01 February 2019

A Flat-Out Masterpiece: Restored Sátántangó Debuts at the Berlinale

25 years after its original release, Béla Tarr’s masterpiece has received 4K digital restoration, and the result will be shown for the first time at the Berlin Film Festival this year.

The renewed version of Sátántangó will reveal details few have ever seen before, recreating the Hungarian luminary’s original vision far more successfully than the formerly available digital prints. Sátántangó, also called the Mount Everest of modern cinema due to its 7.5-hour running time, was restored in cooperation with the Hungarian Filmlab and Arbelos Films (US) under the guidance of Béla Tarr himself.

“We’ve kept a short list of ‘dream films’ to restore and re-release over the years and Sátántangó has always been at the top – it’s simply a flat-out masterpiece”, says David Marriott of Arbelos Films, the boutique film distributor and digital restoration company based in Los Angeles that financed and oversaw the restoration process.

Sátántangó reel at the Hungarian Filmlab (Photo: Gábor Valuska)

Adapted in 1994 from the first novel by the Man Booker Prize-winner László Krasznahorkai, Tarr’s 450-minute-long movie quickly became a rarely seen yet legendary work of art. Restoring it is undoubtedly a heroic adventure in and of itself. The numbers speak for themselves: the original film negative is more than 12 kilometres long and weighs approximately 104 kilograms. These dimensions mean that digitising the original print at the Hungarian Filmlab, a state-of-theart archive and home for the original prints of most Hungarian movies, was a sensible option.

“Arbelos Films entrusted us with digitising the original negative print in 4K. Béla Tarr chose not to ship the print to the United States, to protect it from unnecessary damages, so we executed the colour grading here in Hungary as well”, says the director of the Hungarian Filmlab, László Aradi. The lab specialises in postproduction and restoration work and restores more than 30 movies a year. It’s equipped with an extensive analogue lab and a trained staff with decades of experience working with 35-mm celluloid film.

Renewing process at the Hungarian Filmlab (Photo: Gábor Valuska)

Under the guidance of seasoned experts like László Aradi and the production manager Tamás Bódizs, the restoration process looks deceivingly smooth. First, carefully selected cleaning staff examines the condition of the original negatives and removes any dirt or superficial damage, like perforation errors, to get the celluloid in the best shape possible. If necessary, they also work with an advanced Kodak machine that cleans up most of the dust that is automatically generated when a film negative is taken out of its case.

After that, things get digital, and a Filmlight scanner scans the purified negatives, frame by frame. The scanner can produce an 8K resolution if needed, and it is designed to be able to scan films that might be up to 100 years old, sparing the damaged celluloid with adhesive rollers instead of toothed ones. Fortunately, the original negative of Sátántangó was for the most part in relatively good condition; there was only one severely torn frame, so the biggest challenge was simply managing the massive amount of data that comes with the 7.5-hour runtime. It took 3-4 weeks to digitise the movie frame by frame, and the 4K scan needed more than 30 terabytes of space.

The restoration process took place in Los Angeles, a fairly problem-free workflow despite the enormous length of Sátántangó. “One problem that did crop up was a stock flaw issue that they had with several rolls of the original negative. It ends up looking similar to x-ray damage, with intermittent flashes in your images. Per Béla’s request we’ve cleaned up this problem as best we could”, says Craig Rogers, the CEO of Arbelos Films, whose main goal was to achieve a look as close to the original negative as possible, rather than adjusting the restored version to the look of over-clean digital movies.

Renewing process at the Hungarian Filmlab (Photo: Gábor Valuska)

“Our 4K DCP should look like the first show print that was struck from the original negative. The added benefit of digital tools means we were able to fix the scratches and film stock flaws. The occasional flickery shot is no longer flickery. The film will no longer ‘bump’ at cuts and reel breaks. Otherwise it will still very much look like a film print. We never de-grain images to please a more contemporary audience. Our dedication is to the film and to the filmmaker”, adds Rogers.

That principle was reflected in practice when Rogers flew to Budapest to oversee the colour grading of Sátántangó, together with Béla Tarr and the Hungarian Filmlab colourist Robert Libel. Sátántangó is famous for being composed of extremely long shots to convey the stillness of time in a world mired in decay. If you expected those extraordinary long takes to cause a problem during the restoration, you wouldn’t be too mistaken – but not completely right either. “Long takes pose challenges mainly on set, not so much in post-production”, says Robert Libel. “There were several instances when a character moves from one place to another in a single shot, for example when the doctor goes into the mill and up to the attic, where the intensity of sunlight and shade differs extensively. We had to optimise the ratio of greys and lights in those 8-10-minute-long shots, but that was the only challenge caused by the long takes.”

Renewing process at the Hungarian Filmlab (Photo: Gábor Valuska)

The restoration of Sátántangó is a much-awaited item of news for those who previously faced serious difficulties with obtaining a copy. 35-mm prints were extremely rare, many of the DVD editions were out of print, and the film has never been released on Blu-ray. Until now, that is. The restored version will get a European premiere at the Berlin Film Festival, and a United States premiere will happen in the autumn of 2019. In North America Sátántangó will play at domestic festivals and embark on a multi-city theatrical tour across the United States and Canada, to ultimately be released on special edition Blu-ray and streaming in 2020.

It will be a truly marvellous experience to watch this breathtakingly ambitious movie in a version closest to the original, a version that’s miles better than the DVD print currently available. “Starting with a 4K scan versus a standard definition telecine alone will reveal details few have ever seen before, outside of the small number of people who has had the chance to see Sátántangó in a 35-mm film screening”, says Rogers. “The added resolution will reveal fine details lost in previous releases. The dynamic range captured by scanning will also reveal highlight and shadow details significantly above any previous DVD release.”

“I’ve been an admirer of Béla’s work for a long time, and nothing compares to the viewing experience of Sátántangó”, says Ei Toshinari of Arbelos Films. “It’s a transcendent film, with an atmosphere and hypnotic pace that’s truly sublime. We’re extremely proud to be able to present this new 4K restoration of Sátántangó.”

Tamás Soós