The Donkey, the Horse, and the Human Condition: Nihilism in Au Hasard Balthazar and The Turin Horse
Robert Bresson's Au Hasard Balthazar and Béla Tarr/Ágnes Hranitzky’s The Turin Horse both center around mysteriously magnetic working animals - a donkey and horse, respectively. Sasho Pshenko compares the films and finds that the animals, presented with bleak frankness, are transformed by the camera into prisms through which our world and attitudes are reflected back at us.
There is an easy parallel to be drawn between Robert Bresson’s 1966 Au Hasard Balthazar and Béla Tarr and Ágnes Hranitzky’s 2011 The Turin Horse. They’re both bleak, black-and-white European films with a distinct directorial style, a sparsely used or minimalist musical score, and a seemingly strong moral message at their core. Most obviously, they both feature an equine protagonist, after which they are named: Balthazar, the donkey, and the unnamed horse of Turin. Like fables, these films, too, are principally presented as stories about the titular animals, whilst, actually, being stories about the people around them – the people who affect and are affected by the animals, dependent on, or connected to, them, and the people who we suspect the animals symbolically represent. Yet, this symbolism exceeds even the “person” hidden within the animal – the horse and the donkey are symbols par excellence, they are the embodiment of our expectation to find meaning in films such as these.
The interesting thing, however, is that the styles that both Bresson and Tarr/Hranitzky employed, the recognizable French New Wave aesthetic, and the characteristic apocalyptic filter imposed over the film-world, allow us to, actually, realize that these films only pretend to be about the people around and/or behind the animals. This is a process of double disguise – the films present the animal at the forefront, and skillfully position the human at the back, like a kind of red herring. But, ultimately, they deconstruct both the animal and the human, ushering in something else entirely.
But, what could that be? And how is it done? The donkey and the horse are forced to undergo a double metamorphosis (although, a simultaneous, not a chronological one), assuming the role of a means of transport, a beast of burden, and, finally, a crystal of refraction. And it is through this final form that we can start to see the real intention behind the films’ ethical outlook, or, should we say, the lack thereof.
Yet, this is a difficult point to argue; the physical – and philosophical – weight carried by the animals is unquestionable and that, in and of itself, a priori integrates them in a ready-made ethical system, in which we orient ourselves and, almost at the same time, position the animal and the humans surrounding it. In other words, if we see Balthazar being beaten by abusive owners,
while carrying a huge pile of rocks on his back, we cannot possibly say that the film does not criticize animal abuse, or, if one were to go a bit further with the analogy, violence more generally. Moreover, we don’t even need to witness this particular scene in the film – and there are several like it – to arrive at such a conclusion. We can assume it before we even play the film, we can deduce it by reading the short summary, or by watching the trailer. And, on paper, we wouldn’t be wrong.
That the donkey and the horse are symbolic, that they turn their entire respective films into allegories about human nature, for example, would be a valid interpretation. At the end of the day, Balthazar has unanimously been called a Christ metaphor, while Tarr has, himself, openly commented on the “nihilistic” message carried by the Turin horse. The horse and its whole film are, in a way, a Nietzsche-ian metonymy, as we are told at the beginning how Nietzsche went mad upon his encounter with the whipped horse and, at least due to general knowledge, we all know who Nietzsche was. Even before the film properly begins, we already have a small “bundle” of information associated with the horse; the animal doesn’t really have to do much, since it already is the most symbolically saturated figure in the film. Thus, Au Hasard Balthazar is about the evil (and redemptive qualities) of humanity, while The Turin Horse is about the moral apocalypse of the human race, bringing in an age of pitch-black nihilism.
Seems simple, right? Not quite.
What complicates matters the most when it comes to this interpretation is, arguably, the most obvious fact about the films – that they’re about animals. They might actually be about something else, yet they don’t deal with anthropomorphic animal stand-ins, or with animated caricatures of donkeys and horses to prove their perennial points; they depict real, filmed animals and, as such, these objects of the camera have the power to influence the semantic aspect of the film itself. And the first thing they do is relativize the undeniably humanistic interpretation outlined above. Because, when it comes to the interpretation of art and religion, even philosophy, if there’s one theoretical oppressor that weighs most heavily on the analyzed material, it is the humanistic perspective.
The hubris of humans lies in the imposition of a humanistic perspective on the entire world, and in the fact that humans have even forgotten that the world can exist outside that perspective. In the particular example of these films, what the humanistic perspective asserts is that people torture, abuse, or misuse the animal in question – they burden it physically, and trample it with their emotional issues – and throughout all of this, the role of the animal is to make us, the audience, more empathetic, to make us “reflect” on human nature, to make us say, “Wow, humans can be so terrible, we don’t deserve to exist as a species,” and ultimatley to make us feel a little sadder than we did before watching the film. Is that, however, what the films, themselves, lead us to believe?
