You are very lucky to have seen his films screened in 35mm. I have only seen his films on DVD, but nevertheless they have made a powerful impression upon me.
What you say about his cinematography echoes the thoughts I have been penning in my article on Tarr.
I've pasted a rough draft of the introduction below - excuse the typos and omissions.
The recent release of Bela Tarr?s seven and a half hour masterpiece SatanTango on DVD in November was a momentous event. But perhaps not for the reasons most commonly cited. In the interim between the film?s release and its occasional showing to adventurous festival goers worldwide, SatanTango has operated as a signifier of the most exotic, most profound, the darkest and the densest cinema can aspire to; the film which has occupied the place of the dreams of filmmakers who hope that a film can be more than just a film, that a film can have its own mythology, that a film can transcend its materialist roots and take on a life of its own. Tarr?s own lack of exposure and the relative obscurity of Hungarian cinema also contribute to sense that if ever there was a holy-grail for filmmaking: this is it. In other words, the film has an aura.
But what is this aura? The accepted approaches to Tarr?s work have reached a consensus that Tarr?s late films provide allegories of the deteriorating social malaise of life in the Soviet Union and the aftermath of its collapse, woven into a grander cosmological vision of humanity. Much is made of Tarr?s earlier interest in philosophy as a student, so that is tempting to see him as a philosopher working through the medium of cinema, much as Tarkovsky was a director-poet.
But Bela doesn?t do philosophy. Despite all the prodding he received at his (200?) appearance at the National Film Theatre, he unequivocally refuted that anything he does has anything to do with philosophy. He claims we ?don?t think about anything like that on set? and ?we just work out how to get the camera from A to B.?
Devotees of Tarr?s work will find all this a bit hard to swallow, especially considering the weight of allegorical and philosophical references in his latest opus the Werkmeister Harmonies. Thomas Hobb?s leviathan, in the form of a stuffed whale, makes an appearance and town patriarch Uncle (?) obsession with the 12 tone scale of Andreas Werkmeister and his resulting detachment from reality of his, could be seen as a thinly veiled reference to the aestheticism of late Adorno. Add to this the theological titles of his mid-career oeuvre: Damnation and SatanTango and the quoting from scripture, mystical monologues and messiah figures and it would not be hard to argue that Tarr?s work has some of the most overt philosophical themes in recent cinema. But no, he denies it all.
Ahh, but the contrarian retorts, that?s because Tarr?s work represents an anti-philosophy; a fin-de-siele portrait of woe set against all the social agendas and dialectical theories of progress of the 20th century. He evokes philosophy only in the sense of a straw man to knock down. The problem with this find-the-loophole argument is that even such a Nietchzean interpretation of his work is a philosophy in itself and Tarr is adamant that he does not concern himself with such issues.
So is he just being coy? The easiest way out would be to claim that Tarr is simply resisting the temptation to interpret his work in the modernist belief that his films are self contained; without the necessity of a post-modern web of discourse we are increasingly used to assimilating as part of an artwork. Or even that since he is just directing the scripts of Lazni ?, he is using a technicality to sneak away from subjecting himself to discussion of his work.
But could it be that all these ways of attempting to unpick Tarr?s obscurantism are missing the point? What if, for a moment, we take Bela at face value on his claims to have nothing to do with philosophy and take seriously his assertion that his filmmaking is solely about aesthetics?
Looking at Bela?s forms as the basis of his works, a profound meaning can be read, which flys in the face of critical thinking about cinema. His vision is one of a cinema as a self-contained sphere to itself, where a knowledge of the cinematographic techniques he pushes forward explains why Bela is the greatest filmmaker?s filmmaker and how he is uncompromising stance stands singularly apart from any other contemporary auteur. His films aura is created exactly by the fact that he is operating meaning through his medium, in a way which is completely opposite to all modern trends: such as the blurring distinction between fiction and documentary made possible through digital technology, the erosion of the reverence of the image through its cheapening, scepticism of the truth of the image and the convergence of a monoform film language.