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Organic Cinema:

Film, Architecture, and the Work of Béla Tarr

Berghahn 2017

“A magisterial, transdisciplinary contribution and brilliant comparative analysis of a major contemporary filmmaker whose work remains undertheorized and insufficiently known in a global framework. Organic Cinema presents a wealth of perspectives on the interlocking fields of cinema and architecture.” Catherine Portuges, University of Massachusetts, Amherst

"While combining film theory with the theory of architecture, music and theology, the organic method could offer a new alternative to deconstruction, constructivism, cultural studies and cinema aesthetics. Organic cinema deserves academic attention, especially because it has the potential to create a new platform." Anna Batori in Studies in Eastern European Cinema Read review

"Thorsten Botz-Bornstein walks an interesting path. I heard Tarr, Lav Diaz and several other filmmakers speaking about it, but for some reason it never made its way into the general debate on (slow) cinema: the organic. ... A non-standard piece on film with a new suggestions and new readings. I recommend it to those of you who want to read about more than just Tarr as a director, but who would like to learn about the context which his films and his filmmaking is embedded in."  Nadin Mai in The Art(s) of Slow Cinema Read review

"... an impressive multidisciplinary examination of the concept of organicism through a complex yet sophisticated web of philosophical, aesthetic, architectural and cinematic examples." Invisible Culture Read review

"Organic Cinema is blowing new life in the philosophical considerations of contemplation and nature that were once thought to be outdated." Bonnie van Vugt in Aesthetic Investigations Read review

Blurb: The “organic” is by now a venerable concept within aesthetics, architecture, and art history, but what might such a term mean within the spatialities and temporalities of film? By way of an answer, this concise and innovative study locates organicity in the work of Béla Tarr, the renowned Hungarian filmmaker and pioneer of the “slow cinema” movement. Through a wholly original analysis of the long take and other signature features of Tarr’s work, author Thorsten Botz-Bornstein establishes compelling links between the seemingly remote spheres of film and architecture, revealing shared organic principles that emphasize the transcendence of boundaries.

Tarr                   Krasznahorkai           Makovecz 

The purpose of the book is to develop the idea of “organic cinema,” the definition of which I extract from an analysis of Béla Tarr’s trilogy: Damnation (1987), Satantango (1994) and Werckmeister Harmonies (2000). The essence of the organic is derived not only from cinema theory but also from the theory of architecture, where it has reached a high level of sophistication. In architecture, the term “organic” has been prospering for more than a century.

The Organic

In the twenty-first century, philosophical thoughts on the organic have been pushed into a niche, while discourses on “universal” values as well as postmodern philosophies attempting to deconstruct universalisms are prominent. Clashes between different universalisms seem to be programmed in the near future.

Ambitions to develop an organic vision of the world have become a serious undertaking in a place where perhaps few people would expect to find it: Hungary. Film director Béla Tarr, architect Imre Makovecz, and writer László Krasznahorkai have been obsessed with organic forms of expression for decades.

The Man from London

Organic architecture goes back to Frank Lloyd Wright. I concentrate on Makovecz who is the initiator of Hungarian organic architecture (organikus építészet or szerves építészet) or living architecture (élőépítészet). Different European organic philosophies and theories of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries are also explored.

James Goodwin opposed already twenty years ago organic cinema to intellectual cinema when writing in his book on Eisenstein: “Where form in intellectual cinema establishes ideological perspective and critical distance, in organic cinema form fuses author, content and individual spectator” (1993: 176).

Imre Makovecz, Church in Paks

The above principles of the organic are particularly well reflected by Tarr’s/Krasznahorkai’s treatment of the “Werckmeister harmonies” theme. Do musical harmonies represent an organic reality or are they just mathematically calculated? I show that in musical theory, one calls “natural harmony” what architecture calls the “organically created space,” while drawing lines in architecture or editing a film in the Eisensteinian manner represents a sort of Werckmeisterian tuning. Cutting and editing are the equivalent of the piano keyboard that cuts “natural sound” into twelve different tones irrespective of the fact that “in nature” tones do not follow those mathematical laws.