In the case of Bresson’s film, to say “yes” would be the easy answer, yet not the correct one. In the case of Tarr/Hranitzky’s film, it would be neither the easy, nor the correct answer, since the film-world and the actions taken by the characters are significantly more ambiguous. To begin with, rather than being the victim, like the donkey is, the horse is more akin to a terrifying agent of the impending destruction of the world, a materialized embodiment of the chaos carried by the wailing winds, and the heaviness carried by the gloomy boredom of withered existence. As such, she never provokes the same pathos that Balthazar does, she never toes the line between the animal-as-deconstruction-device on the one hand, and the animal-as-empathetic-symbol on the other. Not that there isn’t a melodramatic streak in Tarr/Hranitzky’s film – if anything, it’s the only named character, the neighbor Bernhard, who brings it to the forefront. Yet, its relationship to the horse is not as direct as the one in Bresson’s film. For better or for worse, both films take a different approach, while juggling similar issues: how to integrate the animal into the ethical? Is the ethical actually sincere enough in this particular case? Can the ethical ever be as sincere as an animal is?
Clearly, it cannot – because it isn’t an animal. For the animals in these two films, in addition to being means of transport and beasts of burden, are also characterized by possessing a crystalline quality; by being nothing more than the animal which they are, devoid of agency or “human” character, they absorb and refract the fundamental existential and ethical issues thrown at them by their surroundings (the humans around them, but also the film-world itself). They don’t reflect these notions back at said surroundings, but they process them, as if through a prism, and throw them right at us, the audience. The animals, empty as they are, figure as a sort of magical box, an alchemical device of transmutation – or a cinematic camera. At first glance they illuminate the unseen qualities of the world, but, by illuminating them so strongly, by making them so obvious and jarring, they deplete those qualities of all their meaning, of all their symbolism. As a matter of fact, the animals only draw attention to the purposelessness of the human endeavors around them. This is like how the cinematic camera captures the banal world photographically, only to instantly endow it with a plethora of meaning and artistic potential once reflected on the big screen, before, ultimately, drawing the attention to itself as an empty box that fabricates meaning. Or, should we say, fabricates our own thought-process that then leads to the production of that meaning. The meaning of a film (or any piece of art for that matter) is never created by the film, nor by the empty camera, but by us as viewers. Yet the camera enables it, it provokes us, it lures our minds to drop their guards and dream while awake. The unsurpassable magic trick.
The lens is empty – the donkey is nothing more than a donkey, the horse is nothing more than a horse – yet it enables us to see things, to hallucinate ethically. It doesn’t pose questions, yet it coerces us into creating those questions for ourselves, from scratch. What are those questions, then? Whatever chance wills them to be. Do they have answers? It depends on whether we want to give them answers. It is a tricky, magical situation which, in the end, makes the animal, the crystal, the only character without agency, the most powerful participant in the entire structure.
And so what is this power then? It is the power that allows the donkey and the horse to squeeze humanity – any notion of it – out of even the human characters. This is why the films, not being about animals, are not about humans or humanity either. They commence by having the animals play the role of destabilizers, of refractive crystals that make us see the humans for what they are, but as the films go by, we realize that the animals, in fact, deplete the humans of their humanity, and turn them into empty refraction-crystals. At the end of the day, humans, too, are but animals.
And the same thing that can be said if we reduce the image of humans to that of animals, can be said even if we were to enlarge it, inflate it so that it becomes the image of the philosopher. Consider Nietzsche’s vitalism, for instance. It had been fashioned atop of the “traditional” nihilism which he fought against – a nihilism which was a residue of obsolete Christian values and clumsy attempts at a moralizing, proto-humanist emancipation. That nihilism has almost nothing to do with the type of nihilism seen in The Turin Horse. Knowing the horse’s (and Nietzsche’s) backstory, we are aware that this was the horse that defeated the philosopher. She is the carrier of an improved, even more frightening nihilism, an alien philosophical thought of sorts, that ravages both optimistic thinkers, and
entire landscapes. So, what is the horse’s nihilism, then? How could it be so powerful as to break Nietzsche? Is it the embodiment of the Last Man, perhaps?
It could be. It could also be, however, something even more alien. Something inhuman. Tarr’s apocalypse has come from nowhere, floating unattached to any kind of ethical construction. There’s no malignant Christianity that gloats over the philosopher’s defeat in Tarr/Hranitzky’s film. Even the stableman and his daughter cannot be deduced to be representatives of the Last Man; there’s no reference point that would allow us to conclude that. Yes, they do mundane, repetitive work. Why, though? We cannot really say. Probably because there is nothing left to do. In this black-and-white world, the option for an Übermensch to exist seems impossible to begin with. Hence, the impossibility of a Last Man, by extension. Or, conversely, if they are representatives of the Last Man, then this is a state of the world where no other people can be born but Last Men. The conclusion is again the same: if everybody is the Last Man, then nobody is. There’s no counterpoint, nothing to fight for or fight against. The damage has already been done, the reactive forces have triumphed ages ago, and now they, too, are gone. The only thing that does exist are strong gusts of wind, superimposed over a boring, dreary, everyday life. These gusts, like the horse, like the people themselves, are inhuman. They don’t mean anything more or anything else but the meaning we assign to them.
