We must return to beauty ... to the joy of important things, to the taste of victory and success.
It takes three minutes in this film to fade back through a window, to a man shrouded in the dusk's shadows, almost invisible against the bleak portrait of industrial cable cars in the sky. Another minute passes before smoke escapes this shadow and scuds past the window. This is one of the most sensational of cinema's opening sequences, especially because we are entranced by something so plain, so banal, so dreary and everyday. Another minute is spent shaving, a tired, white face encircled by blackness, perhaps by the blackness of nothingness, of distant space, of cold and unnotable death. And the face we see – a bit wizened, well past life's midpoint – has a sheepish crook to it, a despair, a question.
The question is answered by another face who never takes her eyes off the face we just saw. She is a mother and his lover, and their conversation, akin to a speech in mild defiance of a heckler, proceeds through her door chain, with her chin just above it as if the chain were the bottom of a veil. When she mentions that she doesn't want her daughter "to be like we are," a fist slams the chain open to its maximum length. The next scene takes place where nearly all the remaining scenes will take place, apart from one important sequence at a police station: at a bar. Behind a closeup of a pile of empty drink glasses we recognize the voice of our face, and hear another voice addressing him as Karrer (Miklós B. Székely). In a single shot the viewer registers the pervasive alcoholism that tends to plague industrial wastelands such as this Hungarian town, as well as the emptiness of those same souls, taken to drink or otherwise. The other voice emanates from a pasty, bearded bartender (Gyula Pauer) who bears some resemblance to this director, if with livelier eyes. These eyes become all the more extraordinary when contrasted to the sleepy skepticism of everyone else, and these eyes have some advice for Karrer, for whom they do not, however, demonstrate a great deal of respect. The eyes and beard concoct a smuggling scheme, or at least that is the impression we have, and we see his mind calculate a cut for his chain-smoking, recently jilted acquaintance that would leave himself superbly in the black. Karrer attempts to negotiate and is laughed at just like older boys mock younger ones who try to contribute to rule-making of those imaginary games all boys play. Karrer, who will show us on several occasions that he is not above begging for love and respect (although much later, he will display some less kindly traits), can only agree to a plan that would allow him to get the money he so obviously needs to forsake this town once and for all.
One correction: it is our natural assumption, given the degraded environmental conditions and almost inhuman misery, that Karrer wishes to leave; or that, as it were, he needs or even wants money (he does not seem gainfully employed; if he is, it is probably in one of the toxic factories). In fact, there does not appear to be any impediment to his departure, either politically or socially. Karrer might certainly vanish and no one would notice because we have the distinct impression that no one here has noticed things in a very long time. Yet what Karrer really desires is a woman, the woman behind the chain and behind the veil, a torch singer (Vali Kerekes) who keeps the Titanik bar, a popular drinking hole, more or less afloat. What he sees in the singer is not ours to comprehend. Yes, she is comely, especially when one considers the local skirted alternatives; she is also rather willing, as the scene at the very middle of our film graphically depicts; but she is still married to a handsome rascal (György Cserhalmi) whose financial indebtedness is only surpassed by his bile. One tender moment has the married couple dancing with a fervor they might have felt twenty years ago, but which cannot possibly transport them now, as much as they might hope. After Karrer amidst a morose and all-male crowd attends one of the singer's Titanik performances (a love song whose first words are "it's over"), he is literally and figuratively buttonholed near the cloakroom by her husband. "You misunderstand something," Karrer says to the directive. When the husband asks what on earth that could be, Karrer stares silently and waits for the husband to answer his own question. We need a threat for the men to part, otherwise this would be a moral defeat for the husband; we get the standard issue and are satisfied. In a strange way, even Karrer seems to hope for the threat as well as if to legitimize his own ambitions. But he is not the only one with ambitions. At a music hall, the singer informs him, with the quote that begins this review, that no one is going to hold her back from becoming a star, least of all, it is implied, Karrer. He is further disabused of any delusions when the bartender tells him that, "there's an order in the world and you can do nothing to upset it." Our jilted lover acts upon this last statement as a challenge, but not in any way we could reasonably expect.
Tarr's primary method, like that of his master Tarkovsky, is the long take; his skill at it, coupled with his preference to operate in black-and-white, offers at once a more realistic and less realistic perspective. Karrer's life remains colorless, his opinions as piebald as the newspapers inveighing against mankind's wickedness, his panorama of the world always dark, limited, shadowy, and slow-moving, a forgotten moon revolving around a nearby planet. Appropriately, I suppose, most of Tarr's films are about damnation in one form or another (Tarkovsky's works, while even more religiously themed, almost invariably treat of redemption). That is not to say that Damnation is his greatest masterpiece, but on a basic level, it will remain his most characteristic, a code for the rest of his oeuvre. The cast in this marvelous work are already dead even if they may not know it; this film appears to allow a nightmare to become reality, when really the reverse is true; and the eponymous beast of burden in this film has committed a sin for which he and his master and his master's family will all pay dearly in the end. Perhaps this is why after being threatened by the husband, Karrer is lectured mildly by the cloakroom attendant (the late Hédi Temessy) who tells him, "that woman's a witch," and her husband can't get away with his debts. "You're not like them anyway," she adds, "they'll only get you into trouble" – exactly what a mother would tell a child who has been fraternizing with the wrong crowd. Perhaps that is also why she approaches him with her dogs in the endless rain (Karrer's close surveillance of the umbrellaed figure suggests he was expecting someone else) and quotes most of Ezekiel 7. What then of Karrer's odd confession about his deceased wife, whom he clearly deemed far too bourgeois to be left in peace in his realm? Is Karrer right when he avers that "all stories end badly because all stories are about disintegration"? Because if they're not, he adds, then "they're about resurrection." And as we know, disintegration can be just as perpetual and everlasting.