The Man from London

By John Bradburn

man-from-london-bella-tarr.jpgThe Man from London, 2007

Somewhere in Europe a lone figure stands observing a dockside. The image is harsh, black and white, the tempo slow and deliberate, the compositions exacting and the camera almost floating. An elderly man with thick glasses sits and eats a stew, hunched over a table in a small restaurant, the shaft of light barely illuminating him. These are the spectres of a world – of Bela Tarr’s world. The Man from London is instantly recognizable as a later film by the Hungarian director. Few filmmakers can so thoroughly communicate worldly experience like Tarr. One short sequence fully illustrates this – in one panning shot Maloin, the central character of the film, talks to his daughter as she cleans her workplace. Maloin leaves her and walks down the street, finally disappearing in the distance. Tarr does not cut the sequence here but instead he observes the simple image of a small child playing football against the buildings, before slowly panning up to the crowded apartment above. This is not a cinema of facts, plot and motion. This is a cinema of experience.

The Man from London is adapted from the book of the same name by George Simenon. It ostensibly deals with Maloin, a middle aged switchman at a coastal port. One night he witnesses a violent altercation in which both a man and a suitcase end up in the sea. For no identifiable reason Maloin rescues the suitcase which turns out to be full of British money. Slowly the narrative arcs around the repercussions of this event. What appears to be set up here is a thriller – a classic stolen money set-up. What Tarr does is to use the genre as a device – a skeleton structure – to hang off moments of life. Maloin comes home from work. He gets changed in a shaft of morning sunlight, his white body and shirt reflecting the sunlight around the room. A beautiful moment.

man-from-london-bella-tarr-2.jpgThe Man from London, 2007 

The detective genre relies upon facts - evidence, times, places, witnesses and results. Much of Simenon's other work, such as the ever popular Maigret series, all relies upon the audience playing games with the central detective, trying to work out the mystery before the conclusion of the narrative. Much of the audience pleasure from such films is derived in this way. Tarr strips this level of identification with the text away. I use the term ‘text’ here in its loosest sense, as Tarr's film exists as an almost anti-text experience relying as much as it does on sound and image to communicate. Tarr's film works on the presentation of images, moments and sounds, out of context to us and Maloin. We have no privileged information and are not racing to a conclusion. We are placed deeply within Maloin’s experience of the situation and we watch it from his point of view. Much like the cinematography that frequently submerges the characters inside deep areas of darkness; the audience is also engulfed in the subjective experience of the film. In fact this film – more than any other of Tarr’s – communicates experientially. Where a direct line can be drawn from Satantango through Damnation and Werckmeister Harmonies we can see a continual reduction in the reliance of information within the narrative. The films are constructed around the subjective experience of information over the audience’s omnipotent understanding of events. The film allows an audience to dream, to piece together limited information, to make assumptions, to make new readings, to fear, to panic and to experience.

Tarr's refusal to play the genre game can also be seen in his refusal to play by the rules of adaptation. Simenon’s novel has been adapted twice before. Both films (L'homme de Londres in 1943 and Temptation Harbour in 1947) stick closer to the source novel. Tarr's film jettisons whole sections of plot and excises entire characters. This raises questions about the faithfulness of an adaptation. Should an audience seek a perfect replication of the novel experience or something else? The Man from London is clearly Tarr's reaction to the novel as one artist’s experience of another artists work. Tarr transforms the source material to relate his concerns and aesthetic experience. In this sense it can be argued that The Man from London is a far more faithful adaptation because it is faithful as an adaptation. When cinema seeks to become an exact replication of a novel then it fails as cinema. To hide the hand of the adapter is to be false in some way as the adapter becomes nothing more than a censor of what is or is not cinematic – excising and changing the narrative to suit his desires.

man-from-london-bella-tarr-3.jpgThe Man from London, 2007 

With Tarr's radical adaptation we have an honest adaptation that both reference the original and the place of the adapter in changing from one form to another. Tarr's adaptation is inherently cinematic as it rests on sounds, images and moments rather than concrete solid recreation of novelistic scenes. If any of the scenes from The Man from London were transcribed into a novel then they would lose their power. Their power is their cinematic experience between the words, before the words and after the words. No other film lingers so much on incidental details of bar patrons, kids in the street or men cutting meat, all struggling through their experience to survive, to survive in a world where Maloin's secret stash of bank notes may just make easier.

There is a texture to the film, a grainy grey texture that holds over all of the protagonists like a damp winter sky. These images take on an almost iconic level of importance throughout the film. We see Maloin hunched over, his head pulled down by his affairs, we see ships resting on shore lines in foggy conditions and the face of Maloin's daughter lit sharply from above at the kitchen table. Each sequence plays with light and dark, with the ideas of known and unknown. The darkness holds many secrets – the sea where the money is found is presented as total darkness. As observes we drift through light and dark knowing and unknowing like the fragmented ripples of light in the opening minutes of the film. This is further obscured throughout by the insistence of shooting through windows, ladders, cranes and doorways. No information is presented it is half caught. The opening scene is shot from such a distance to make it impossible to make out the faces of the criminals. Tarr paints experience on the screen, his own of the novel and Maloin’s of the predicament he is in. The audience is not privileged to observe the events presented for them. They must experience the situation as much as Maloin.


John Bradburn is a writer and filmmaker. He is based in Birmingham and lectures at Staffordshire University.