“In reality, hope is the worst of all evils, because it prolongs the torments of man.”
Friedrich Nietzsche, Human, All-too-Human
The novel Sátántangó by László Krasznahorkai shares many of the same themes as Eugene O’Neill’s play The Iceman Cometh. Hope and deception are central to both stories. The film versions of each reinforce their similarities. Neither clearly resolves the issue of deception in the end. Instead, they both offer the question, “Is false hope better than no hope at all?”
John Frankenheimer’s 1973 production of The Iceman Cometh for the American Film Theater is a near word-for-word adaptation of the play, while Bela Tarr’s 1994 adaptation of the novel Sátántangó is an extended yet faithful meditation on the work, carried out in collaboration with the novelist. The remainder of this essay will refer only to these film adaptations of the source material, unless otherwise noted.
While both films depict roughly the same amount of passing time (two days), Sátántangó is broken into twelve parts that weave in and out of time and storylines, comprising a total running time of over seven hours. The Iceman Cometh, on the other hand, is structured around four acts in a direct linear progression of time that adheres closely to the play’s four-and-a-half hour running time, saving a bit of time through the combination of two minor characters into one.
The similarities between the films revolve around a manifestation of the con artist as the central character. In Sátántangó, the character of Irimiás is a petty criminal who serves as a reluctant informer for the police. Not much else is revealed about his background, although several people in the failed village where he eventually returns hold him in high esteem. That esteem, however, is tempered by his eighteen-month absence in which he was rumored to have been dead. With news of Irimiás’s return, some of the villagers expect him to lead them to a better life.
In The Iceman Cometh, Theodore “Hickey” Hickman is a salesman (called a drummer in the vernacular of the time) who stops by Harry Hope’s bar every year to celebrate Harry’s birthday. The regulars at Harry’s hold Hickey in high regard because he buys them drinks and provides a bright spot in their otherwise drab routine. They eagerly await his return in the backroom of Harry’s bar, begging others to buy them a drink in between their naps at their tables.
Both films begin amid an atmosphere of anxiety, and the first actions in each film unearth deceptions. In Sátántangó, the character Futaki is sleeping with Mrs. Schmidt, until Mr. Schmidt arrives home earlier than expected, hoping to leave town with the money gained from the sale of cattle without having to share the earnings with the others involved in the transaction, including Futaki. Futaki escapes detection and returns to call out Schmidt on his deception. As Futaki makes Schmidt count out his share of the money, word comes that Irimiás has been seen approaching the village.
In The Iceman Cometh, the character Larry Slade, an old anarchist who has given up on the radical movement, is paid a visit by Don Parritt, the son of an anarchist movement leader and woman that Larry was once in love with. Parritt brings news that his mother has been arrested after being turned in by an informer in the movement, something Larry has a hard time accepting.
Larry, nonetheless, introduces Parritt to the regulars at Harry’s bar, emphasizing with each person’s history that they are now at the end of the line. Larry makes it clear that the regulars may have once been something but are all just hanging on to pipe dreams, deceiving themselves and each other that a better day may come. The backroom at Harry Hope’s bar is where self-deception rules the day, with the gentle aid of cheap alcohol.
Larry: Don’t you notice the beautiful calm in the atmosphere? That’s because it’s the last harbor. No one here has to worry about where they’re going next, because there is no further they can go. It’s a great comfort to them. Although even here they keep up the appearances of life with a few harmless pipe dreams about their yesterdays and tomorrows, as you’ll see for yourself if you’re here long.
[A few pages later]
Parritt: It must be a tough life.
Larry: It’s not. Don’t waste your pity. They wouldn’t thank you for it. They manage to get drunk, by hook or crook, and keep their pipe dreams, and that’s all they ask of life. I’ve never known more contented men. It isn’t often that men attain the true goal of their heart’s desire.
There is a certain enjoyment in Larry’s assessment of his fellow drinkers, even as he places himself among their lot, only differentiating himself by a lack of need for any pipe dreams. In this role, Larry is similar to the Doctor in Sátántangó who sits at his desk drinking and noting the movements of the villagers. Unlike the Doctor, however, Larry interacts with his fellow sufferers for most of the film. For the Doctor, informing has just become a part of his routine that takes over as his purpose, an informer whose information is no longer worth anything to anyone.
The central event in both stories turns on the death of a female character. In Sátántangó, the death of a innocent young girl allows Irimiás the opportunity to place the guilt upon the remaining members of the village and effectively begin his elaborate con. The girl died while the villagers were enjoying themselves in the local bar. While they had nothing to do with the girl’s death, Irimiás skillfully implicates them in the loss of her life.
The situation creates one of the strongest and most decisive moments of the film. As they stand around the body of the dead child, Irimiás, played by longtime Tarr collaborator and composer Mihály Vig, condemns the villagers for their indifference and lays out his plan for their deliverance, all while letting them know that he isn’t sure if they are up to the task.