And let’s not get deluded when it comes to Balthazar either. He may seem more “human,” more “humane” even… but he isn’t really. He may have been the victim of Gérard’s and the miller’s abuse, he may have been “inhumanely” burdened and exploited, but he was also the silent observer of so much human suffering, and so many deaths; Arnold, Marie, and her family, to name a few. Not that Balthazar provoked, or reveled in them, but he, being the animal that he is, didn’t fight against, or try to prevent them either. Balthazar, like all animals, is ethically unfettered. We, who tend to humanize animals, to recognize in them a Christian notion of innocence, may attribute to Balthazar the symbolic significance of a naive, innocent animal, yet in the world of animals, such concepts as sinful and innocent, abuser and victim, master and slave, don’t exist.
Animals are amoral, their gaze – the lens – is empty. They may conduct currents and forces, which we may interpret as positive or negative, constructive or destructive, yet they are empty of such interpretations. Interestingly, people, colloquially, claim to see a kind of emptiness in the eyes of psychopaths, an allegedly bone-chilling lack of compassion or humanity. But this is usually because they know that they’re facing a psychopath, so that’s what they’re expecting to see – or not see. This, too, is a concept – a concept that exists in the eyes of the beholder, which the beholder tries to impose onto the reality they are faced with. The point is, if people want to find this emptiness somewhere, they will. It exists everywhere anyway; to see it or not is a (subconscious) choice. The camera, the animal, the empty box is usually what conducts and catalyzes this choice. It, itself, is the emptiness, and it spreads that emptiness around, like how the animal-crystal makes the people crystals too. It is this emptiness, which is simultaneously an ambiguity – nihilism and absolute vitalism – that gives the animals the power to break entire worlds.
Consider how they exist within these worlds. Compare their coats, for example. Balthazar has a very common, almost banal, black-and-white donkey coat. He’s a humble burden-bearer, a subversive element masquerading as a naive victim. The Turin horse has a grayish black-white coat, a speckled and cloudy chaotic mess of nuances without a fixed pattern. This, along with the ways in which the horse is shot by the camera, is what makes her so frightening. The horse seems untamed, impulsive, wild, mindless. Her coat is intense. It’s not black, but undefined, still unsettled, still roaming around. Just waiting for the stable doors to be opened in order to emerge in all her domineering madness. Her first appearance, filmed from below, with her mane blowing in the wind, introduces her as a conductor of ravaging force, as a carrier of intensity. The horse is intense, scary; she seems to know something terrible, which the humans cannot sense just yet. She seems to be eagerly waiting for the apocalypse to come. Her premonitory powers are what make her sinister.
And this is her common point with Balthazar too. Balthazar is humble and, through that, becomes automatically superior, justifiably arrogant. He doesn’t do anything, he doesn’t know anything, and he doesn’t need to. Adorned with a wreath of flowers, or beaten to death, it matters all the same to him. He’s just an animal; to him, pain, like pleasure, is only a momentary sensation, an effect which can either be forgotten, or integrated in a training-routine. Causality doesn’t exist. Meaning doesn’t exist. Humans are the ones that give things meaning, that make stories out of them, that reach out to a pathos of sorts, composing melodramatic narratives in their minds. And that’s not just due to humans’ high intelligence. Balthazar is the prime example of that. He’s supernaturally smart (as seen in the circus), yet he still remains an animal. He dies in the end, yet, in a way, he triumphs. Humans, on the other hand, create their own lake of misery in which they all, eventually, drown.
So, what does this actually point towards? In a sense, neither the donkey, nor the horse really feel or bear the burden that seems to be imposed on them. They’re neither means of transport, nor beasts of burden. They are crystals, but only partially, for a short while, if seen from a certain angle. They seem to move around, walking, galloping, doing things, but they don’t really do any of these things. Even when not facing the camera directly, they look at us, through the films themselves and, in some strangely impersonal, almost perverted way, they pose questions. “What is your world?” “What is your little value system?” “What desolated landscape do you see when you look into my eyes? Your childhood home? Your workplace? The city you live in now? The image of your loved ones, ingrained in your brain?” “We are the agents of change, of deconstructive introspection. We bear, we travel, we stare at you. You change, but it means nothing to us. You’re not different now. And you’ve never been the same anyway.” ▲
Sasho Pshenko is a Film Aesthetics graduate from the University of Oxford, with a background in Comparative Literature. Torn between desires for both academia and practical filmmaking, he spends his time pondering over various topics from the fields of literature, film, and philosophy.