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On Béla Tarr’s Damnation

By Richard Jonathan

In Sprague’s list of his ten favourite films that he gives Marietta as she leaves him, Damnation is number 8.

Rain. There’s a lot of it in Damnation, penetrating the night with a thousand truths that the wind drives into one: We are creatures of time and only desire gives us dignity. Which doesn’t mean we won’t end up in the mud, baying at dogs.

Karrer is hopelessly in love with a married woman, a barroom singer. ‘Why can’t you love me?’ he asks her through the space allowed by her chain-locked door. ‘I love you and you know it’, she replies, then slams the door in his face.

Upon a rainy night he goes to see her at the Titanik Bar. ‘It’s finished, it’s all over’, she sings, ‘and there won’t be another’. The song is a lament for a lover that’s gone, an affair that’s come to an end. As Karrer listens to it, one imagines him inserting himself into the circle of desire, one more bobbing horseman on the merry-go-round of love. Where’s the dignity in that? Perhaps it lies in the fact that love individualizes us (the lover on his horse is a rider on the storm, not a fool going round and round), making us creators and not mere creatures. Creators of what? An illusion: that we can escape time, stay dry between the raindrops.

Desire, indeed, causes a gap in time, separating our individual self from our social self, heightening our sense of reality. Despite Karrer’s scheming and betrayal, the fact that he nurses his desire, protecting it like a flame from the rain, gives him a certain dignity.

‘Between you and a world forever out of reach, there is a strange and empty tunnel. You’re standing alone at the entrance to the tunnel, because you know something I can’t even put a name on, something deeper and more ruthless than I could ever understand.’ So saying, Karrer seduces the singer. Then, slow and easy, they make love. Afterwards, while she takes a bath, he stands at the window and stares at the rain: It’s always back to the rain.

‘I realize that I can never get closer to that world. I can only long for it, because it is hidden by a light and warmth that I cannot bear. I have never been able to believe in it, nor to renounce it.’ So says Karrer. Is there not dignity in that?

To share in that dignity, as a viewer of Damnation, is exhilarating, for in a world where human life is ironic—nothing can assuage our desire, yet without desire we are nothing—perseverance in lucidity is liberating. Yes, for a song—a hauntingly beautiful song like Mihály Víg’s ‘Kész az Egész’—I, for one, am willing to become a fool of time. For therein lies my dignity.