“She [the deceased girl] must have been around here. She may have looked through this window and saw that you were all drunk and dancing around. Don’t get me wrong, I don’t mean to accuse anyone personally. I’m not accusing the mother who is never going to forgive herself for getting up too late in the morning of that awful day. I am not accusing the victim’s brother nor other members of the family. I am not accusing anyone. But let me ask you the question: aren’t we all guilty?”
It’s the standard set up to a classic con. After convincing them of their unworthiness and guilt, he lays out a vague idea for a plan that he isn’t sure can happen due to their not being fit for the task. He also mentions one small problem that would keep the plan from being carried out: the lack of money. They quickly place their wads of cash from the cattle sale at the feet of the dead girl for Irimiás to collect.
In The Iceman Cometh, Hickey reluctantly explains that his wife Evelyn has passed away after the regulars at Harry’s tease him about his wife having run off with the iceman, an ongoing gag that he always played up during his previous visits to Harry’s bar. Hickey reveals the news just after the regulars have finally begun enjoying themselves in the middle of Harry’s birthday party. The revelation, of course, kills the mood of the party and allows Hickey the chance to focus on his scheme to rid the others of their pipe dreams as he builds upon their guilt of having laughed at his dead wife’s expense.
Known for his drunken “periodicals,” Hickey refuses the drink this time around, telling the others that now that he has abandoned his pipe dream, he no longer needs alcohol. At first the regulars think Hickey is pulling one of his gags, but after he reveals his wife’s death, a different reality sinks in. After initially thinking Hickey is trying to get them to swear off booze, they realize his goal is much worse: getting them to abandon their pipe dreams once and for all.
Hickey knows all too well the pipe dream of each regular at Harry Hope’s bar, although he butts heads with Larry who claims not to hold onto any pipe dreams. Hickey challenges Larry’s philosophical attachment to death as a pipe dream in its own right. Since the arrival of Hickey, however, Larry has suspected that Hickey is not being honest about his intentions. He senses that Hickey is not telling the full story about the circumstances surrounding his wife, thinking she may have committed suicide due to Hickey’s unfaithfulness.
Irimiás also plays off the pipe dreams of the others. Irimiás, of course, knows that some of the villagers were planning on deceiving the others out of their money by leaving town early in the morning. That deception is already rife between the villagers is reinforced by a snooping neighbor Mrs. Halicks, the Doctor’s meticulous notetaking, and a scene between the bartender and a farmer who is already at the bar before the others arrive.
The villagers’ plot to get out of town with the money was thwarted as soon as word came that Irimiás had been seen on the road into town. The last they had heard of Irimiás was that he was dead, which was an intentional deception but not clear for what ends. The villagers head to the tavern to await Irimiás’s arrival, although some, such as Schmidt, are doubtful that he will actually return.
In The Iceman Cometh, the regulars at Harry’s tavern become a bit anxious when Hickey fails to arrive at his usual time. Harry already figures that Hickey is using his time to play a good one on them. He tells the others to go along with whatever deception Hickey has cooked up. This is a game they all know too well already. Their self-deceptions include Rocky the bartender calling his “girls” tarts, while they call him a bartender who looks after their money, joking now and then about how they are glad they aren’t whores who are beholden to a pimp.
Larry’s tranquil existence as the bar’s “foolosopher” is interrupted by Parritt, who brings back too many memories that Larry doesn’t want to relive. Parritt comes off as somewhat of a con artist, similar to Hickey, trying any trick in the book to get closer to Larry. Larry constantly pushes both of them away, not wanting to be reminded of his former life or his current situation. Larry keeps his distance from the others, not wanting to form any relationships that would alter his eventual date with death.
Futaki also stands apart from the others in the village. Although he was the first to lay down his money after Irimiás’s speech, he remains aloof from the rest of the group. His outsider status, however, turns against him when the plan seems to be breaking down. Having spent all night in a dilapidated estate, the other men take their frustrations out on Futaki when Irimiás fails to show up at the appointed time. They think that he has stolen their money, which he has, and it is not entirely clear why he returns.
But when Irimiás does show up amid their scuffle, he is able to once again use this against them. The men who were beating Futaki demand their money back, which Irimiás willingly supplies, noting that they are not to be trusted with his plan because they want to back out at the first sign of trouble. As he continues to harangue them, some of them decide they should give the money back to Irimiás and proceed with his plan. Irimiás is “reluctant” to take their money back but they continue to badger him until he takes the money, which completes the circle of deception.
Irimiás has a plan for each couple and individual. He gives them a little money to tide them over as he sends them to different villages for jobs. At this point, it’s unclear if his plans are real or not. He might be wanting to help them and build his network, even after hearing his report to the police in which he insults everyone he reported on. His report might also be something of a deception since it was clear that he’s not necessarily a willing participant as a police informer.
