‘Damnation’ relates a powerful, sorrowful tale in a Hungarian village
- Written by Diane Carson
Fans of Hungarian director Béla Tarr admire his distinctive style. The camera creeps slowly, all but imperceptibly, to reframe evocative black-and-white compositions. Long shots and lengthy takes unfold at a meditative pace, compositions often held after characters have exited the frame. Rain literally and figuratively defines the atmosphere as characters struggle with their emotional and physical entrapment.
All of this is magnificently on display in co-writer/director Tarr’s 1988 “Damnation.” Set in a small, coal-mining village far from Budapest, the bare bones story focuses on Karrer, obsessively in love with an indifferent singer at the dreary Titanik bar, a meaningful name given the occasional downpours and the uninterrupted movement toward disaster. Offered a chance to make money smuggling “a package” for the Titanik’s devious owner, Karrer offers the opportunity to the singer’s husband under the pretense of helping him pay off substantial debts but, to abet Karrer’s opportunistic designs, to get him out of town.
Among the supporting characters in this drama, a savvy, observant coat check woman delivers the most insightful, painfully truthful observations, describing the singer to Karrer as a leech and “a bottomless swamp.” Nevertheless, Karrer believes he can’t live without the singer, who is, significantly, never given a name. Various interactions unfold with minimal dialogue, suggesting these individuals can not connect in this desolate, decaying wasteland even when they make an effort to relate. Typical of Tarr in its inclusion and tone, a protracted communal dance feels more funereal than celebratory. Further, in another Tarr signature, the stray dogs that punctuate scenes and endure pounding rain say a great deal about the individuals with whom they share bleak, miserable outdoor areas devoid of any hint of sunlight. The last scene that merges the human with the canine makes its point with sledgehammer power.
Tarr masterfully presents this gloomy milieu through a minimalist style, achieving a haunting, mesmerizing effect. So beautiful are the tableaus, so profoundly powerful the performances that “Damnation” is a singular, artistic achievement. Tarr himself supervised this 4K restoration, in Hungarian with English subtitles, available on Amazon and soon on select platforms.