There is something truly metaphysical about the opening of Bela Tarr’s The Man From London. More than any other shot in his filmography, this opening shot, as well as much of the rest of the film, Tarr feels to be manifesting existence before his camera. I love the openings to both Satantango and The Turin Horse, but the operations at work under those shots is of a very different quality of what Tarr does here. Many perceive that the long take in cinema creates a sense of realism. But in The Man From London, Tarr’s long aren’t capturing reality, they seem to construct reality itself. Until the camera exposes us to what we see, I’m not sure that the location beyond the sight of the camera actually exists.
In this way, the opening shot of The Man From London recalls the opening to Carlos Reygadas’s Silent Light. But while Reygadas shows us the birth of the universe (as my friend Victor Morton wonderfully describes here) presented to the camera by God, in Tarr’s film, the camera is God, creating the reality in which this drama will play out. We begin with only water, and as the camera pans up, we see the enormous boat that will become a crucial location to the narrative. As the camera moves upwards, it suddenly becomes shadowed in black at moments. We soon realize that there is not just the water and the boat but now there is an existence of another materiality—something blocking our ability to see, and so we are not just at sea with the boat. Finally, we have the appearance of total black and then feet. A human body is now part of this reality, a room in which we still don’t understand where and how it exists, and yet it is now part of this world. The camera continues upwards and we get up to the window of this perch, and thus we can now see the top of the ship where two men are meeting. Did this exist before it entered the shot?
The metaphysical qualities of Tarr’s cinema, the slow camera panning from composition to composition, suggest that nothing is known in the physical world until the camera points to it and capture it. It is as if Tarr was slowly setting up the pieces for a game of chess (an image that factors in later). So as the camera then pans right, slowly observing through windows, you feel that with each pass to a new window, the elements come into existence: first a bridge, and then a cobblestone land, and finally a train. These are now, here and exist. The camera then moves back, and allows the observer—the man who views and thus creates—to have a face. He was a body before; now he is a person. We follow his view, and as he leads us to the other side, suddenly we are confronted with land on the other side, a new part of this reality that exists almost independently of the train on the other side. Watch how the camera then treats the essential action—we watch as a man moves to the edge of the port, and then the camera turns to show a man now on the boat, holding a suitcase. That suitcase and man could not exist without the movement of the camera, and thus by the camera pointing us to him, he now exists and allows the suitcase to be thrown. Finally, Tarr gives us the full view via a long final pan—the mystery port, the boat, the train station. The train’s engine starts, but it can only move until the camera points the way forward, creating the railway for it to travel. The shot is complete—we now have a reality for this narrative to take place in.
This is just one of many moments that feels so crucial in The Man From London, which I feel is not like what we see in Tarr’s more canonical works. When Tarr has a shot of a quiet city street, he points the camera up and suddenly we hear a baby crying, as the movement of the camera had led to its birth. Tarr’s shots begin with the intimate, and then he slowly establishes space and reality itself as the shot continues on. We might here a sound off screen, but we have no idea what exists until Tarr manifests it to the spectator, sometimes comical (a playful dance of a ball and chair) revealing (a certain character listening in on a private conversation). It’s also what ties Tarr so directly to Miklós Jancsó, as his shots also construct a reality that feels like a chess game where you can’t see the move until it happens. No wonder why we never see the death near the end of The Man From London, the body literally locked away beyond the camera’s grasp. Tarr’s films are said to exist in a godless universe, but the camera itself is our God.