Human beings can never remain indifferent in the face of death. Because we cannot be sure of the existence of afterlife, we always have this vague fear about death. This is why we expect a savior to come save us from this anxiety as we watch films like The Day the Earth Stood Still (dir. Scott Derrickson, 2008) or I Am Legend (dir. Francis Lawrence, 2007). When we see the protagonists fight against the cause of the apocalypse, and eventually save the world from collapsing, we feel peaceful as if we are also saved. However, Lars von Trier’s Melancholia (2011) and Béla Tarr and Ágnes Hranitzky’s The Turin Horse (2011), are different from these classic apocalyptic films. The protagonists from both films remain calm as they see their own world slowly come to an end.
Melancholia and The Turin Horse begin with an ominous introduction, which reflects the central themes of each film. Melancholia opens with a 8-minute sequence with music from Wagner’s “Tristan and Isolde.” The sequence is mainly comprised of strange dream-like images. We see a bride running through a forest in her wedding dress and a large blue planet Melancholia heading directly towards the Earth. The stillness that comes from the extreme slow-motion images foreshadows an imminent death of the characters. The mournful prelude of “Tristan und Isolde” heightens this sense of crisis, yet at the same time, it also describes death from a different perspective. The music is about a secret love affair between Tristan and Isolde. Realizing that she has to marry a man she doesn’t love, Isolde chooses death over life. Similarly, Melancholia introduces Justine as an unwilling bride. It is soon revealed that the apocalypse, not the extravagant wedding, offers consolation to Justine. Justine becomes more energetic as Melancholia approaches Earth, proving that death is what ultimately offers Justine, as it did to Isolde, a cathartic emotional release.
The opening scene of The Turin Horse shows a 5-minute long shot of a horse pulling a wagon after a minute of an impermeable black screen. Simultaneously, a voice-over narrates an event which occurred on 1889 in Turin, Italy. We are told that philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche encounters a cabman brutally whipping his motionless horse. Nietzsche stops this scene by throwing his arms around the horse’s neck, sobbing. When returned to his home, Nietzsche likewise lies still for two days until he lets out his last sane words, “Mother, I am silenced.” He spends his remaining life in a state of mental derangement. The reason why Nietzsche cried, collapsed in front of the horse relates to the core message of The Turin Horse. Nietzsche probably would have witnessed deep despair in the eyes of the horse. From birth till death, horses are used for farm work and transport for human being. Thus, the horse’s refusal to follow his owner’s order extends to his refusal of such a life. From this introduction, the theme of loss of will (reflected by the horse and Nietzsche's refusal to move) is constantly conveyed through the protagonists–the horse, the stableman, and the stableman’s daughter.
Justine and the stableman respond to the apocalypse in a similar way; they both calmly embrace the apocalypse itself. For Justine, apocalypse has already happened. The catastrophic wedding decisively validates her belief that there is nothing to leave behind. By the end of the wedding reception, she entirely withdraws from the world, from its social norms; for example, she doesn’t feel guilty as she has sex with her coworker on her wedding day. Justine remotely says, “The earth is evil. We don’t need to grieve for it. Nobody will miss it.” Moreover, most of the time, the camera is handheld, floating around the space. The camera readjusts its focus as the screen abruptly changes from a tight close-up shot to a long shot and to another. By this unstable movement of the camera, we become detached from the characters and the plot just as Justine becomes detached from Earth. Hence, we are allowed to merely observe.
The stableman and the stableman's daughter from The Turin Horse are also isolated from the world. There are several scenes capturing the stableman absent-mindedly looking through the window. Through the window, the stableman sees dirt and leaves rustling by–the external world. But he doesn’t seem to be connected to it. The scene then transitions into a larger shot of the living room, showing where the stableman belongs and remains to stay. This withdrawal from the world is displayed more clearly through repetitive scenes of daily lives of the two.
It is important to notice that the plot is divided into six days; according to the Genesis, the God creates the world in six days. The first day is when the God creates the world out of nothing. But The Turin Horse reverses Genesis, so that time and existence move not from nothing but toward it. Every day, the stableman wakes up, the daughter boils the potato, the two take care of the horse, have a single boiled potato for dinner, and go to sleep. The black-and-white film accentuates the monotony. As the film slowly walks us to the end, the horse gradually refuses to eat, the stableman and the daughter become more and more indifferent. On the first day, the stableman peels and shovels the potato into his mouth as if it’s an obligation. The daughter eats in a much slower pace, but also without passion. Their bluntness culminates on the sixth day, when the daughter won’t eat. The stableman tells her to eat, but even he himself lacks the will to do so. At the end, they just silently stare at their plates.
The planet Melancholia and the Turin wind are therefore are not a fearful threat to Justine and the stableman. They do not try to overcome death, but their lack of will doesn’t mean total misery or hopelessness. They accept the apocalypse and simply live until it all comes to an end. The apocalypse portrayed in both of the films is as beautiful as it is plaintive.