Likewise, it is not until the revelation of how Hickey killed his own pipe dream that his deception is entirely revealed. Both their motivations are somewhat open to interpretation, and in both there seems to be some genuine care for the people they are deceiving. They both have a chance to get away but return to see their deceptions through to the very end, and, in Hickey’s case, to his own end. Their primary purpose in these deceptions seem to be working something out for themselves, using the others as tools.
Larry and Futaki refuse to accept any notion of false hope and become tools for their deceivers. Larry turns his back on the others as they revel in their return to living in their pipe dream bubbles once Hickey is gone. Larry knows the he is the only one that Hickey had an effect on because he pushed Larry into the full acceptance of his grandstanding philosophy, causing Larry to force Parritt into committing the suicide that he could never commit himself.
“The protagonist, stripped of all illusion, faces his authentic self, and we get, as in The Iceman Cometh, the tragedy of unmitigated despair. As a determinist, O’Neill dealt with situations in which men were plunged into disaster through no fault of their own. On whom, then, was the burden of responsibility to be placed? All O’Neill could reply was that men are destined to suffer without reason.” (Glicksberg, p. 93)
In Sátántangó, Futaki rejects Irimiás’s plan, after all the others have accepted their assignments. He strikes out on his own, letting himself be the guide to his own fate. As Futaki walks away into the distance, Irimiás talks about him, saying he is a fool who doesn’t know what he wants. Futaki, however, only knows that he doesn’t want to cling on to a sense of false hope any longer.
Because both films exist within an atmosphere of deception, assessing the difference between hope and despair is difficult. Even the little girl who dies in Sátántangó does so out of self-deception and from being deceived by those around her. The scene with the girl is one of the longer and more difficult ones to watch and brings a sense of relief when she is finally dead. The same is true of Parritt’s suicide in The Iceman Cometh. And while these deaths bring relief, they are not emblematic of the tone as a whole, as dire as it may seem.
“The world is constructed so that people believe in redemption and love. Trust is a way to redemption. And when people believe this and leave themselves unshielded for a moment, they are struck down mercilessly and what little they still have is taken from them. The misery of the world is not a result of the financial or political situation, but derives from an abuse of the last remnants of faith in humanism.” (Kovács, p. 239)
Do Irimiás and Hickey care for those they deceive? While Irimiás’s report to the police contains nothing but disdain for the villagers, which the police must edit, it might be his true feelings or he might be leading them on. It isn’t clear. In The Iceman Cometh, it’s clear in the end that Hickey’s deception comes full circle, resulting in his own demise. He convinces the regulars to agree that he has not been acting sanely, which allows them to restore their pipe dreams since they were all just going along with the “insane” Hickey to appease his little gag. It also offers Hickey the change to use an insanity defense when tried with his wife’s murder. It may have been Hickey all along who was the ultimate pipe dream for the bar’s patrons.
Hickey realized, as he was describing the events that led up to him killing his own wife, that he had been deceiving himself all along about her. Her ability to forgive him for his drinking and affairs caused him to despise her, thereby convincing himself that he was ending her misery by killing her. In fact, by killing her, he was ending his own guilt and anxiety.
Both films answer the question “Is false hope better than no hope at all?” with a resounding no. Larry, having placed in his own hope in his eventual death, sees that even Parritt’s suicidal jump from the balcony does nothing to change the world around him. As Larry says, he is doomed to see both sides of everything, which bars him from taking any action. Without a deception to convince him otherwise, Larry, while not needing hope, can only observe the plights of others.
As for Sátántangó, the Doctor places the final emphasis (and answer) on the question of hope by boarding up the window he has used to spy on the villagers. Now that they are gone, he has no longer has a purpose, as useless as it was in the first place. He boards up his windows, never having to gaze upon his now departed neighbors again. Without being able to observe the plights of others, what is there to hope for?
What happens to those who want no part of society and have become disillusioned with organized resistance against the status quo? With no hope, one is left, as an individual, to go it alone, to approach each day as an entirely new experience that has no expectations to be better or worse than it started. Hope is embodied in the belief that conditions will improve for the individual and/or for society, that things will always get better. This is the foundation of the true deception, that everything will always improve. It’s why humans have a difficult time reacting to climate change.
Can there be hope without deception? Humans, it seems, need to believe in something that offers hope or purpose. Religion, nationalism, sports, entertainment, careers, political parties, and even families can offer hope but often while being bound up with deception. If people refuse all those deceptions, strip them all away, it might leave some of them without any sense of purpose or hope. How, then, can they proceed? While many might prefer to shut themselves off, others might be able to go on.
In order for there to be hope without deception, people must be willing to strip away the elements of deception that are bound up within culture, beliefs, and society. If any of those elements cannot exist without needing deception, they must be abandoned. There might not even be any need for hope once deception has been removed. People might realize that what they were hoping for cannot and will not ever exist.
Charles I. Glicksberg, The Tragic Vision in Twentieth Century Literature, Southern Illinois University Press, 1963.
András Bálint Kovács, “Sátántangó” in The Cinema of Central Europe edited by Peter Hames, Wallflower Press, 2005