Béla Tarr in Profile (Part One): Journey From The Plain by Daniel Dawson.
Since his debut feature in 1979, Béla Tarr (1955-) has made a slow yet progressive metamorphosis into the formalistic genius he is today. In this three part special on the incomparable Hungarian director, Mothlight Magazine examines the development of Tarr’s style, from his early realist films, into his experimental middle career and finally into his absolute mastery of form which culminates this summer with the director’s resignation from cinema, The Turin Horse (2011).
At just 22 years old, Béla Tarr won the Grand Prix for his his first feature The Family Nest (Családi tüzfészek, 1979), a film without a budget, shot mostly on hand-held 16mm and with a cast of amateur actors. The Family Nest is the story of a family struggling to live together under the housing shortage in ‘seventies Hungary and of the fraught relationship between Iren and her cantankerous father-in-law. Amongst all of this, there is also the ill-fated love story of the couple, Iren and her soldier husband Laci, who, as Tarr himself explains, have the 'capacity but not the possibility’ to succeed in love because of the impossible conditions of living under the oppressive Communist regime.
Belonging to the 'Budapest School’ Tarr’s dedicated style in both this and his immediate films are social realist. Wanting to make political films, supposedly the original reason why the Hungarian Government prohibited him from attending university, Tarr chose to create a series of 'documentary fiction films’ thus also giving birth to his later experiments with form. Taking direct influence from Godard’s theories of documentary realism ('through documentary realism one arrives at the structure of theatre, and through theatrical imagination one arrives at the reality of life’, Interviews, Jean-Luc Godard) Tarr creates with The Family Nest an imaginative and fictional account of the real, something he will come to do in extreme ways later on in his career. Though Tarr’s first attempts at film-making do carry with them a realistic portrayal of life under the oppression of a flawed social policy and are burdened with social conscience, his primary reason for film-making came from his disdain for modern cinema:
'There were a lot of shit things in the cinema, a lot of lies’
Tarr found that by portraying the iniquities of a modern Communist society he could show the world the way in which Hungary lived in a semi-fictional way. It is here that we find the foundations of Tarr’s trademark style; flawed, existential characters who are made victims by the State. In every major film that passes after The Family Nest, this motif of Tarr’s remains. The importance of character, that of ordinary people prefaces The Family Nest with the director’s explanation that 'this is a true story. It didn’t happen to the people in the film, but it could have.’ With one sentence, Tarr presents the family in his film as a microcosm of his country.
(The Family Nest, 1979)
Tarr’s next film, The Outsider (Szabadgyalog, 1981), a made-for-tv feature continues this development of the flawed character through Beethoven, a talented though unambitious violin player whose reckless behaviour amongst the patients of the mental hospital he works at has him fired. Though he soon finds work as a DJ at a local club, he is unable to curb his spending on drink and refuses to withdraw the expensive maintenance from his illegitimate son to save money. Once again Tarr presents a fictional documentary this time exploring the plight of the worker, the wife and the father as well as another recurring issue of drug taking and alcoholism. Later in the film, Beethoven’s best friend dies of a drug overdose at his wedding reception.
The Outsider is actually the weakest of Tarr’s repertoire. It moves slowly, though without the aid of the trademark long take of later films, and rarely does anything of worth happen. The one big event, the death of a friend, is focused with such brevity that it hardly seems appropriate to have it in the film at all. It seems Tarr’s sympathies lie away from the tragedy choosing to focus them instead on the monotonous peril of financial despair. Though it is a stagnant piece of work it does once again show the director’s character development. Like The Family Nest, Tarr’s second film has long monologues in which the characters express their doubts and anxieties and their frustration towards the protagonist for his blasé attitudes. András’ recognisable and detrimental existentialism has an adverse effect on his relationships. Eventually his wife finds solace in his brother. What The Outsider instead becomes is a vessel to Tarr’s next film whilst harbouring with it the microcosmic anxieties, desperation and the 'psychological continuity’ of his characters. Despite its flaws The Outsider can be redeemed almost entirely by the final scene in which a string quartet, including Andras, beautifully play out the film with Handel.
After winning the Grand Prix in 1979, Tarr was told that the only way he could continue to make films with funding would be to study for a diploma. In his time at film school, in which Tarr relates that his professor told him 'go off and shoot, there’s nothing I can teach you’, he makes The Outsider and his next feature, the final part of his 'Proletarian Trilogy’, The Prefab People (as well as Macbeth, see Part Two). It is in this unofficial trilogy that the roots of Bela Tarr’s auteurship can be found.
(The Outsider, 1981)
The final film in focus of this chapter, The Prefab People (Panelkapcsolat, 1982) marks the beginning of the end of Tarr as an amateur filmmaker. Beginning with a husband absconding from his marital duties, leaving a wife and child to fend for themselves, the marriage is recounted in flashback. Though at first our sympathies begin with the abandoned wife we soon see why he left in the first place. A constant nag, paranoid and lonely Tarr presents the wife as profoundly flawed yet utterly human. The loneliness which is inherent in his characters of previous films can all be combined into the terror faced by this housewife who relies on her husband’s menial job at a power plant. It is this loneliness which empowers her to attack her husband each night as he returns home from work and to reject his best efforts to please her on their anniversary. What we soon see is another example of a couple with the capacity but not the possibility to work as a couple. Reality bites hard for Tarr’s characters as they desperately try to survive. The State is responsible for broken homes and lost loves. There is little to aspire to and too much work for so little pay. The wife refuses to allow her husband to leave for two years to work in Romania, doing the same mundane job, but for twice the pay even though this would no doubt put them in a better position.The final scene sees the husband return to the his wife and reconcile over the purchase of a new washing machine. This concluded the trilogy with a sense of hope. The washing machine is a symbol of permanence within the family unit and also alleviates the workload of the wife who tends to the house. The compromise that the couples of the first two features needed has been set by the final.
Tarr’s exploration of loneliness through State abandon as a cycle presents three very tragic films, two of which are masterpieces of his early career, but with The Prefab People’s seemingly optimistic ending one would, foolishly, expect a continuation of this high.
Each of these films commit to the 'Budapest School’ of thought and Tarr continues to make politically charged films throughout his career though after The Prefab People the form begins to change. Abandoning close ups for long shots and short cuts for long takes, Tarr begins to abandon his strictly realist attitudes to film-making opting instead for a formalistic expression of stark, Hungarian reality. In Part Two of the Béla Tarr in Profile feature, Mothlight examines the transition into Tarr’s renowned formalism.
(The Prefab People, 1982)
Daniel Dawson is a student of English and Film Studies at the Univeristy of Dundee. He is currently writing his dissertation on the notion of tradition in Hungarian cinema and a play on the life and death of Atefah Sahaaleh.