Bela Tarr has a tendency to be demanding and introspective as a director. Since his beginning in Hungarian cinema, he has been a revolutionary force, determined to present his own picture of Hungarian reality. His determination to scrap the “lies” being shown on screen caused him to create a complete manifesto with regard to his new style of film-making; his emphasis on the importance of black and white, close-ups and hand-held camera-work formed the basis of his distinctive style.
Though “Damnation” is not half as complex as his later film “Werkmiester harmonies”, it reflects the directors rather dark and pessimistic view of humanity. The story is about a romance between Kerrer, a listless, brooding man and a married singer. Kerrer finds life as it is unbearable, and hopes for escape . The film follows his pursuit of the singer, and his eventual betrayal and despair.
Tarrs direction is incredibly stylish, specialising in slow long shots and composition; Tarr creates an atmosphere of brooding menace persistent through the whole film, where he uses the “film noir” imagery for all its worth. The combination of light and composition makes the whole visually stunning, though the very slow long shots can be demanding of the audience.
One of the most effective devices in this film is the way the crime is treated: The singer (Vali Kerekes) is very much the femme fatale, capable by her own admission, of terrible things. There are references to violence and smuggling, but suggestion is always the primary tool. The film lurks on the edge of the criminal underworld, affording the viewer a glimpse of what the characters could be involved in.
Vali Kerekes low-key performance as the disillusioned singer is one of the highlights of the film; she radiates listless menace, nearly upstaging Miklos Szekley, who plays the infatuated Kerrer. The singer is really the star of the film, not through what she does, but by what Kerekes makes us believe she is capable of.
Kerrers story is a story of rejection of society; since he feels society has nothing to offer him, he seeks out something else, which he feels is embodied in the singer. At one point, the director provides us with a visual metaphor precisely to illustrate this rejection; while the whole village is gathered in a great dance indoors, one madman chooses to dance alone in the rain outside.
At the beginning of the film, Kerrer has already isolated himself from the world; he has no job, almost no human contact, and is flirting with crime. What he is seeking, quite deliberately, is to discard the values of a society he finds oppressive. His hopes for the future lie in his idea of what he might find outside society, if he succeeds in escaping it. At one point the confides to the singer that she personifies the amoral freedom he longs for;
“Between you and a world forever out of reach, there is a strange and empty tunnel. I don’t know anyone else who knows that road. You’re standing alone at the entrance to that tunnel, because you know something I can’t even put a name on, something deeper and more ruthless than I can ever understand. I realise that I can never get closer to that world, I can only long for it, because it is hidden by I light and warmth I cannot bear. I have never been able to believe in it, nor to renounce it…if I were to lose you it would be the unforgivable end of me, because I know nothing about that unnameable world. Since you are part of it, you mean the world to me.”
Kerrers pursuit of the singer is the malcontents pursuit of a state of freedom. What the film is ultimately about is the decent into damnation, and the motives of those who reject social values.