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Interview | The Thinking


Image: Fred Kelemen on
Bla Tarr and The Turin
Horse
BY ROBERT KOEHLER IN CS46, FROM THE MAGAZINE, INTERVIEWS

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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 horsetheir means of sustenance
gradually loses its will to work or eat. This could be the stuff of a play,
but Bla Tarrs 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 Tarrs cinematographer Fred Kelemen below, the
films interior lighting schemeincluding dimmer boards and dozens
of fixed small lightsdirectly 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, 2007s The Man from London) amply demonstrate.
Because of its black-and-white photography, its intensely celluloid
textures and (mostly) minimized dialogue, its 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 partmuch like the films text by Tarr
and his permanent writer-collaborator Laszlo Krasznahorkai can be

pegged as a tale of an oncoming apocalypse with great implications


for todays viewers. Such a reading tends to ignore the storys
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 films
story.
If this is Tarrs final filmwhich he currently insists that it is, stressing
that he intended it to be his final work while preparing filmingthen it
appears to be a return to essentials. With Tarr, Kelemenwhose own
films as director, including Fallen (2005), Nightfall (1999), and Frost
(1997), revel in the moving shotdevised 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 viewers 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 shotsshots within the shotthat actually dont 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 Tarrs much more
gradualist cinema. Rather, the shots-within-shot style is a look back
toward Max Ophls, whose balletic tracks and dollies declare that
cinema can be choreographic. (Choreography proves to be one of
Kelemens 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/Kelemens 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 antimontage, 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 Goghs The Potato Eatersa painting
which Tarr and Kelemen considered during their preparations, which
makes sense as potato-eating is this familys only dining
experienceand pushes against the images depiction of sheer,
unmitigated desperation.
Cinema Scope: How did you and Bla Tarr meet and how did your
working relationship develop?
Fred Kelemen: We met in January 1990 when Bla was presenting a
retrospective of his films in Berlin. We saw each other at a caf 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
caf 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. Bla 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 Tarrs 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 relationshipeither
close or farof 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. Its still the most interesting
and adventurous thinghow 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 beingphysically and spirituallynot 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 Ophls. This must
have been something that youve discussed.
Kelemen: Well, I cant say in generalAnd thats not to mention the
parallel tracking shot going from side to side. The forward and
reverse movements create entirely different tensions. Its a very
different feeling going toward an object or person than by revealing
more and more of the space by going backwards. Its 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 theyre sitting and eating
potatoes, we knew that she had to stand up and go over to the oven,
and thats 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
its 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 Tarrs.
Kelemen: I cant 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 didnt know where
the door or table or a window would be. When Bla 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 werent
so many options: the table is here, the door is here and so on. So
Bla and I went scene by scene and sometimes we made little
drawings of the space, like an architects 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. Bla 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, Bla is the director in his films and he has the last
decisionbut 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: Thats something I really like about this kind of shooting
because it gets to be a physical performance. Naturally or intuitively,
when were doing the work, we let the camera fly through the space.
For sure, Bla is controlling the image via a video monitor.
Scope: Does that include the zoom shot, which Tarr told me the
other day that he doesnt 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: Its quite elastic.
Kelemen: Yes, its 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 mindthat 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 didnt have this kind of
optical elasticity youre 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 cant take the
image away. And even a black screen is an image. So automatically,
when you talk about silent cinema, youre 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, its a natural tendency. My view of cinema as
primarily visual guides my work, whether Im making my own films or
working with, for example, Bla.
Scope: What do you both talk about in terms of the films ideas? This
is not all a technical exercise for you. Theres clearly a great deal that
goes on in terms of expressing the ideas that emerge in front of the
camera.
Kelemen: For sure its not just a technical job. It is an artistic
creation. As I tried to express before, the cooperation between Bla

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
its 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 dont 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
depressingit is rather purifying.
Scope: On some practical points, how large was the crew and how
did you come upon the films 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 houseits in
Hungary.
Scope: And the horse?
Kelemen: The horse Ricsi is female. The name was given to her
before. Bla 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 didnt like to move with a carriage.
Scope: Just like Nietzsches horse.
Kelemen: Yes.

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


Kelemen: Bla had to find an actor, playing the father, who could
work well with the horse.
Scope: An interesting aspect is the films 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 its 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 whos 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 cameras 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. Theres 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 youd 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 were 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 couldnt shoot in summer since it would give us too
much sunshine, we didnt want to have rain, we didnt want to have
snow, and we didnt 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
couldnt 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 thats used in the
films 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 wasnt sure at
first that she would be viewable in the stables 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 didnt 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 theyve packed up and left, return to the house after
they go over the horizon.
Kelemen: Its very easy. They see somethingyou can only imagine
what it isthat 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 its better or worse, but its 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.
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