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Sympathy for the Devil

Mihály Víg — The Hungarian composer, actor and musician recalls his 40 year relationship with director Béla Tarr in advance of an epic screening. Photography by Balázs Fromm.

Béla Tarr’s Sátántangó (1994) is glacial cinema. The seven-hour epic is shot in the Hungarian director’s signature monochrome and based on László Krasznahorkai’s novel of the same name. Long tracking shots follow a cast of characters who live on a derelict collective farm in the bleak, dystopian countryside. While relentless rains ensure the villagers’ isolation from the rest of society, the people of the commune attempt to rob, screw and drink themselves out of their decaying misery. 

The film is rich in detail and the music, composed by Tarr’s frequent collaborator Mihály Víg, plays a central role. Extended passages of near-silence, diegetic sound and sparse dialogue are punctuated by Víg’s compositions, which act as characters in their own right. The opening scene, for example, in which a herd of cows vacates the barn and disappears into the fields — a single take occupying nearly eight minutes of running time — is soundtracked by low drones and pealing bells. This pessimistic leitmotif reappears at strategic points throughout the movie. 

Víg also plays the lead role of Irimiás, the messianic pied piper at the heart of the story. Irimiás commandeers the villagers to their eventual demise, his charisma and eloquence leveraging their fearful naïveté. Over video call, I ask Víg why Béla Tarr cast him as the lead. “It’s so it isn’t obvious from the beginning that Irimiás is a dictator,” Víg explains, referring to his own natural charm. “So that it’s easier to believe everything the dictator says is true. You need a character who you can believe in.” 

The same events, particularly in the first half of the feature, are shown from different characters’ perspectives. The repetitive nature of this device, along with the episodic chapters that dissect the plot, echo the steps of the tango. The dance metaphor takes on a literal form about halfway through. Paralysed by Irimiás’s imminent arrival, the members of the commune congregate at the pub. The music coaxing them into their inebriated dance with the devil is an absurdly long and repetitive accordion number that rattles around in your mind for days afterwards.

Sátántangó took four years to produce, because filming could only take place in the spring or autumn. The trees had to be bare and the earth sodden with rainwater. Scenes set outside were shot during the twilight hours when shadows weren’t present. There was no script, just Krasznahorkai’s novel and Tarr’s vision. Another reason for casting Víg — as Tarr admitted in an online interview — was because he needed someone who could understand the necessity for such a schedule and join the project not only physically, but mentally and spiritually, too.

In the 1980s, Víg was a prominent figure of Budapest’s underground scene, playing in the bands Trabant and Balaton. Hungary was still under communist rule at this time, although in some ways the country was more relaxed than the rest of the Soviet bloc. Tarr and Víg met through a mutual friend, Zoltán Gazsi, who would years later serve as an assistant director on Sátántangó. Tarr ran a film club where you could watch movies unavailable to the general public such as the works of Fritz Lang or David Lean’s Dr Zhivago (1965). “There was a video camera and members of the club could rent it for free,” Víg remembers. “Zoltán used this camera to record my concerts. He gave a tape to Béla and brought me to his apartment. Over champagne Béla asked if I would write music for him.”

Sátántangó was not the first project that Tarr and Víg collaborated on. Before it came two features: Autumn Almanac (1984) and Damnation (1988). The former is a rare colour outing for Tarr. Set in a communal apartment, the film explores manipulation and claustrophobia. The score is based around half a dozen melancholic pieces, which are sometimes mixed under the dialogue to resemble a neighbour practising their piano next door: a reminder of the external world we never get to see. Damnation, which chronicles the doomed affair between a barfly and a cabaret singer, saw both artists arrive at their preferred workflow. For Tarr it was long takes, a textural black & white palette and a screenplay written with László Krasznahorkai. For Víg it was finding the right sonic atmosphere — before shooting commenced — which helped to steer Tarr’s vision. 

How does Víg approach soundtrack composition? “I read the script,” he says. “Then I try to forget everything. I stay calm and silent, waiting until something comes to mind. That’s all. It works.” It’s rare that Víg will find the music immediately, but ultimately it’s about tapping into the emotional centre of the story. He tends to write about four times more material than what ends up being used. For Autumn Almanac, the film was already done, but for Damnation and all subsequent works the music was scored first. Does he have a preference for working one way over the other? “It’s the same when you have a poem and you write music to it. Sometimes you have music and you find the lyrics. It can work both ways.”

Sátántangó is considered by many to be one of the most important works in cinema history. In recent years, it was remastered to 4K from the original 35mm negatives by Arbelos. Due to its length Sátántangó is seldom screened, but the cultural platform Digital In Berlin is set to screen the restored version for two dates this spring in an unusual setting. Several composers have been invited to contribute to a new live soundtrack, next to Víg’s score, the plan being to perform them live in the concrete hall of a former crematorium in Berlin’s silent green venue. There will be no intermissions, but the audience will be encouraged to move freely around the space. The point is to experience the film with new levels of intensity. Víg will be present for both screenings. “I understood what it was all about,” he says. “And I’m looking forward to seeing what will happen.” 

Sátántangó Live will be screened on 31 March and 1 April at Silent Green, Berlin. Mihály Víg’s Music From The Film Sátántangó is released by Arbelos.

Ilia Rogatchevski
Originally published by The Wire, March 2023

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