György Fehér’s muddy, grainy Postman Always Rings Twice adaptation, Passion, co-written by Béla Tarr, takes place in a mountainous Hungarian region at an indeterminate time before the Second World War. The stooped characters barely speak to each other, even before the rot of guilt sets in. As ever, the Postman story concerns a love triangle with particularly sharp points—a wife, a husband, and his much younger live-in assistant, here all unnamed—and the getting rid of the inconvenient husband. The two surviving lovers go to trial, where justice is not served. Comeuppance, though, is forthcoming.
This bleak picture, screening this afternoon and next week as part of a MoMA series curated around Tarr’s seven-hour Satantango, is a must-see for any fan of Tarr’s, not only for his contribution to the scenario, but for its stylistic affinities with, and pointed departures from, the austere style he has developed over the last 20 years.
The marathon takes are in place, and familiar unsmiling faces from Tarr nation crop up (most immediately recognizable is István Lénárt, The Man From London‘s stoic detective, who shows up here as a prosecutor, and in one fell take speaks the majority of the film’s dialogue), but Fehér’s film is deliberately rougher-hewn. It sometimes suggests Tarr’s slow noir Damnation unleavened by barroom theatrics, nondiegetic music, or photography so crisp. The stripped-down story unfolds under ashen skies and in interiors whose harsh lighting schemes seem inspired by police interrogation rooms; the end-of-the-line desperation is palpable. Passion is no mere wallow, though. Its simple, brutally beautiful images—one of Werckmeister Harmonies’ six cinematographers, Miklós Gurbán, is one of two credited here—make it feel almost biblical in its scope. How many films could get away with a concluding verse from Revelations?
Fehér, who passed away in 2002 at 63, directed only two narrative features, both in the last dozen years of his life (the other, 1990’s Twilight, on which Tarr served as a “consultant,” adapts the Friedrich Dürrenmatt novel The Pledge). His collaboration with Tarr appears fairly long and fruitful: Fehér served as a producer on Satantango, and a writer of “additional dialogue” on Werckmeister. Cursory internet scouring suggests Fehér might also be the author of multiple still-in-print anatomy drawing manuals. Back cover blurbs refer to a man of the same name as “Dr.” and “Professor.” Talk about a subject for further study.