-house self-parody whenever anyone but the bar owner was talking. His character is the only one of the half-dozen that comes across as believably real in a film that obviously wants to be steeped in the mundanity of real life.

      Him, and maybe the hat-check woman, until she has her long spiel about the old testament. But everyone else, when they’re talking, breaks whatever hypnotic spell might have been achieved by the camera-work. (Which is why I consider the cinematographer so very capable here, and “Damnation” without dialogue would almost certainly have been more compelling.)

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