”Just go home and forget all about this story,” says the private detective to the railway guard at the end of The Man from London, partly addressing the widow of one of the two victims murdered at the end of the story. The middle-aged man then staggers off in a vague direction, perhaps to the place which was his home only a few days before. The widowed woman just stays sitting motionless and stares silently ahead. How could any of them forget the story they had only just survived (indeed, the railway guard might easily have died) and which has certainly left them emotionally and morally crippled? Nor can the viewers take the detective’s advice. How could we forget these devastated faces, the people whose undoing we were forced to witness?
The novel by Georges Simenon which served as basis for the film is no ordinary crime story. The mystery is not the identity of the robbers and murderers but what takes place in people’s hearts. A British circus artiste steals a London bar owner’s money and runs away to France. At the docks he pushes his accomplice into the water and the suitcase falls in together with the man. The railway guard at the docks fishes out the suitcase and with this act sets off the real story – that of the self-tormenting dilemmas and ever deeper identification with the other wretched soul, the unfortunate robber. Tarr moulds Simenon’s sensitive and subtly descriptive story to fit his own view of the world. He retells a story of perdition, showing that there is always further to go downhill. There are conditions more destructive than material want, like the sin of loosing the last remnants of honour and dignity. Lured by the hope of happiness and prosperity, we are dragged into betrayal and self-abnegation.
The tone in which the story is related follows the slow cyclic beat and grave dignity of the cycle of Tarr’s films ranging from Damnation through Satan’s Tango to Werckmeister Harmonies. No psychological analysis – it is the actions and the faces that talk, or stand silently. In terms of poetics, The Man from London follows in the footsteps of Tarr’s other works from the last twenty years. It does not experiment with any particularly surprising dramaturgical tricks or unusual stylistic elements, but it does further enrich and refine the director’s existing set of tools. Variations on a theme, variations on a sound. Little dialogue and wordless silence wrapped around repetitive noises and dream-like music. The symbolic spaces – scenes of human misery – are tracked by long, calm, tortuously prolonged camera movements. The meaning is built up slowly and gently, out of pictures and sounds. On his way home the railway guard goes to see his daughter who works in a shop. She is scrubbing the floor of the butcher's department, exposing her thighs and bottom to the street. Meanwhile, the suitcase full of money is waiting in the tower and the poor, struggling little man decides to spend it on buying back his honour in an attempt to secure a better future for his child. In the street a lonely little boy is seen playing football by himself all this time – the monotonous bouncing noise settles upon the picture. Eventually, when the hero disappears from the picture, the sound of a crying baby is heard among the peeling, ugly walls. What sort of life awaits the children who kick their ball against these walls, who, after the horror of being born, utter their first cry in these quarters? Will their father also find a suitcase full of money or will they end up like Camille, the aging prostitute – standing around in a café all made up, with a pretty dress and hair-do, having no choice but to go to bed with the owner if she wants to pay for her drinks? The filthy alleyways of the docks grow into symbols of a life from which there are no ways out, accompanied by hollow time and the monotonous noises of stagnation.
If the style is essentially the same as before and the story states nothing radically different, what is new here in comparison with Tarr’s other movies? What distinguishes this variant from the earlier ones? The man sits and looks over the sea in his tower. Anything may come from the direction of the sea, good things or bad – at least he has something to look forward to, as opposed to Satan’s Tango with its muddy, dilapidated farm or Werckmeister Harmonies with the main square in the small town of the Great Plain, where we have nothing but a miracle to hope for. (This latter is provided by the pseudo-Messiah and by the whale with its air of unearthly bliss.) The ferryboat which makes its daily crossing might bring our protagonist good fortune from England. Despite the constant bustle of the docks, the scene is surprisingly static. The boat which carries the man from London and the suitcase with the money are both already in the docks during the opening scenes. Flat and two-dimensional visuals create the impression of a work of art where mere lights and lines create an austere, abstract structure. The unexpected chance is never seen approaching: it is just there, all of a sudden, in front of our rail guard. The man’s job is also static, but he is still essentially different from Tarr’s other protagonists: he sits up high, over the docks, vested with the power of observation. His downfall is also a result of this tiny sliver of power. His sight and his hearing (witness the subtly composed system of sound effects) are what lead him on to his prey. The glance he exchanges, by force and by compulsion, with the man from London traps him in his own crime. On the screen the railway guard is mainly seen looking, his decisive actions are performed outside of the screen, hidden from our glances. He specialises in looking, not in action.
The heroes’ inaction and inertia are translated into experience by slow camera movements. The main character, portrayed by Miroslav Krobot, is often shown, for long stretches at a time from the back, with the viewer only assuming his point of view bit by bit. This stocky man with his short neck and his heavy woollen coat is immobility incarnate: he sits in his tower as stubbornly as a rock. In this heavily stylised world, Krobot’s face, with its deep wrinkles spelling out stories of past suffering, is alive without a single gesture. The actors face the almost impossible task of not acting, not elaborating upon their various states of mind. Just being there in the emotionally laden position is the essence of their part. As a result of the eradication of acting, we witness moments of astonishing humanity. Tilda Swinton’s gestures, irate from being restricted; or her quivering face, lips shaking with tension; István Lénárt’s tired, all-knowing eyes with the heavy bags underneath; and, above all else, Ági Szirtes’s splendid presence with her horrifically portentious glance, the way her eyes slowly fill with tears and then stare ahead with the despair of one who understands everything.
Despite a few jarring moments, The Man from London is a considerably more mature and unified work than Werckmeister Harmonies which composed misery into scenes of mannered beauty and calculated effect. It is a stark and grave piece of work. This is no gesture of defiance, nor stuck out tongue stretched out, just another hard sentence uttered in a language developed at great cost.
The Man from London
Directed by Béla Tarr
Screenplay by Béla Tarr and László Krasznahorkai
Based on a novel by Georges Simenon
Previously on HLO
László Krasznahorkai: a portrait