Black Dogs and Demons
Ela Bittencourt on Damnation

“I have a hope [that] you understand something about our life, about what is happening in middle Europe, how we are living there, in a kind of edge of the world.” —Béla Tarr in Bright Lights Film Journal, Issue 30

I have been watching Béla Tarr’s films for years, but never get over the central mystery of his work: How does he manage to imbue mundane images with such an otherworldly power? Ever since Martin Heidegger wrote about Vincent Van Gogh transforming a pair of peasant shoes into art, creative force has meant rendering the ordinary strange, and the everyday uncanny. But while this may be a general definition of great art, every artist finds his own aesthetic answer as to how this transformation must take place.

What is it then in Tarr? One could argue that his greatness, though certainly there, wasn’t yet fully realized in his earlier films. Family Nest, The Outsider, and The Prefab People featured the industrialized drabness we might expect from most films mocking the moral and sensual paucity of communism. But as Tarr’s shots became longer, his world grew depopulated. There are crowds and big casts in his latter movies, but no more industrial cities, with endless apartment blocks or factories. With his push towards the periphery, what he calls “the edge of the world” has moved to small mining towns and villages. These places have a timeless quality; they seem almost feudal. And with his adaptations of literary texts, the literal representations became much more allegorical, his visual imagery more pointed, distilled.

Nowhere is this intensification more apparent than in Damnation, where the toxicity of an entire political system, and of utopias, in general, is condensed into a single image: a black mongrel. Damnation was not based on a novel. Tarr made it in 1988 during his transition period, struggling to work in Hungary, and preparing for his magnum opus, Sátántangó. And yet there is nothing minor or slight about Damnation, which moves fluidly through literary landscapes, mapping out references that range from Hamlet to Dostoevsky, to Goethe. Presented as a noir, the film tells the story of Karrer, an everyman with no profession or family, defined almost entirely by his passion for a sultry cabaret singer. The film’s narrative revolves around an unsavory business deal and a doomed romance, but as usual with Tarr, imagery and their metaphoric resonance are more important than plot. Suspense is a result of deliberate pacing and vagueness and, in this case, of the mysterious omnipresence of dogs.

The black dog, as a metaphor, has a long literary lineage, starting with Goethe’s Faust, in the scene where he is first visited, and tempted, by Mephistopheles. Faust is a respected doctor, but he believes that his life stinks of parochialism and lacks in honesty and beauty (sentiments echoed in Damnation, and in much of Tarr’s work). To discover the true joy of life, Faust would gladly abandon books. As he sits cooped up in his study, a black poodle appears. Why a poodle? Perhaps because it seems more harmless; but its color represents the black magic that allows the devil to become a dog, and a dog a human who will offer his services to Faust. There is only one catch: Faust must sign away his soul.

The scene in Goethe is melodramatic in every sense, and the German writer did not conceal its fantastical whimsy. But where Goethe’s inspiration came from Germanic folk tales and myths, Tarr’s moral parable is more firmly rooted in the natural world. The black dog in question travels in a pack. In fact, we can never be sure how many black dogs there are, or which one is involved in the film’s crucial confrontation, which I discuss later. Shaggy and starved, these black mongrels sniff around in the streets of a small Hungarian mining town. When we first see them, Karrer has just walked into a bar, where he receives an offer from the bar’s owner. We never know what kind of business they conduct, but the roaming black dogs do not bode well for the transaction’s outcome.

The parallels between Karrer and the black dogs abound. They slink around, and so does he. They stoop, their heads down, a sign of abjection. Karrer’s similarly hunched, a guy who has nothing going for him. He is also lanky, unshaven, a bit of a tramp. When the dogs reappear, Karrer is standing on a corner, peering at the scene from behind a building. He waits for his lover’s husband to drive away. He has turned down the bar owner’s offer to travel with a mysterious package, and instead gave it to the husband—ostensibly, to help him out of financial straits, but more obviously, to get rid of him. Out of the thick fog that’s always wafting about the place, a coat check woman from the local bar appears. She has warned Karrer about the singer, whom Karrer adores, but whom she calls “a bottomless swamp that sucks you in.” As she approaches, the dogs linger in the courtyard. The coat check carries a black umbrella. For a moment, the umbrella, echoing the dogs’ blackness, covers almost the entire frame, as if the whole world has been enveloped in darkness, and only she, with her beautiful pale face, stands out as angelic, radiant. The warning she gives Karrer couldn’t be clearer: she speaks of Judgment Day (or something like it, floods and plagues). “Those who’ll survive,” she says, “will go into the mountains.” At this point, we may wonder if this was the vision Nietzsche had in mind when he had Zarathustra look down on debased humanity from the mountaintop.