Makovecz “destroys the viewer’s ability to navigate” in some of his buildings. The result is a spatial experience similar to that offered by Tarr’s films : “The unsettling experience of being uncertain is gauged toward forcing the viewer to rely on his own consciousness and inner self instead of unthinkingly accepting what his senses tell him” (Makovecz).

Hungarian Whales I: Werckmeister Harmonies


Hungarian whales II: Imre Makovecz, Church in Paks

Hungarian Whales III: Makovecz's Farkasrét Mortuary Chapel

Hungarian whales IV:  The nuclear bunker of Pécel built by Soviets in 1946 near Budapest. Bettina Barna, who took a series of photos, points out that the young Makovecz was captured by Paul Virilio's architectutral analyzes of bunkers. Link to Barna's website.

Hungarian Whales V: Balna Shopping Center in Budapest (architect: Kas Oosterhuis)


Werckmeister Organ

Hungarian Whales VI: The "arch" concept of the Hungarian pavilion presented at the Expo Milano in 2015 (architects: Attila Ertsey, Ágnes Herczeg and Sándor Sárkány)

Slow Cinema, Contemplative Cinema


Contemplation, as opposed to mathematical analysis, locates the organic web in the form of an immanent, self-sufficient “natural logic” that is not present in the form of empirical facts or abstract rules. “Contemplative cinema” makes use of those organic devices. Organic time and organic space are “real” but they have nothing to do with realism, just like organic architecture is not realist. Architecture and music share similar problems when examined from this angle.

Hungarian Whales VII: A "real" stuffed whale toured in Hungary in the early 1960s.

László Krasznahorkai:


The Melancholy of Resistance

In organic architecture, the paradigm of the inviolate interior of a living body is an often evoked metaphor. The whale’s physiognomy and cultural connotations (first of all because of its resemblance with Noah’s ark) let this animal appear as an organic, living creature simultaneously able to function as a house-like shelter for humans.

The main tool for obtaining an organic space in cinema is the long take. Long takes are organic because they convey the natural continuity of time. The long take transforms space into a coherent, integer, and respectable entity. The fluent space produced by the long take in Tarr’s films is also the space that is most appreciated in organic architecture. One of the most important principles for organic architects is that boundaries between parts should not be closed but open. Purely geometrical divisions of space should be avoided because space is always lived and never mathematically calculated.

"Rhythm is provided not by the story but by the actors, by the play of the actors. I understand the temporality without forgetting that this is a life and that it is happening."

Béla Tarr


Andreas Werckmeister

Hungarian whales VIII: The 268 meter long Hungarian Parliament was meant to symbolize the political function of the second capital of the Austro-Hungarian monarchy. Its size was found uncanny already when it was built. In 1920, the bicameral system for which it was conceived, was switched to a unicameral system. The change deprived the entire northern half of the building of its function (it can now be rented for conferences). Most recently, the 386-member parliament has been almost halved by V. Orbán’s new legislation. As a result, the parliament lies like a stranded, half-empty whale on the claimed land of the former Tömö Square. Endre Dányi has called the parliament an “inhabited ruin.”

"There must be an inner meaning to every building, a kind of meaning which cannot be named, yet reveals itself during the planning process. I don’t trust architects who claim the program must be learned as a function, the elements must be put together, and then we will arrive at a very clever and modern building."


Imre Makovecz


"A location has a face.  It’s one of the main characters."

Béla Tarr

Church in Siófok

"I despise stories, as they mislead people into believing that something has happened. In fact, nothing really happens as we flee from one condition to another." Béla Tarr

Weckmeister Harmonies:  Organic Music, Organic Architecture


Eszter, the protagonist in Werckmeister Harmonies, mentions Aristoxenus’s musicological conundrum concerning mathematical ratios that cannot overlap with an organic whole based on human sense perception. This is precisely the conundrum recognized by Frank Lloyd Wright in the realm of architecture when concluding that “it is the first principle of growth that the thing grown be no mere aggregation” (Wright 1941: 185). The logic of nature cannot be summed up by math.


Aristoxenus' Perfect Harmonies

IMG_2294 - Copy.jpg

Hagymikum and Hagymahaz in Mako, Hungary, by Imre Makovecz (photos by author)

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POSTER: "Organic" Kinematogram from Janos Gerle's and Imre Makovecz's Entry "Minimal Environments." Credit Deodath Zuh, 

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