From the start, it is as if the dogs’ blackness infects other objects. There is the black umbrella, and also the sleek black jacket that the singer wears onstage. Where the dogs’ coating is matted, the jacket shines, making the singer look darkly sexual: hers is a deceiving, luminous darkness that attracts Karrer. The singer’s role is perhaps the most ambiguous in the film: she is a creative force, and so desires beauty, admiration, and “the joy of success,” but we can never be sure of her motives. She is contemptuous of Karrer’s lack of desire to succeed or change. In the scene in which Karrer declares his unconditional love for her, she wears a long black trench coat. Taller than Karrer, she now appears more like a mysterious traveler, a sexless dark angel, rather than a glistening erotic object. A deep sense of foreboding permeates the scene in which she and Karrer make love: their motions are slow and deliberate, the syncopated rhythm the opposite of passion. After the act, Karrer seals his fate by declaring that he would do anything to make the singer choose him, acknowledging that she possesses “a deeper, more ruthless truth.” Karrer’s speech hints heavily at carnal pleasure, and echoes Faust, who abandons scientific knowledge for carnal ecstasy. Karrer talks of his nihilism, and mentions watching the dogs through the window, feeling he might go mad anytime. “I cling to nothing,” he says. As Karrer pours out his soul, the singer apathetically chews a pickle. The scene is both casually domestic—the two sit at a kitchen table—and grim, a prelude to Karrer’s downfall.

From here on, the denouement is very quick. Karrer, the singer, her husband, and the bar owner are reunited at a dance hall. The singer dances amorously with the bar owner, and then leaves with him and gives him a blow job in his car. The next morning, Karrer goes to the police. Made in the pseudo-classical style, with ancient columns, the police building boasts an entrance with a hammer and a sickle above the tympanum, reminding us that we are watching a communist farce as much as a classical tragedy. Two women in black uniforms guard the entrance, as if to Hades. Once inside, facing an official who never speaks, only listens, Karrer informs on his friends. He does a brilliant job of painting himself as a tortured citizen, who must perform his duty, in spite of his friendly feelings; but all this time we know his true motivation lies elsewhere, and law and order are but a convenient cover. Tarr leaves this important scene ambiguous enough to raise important questions: Is Karrer’s act heroic in any way? Or is it base? Could it be both, suggesting that his wounded passion has made it possible for him to forever cut himself off from the base realities of his former life?

The scene that follows is even more ambiguous: Karrer walks alone in the pouring rain, not by the mountains that the coat check woman prophesied but by boulders in a quarry. As he ascends a narrow path, a black mongrel blocks his way. The dog barks menacingly and Karrer, instead of retreating, barks back. As he gets on all fours, the dog and Karrer circle each other, Karrer growling and barking, the dog barking and scowling. They are so close the man’s and the dog’s faces almost touch. Then Karrer stands up, and hunches over the dog. The dog’s lets out one final scowl, and trudges off.

Every time I come to this scene, I sense that an adequate reading of it could unlock the meaning of the entire film. But it confronts the viewer with a number of questions: What does it mean for Karrer to stoop to the animal’s level? Is it symbolic of his baseness as an informant, particularly shameful in a system where spying and informing are so widespread? On the other hand, Karrer has authorized the official to reveal his name, as necessary, and so has deliberately cut all ties with the town. He can never go back. Is the fight with the dog then emblematic of Karrer’s recognition of his internal power, and his embracing of his instincts? Karrer has come face to face with human baseness, and having emerged from it, he has nothing to fear.

In his novel The Black Dogs, Ian McEwan has his female character confront two black Dobermans in the French countryside. It is unlikely that Tarr has ever read the novel, but the parallel between these two works is almost unavoidable, since McEwan’s protagonists, the young British couple June and Bernard, are devout communists. In a mysterious twist of events, June will leave the Party after her encounter with the animals, which is no more mysterious than the one in Damnation: June doesn’t growl at the dog that springs up; she attacks it with a knife she finds in her knapsack. Later she discovers that the dogs have been roaming the countryside after World War II—they once belonged to the Gestapo, and the rumor has it that they were used during tortures and interrogations and, possibly, even raped women. June describes her confrontation with the animal in mystical terms: she discovers physical terror, and her body as the only true reality; from then on, ideologies hold no sway over her.

The dogs in Damnation are nowhere as blatantly evil. But even in June’s case, there is an ambiguity between what she and the locals make of the animals, versus what they actually are: the Dobermans serve as a vehicle for June’s self-realization, but the truthfulness of their dark past is left ambiguous. Regardless of the differences, there is no denying that nature in Tarr is often as bleak and antagonistic, not the least because modern man is so far removed from it he has forgotten who he really is, and so lives in denial. It could be said that, by barking at the dog, Karrer returns to his animalism, and acknowledges the darkness within him. A similar transformation occurs in McEwan: June’s story is read by her son-in-law as an indication that, no matter how much we strive to overcome it—including via utopian idealism, which sublimates fear—evil will always return to haunt us. In The Black Dogs, the Dobermans are suspended in time, or, to echo Nietzsche and Milan Kundera who used the term, condemned to eternal return: “They are crossing the shadow line and going deeper, where the sun never reaches ... they are receding, black stains in the gray of the dawn, fading as they move into the foothills of the mountains from where they will return to haunt us, somewhere in Europe, in another time.”

Somewhere in Europe, in another time, Karrer may arrive in a new town, drawn to a new ideology, no less utopian, or pernicious, than the one he’s left.