The Prefab People

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Robin Clifford of Reeling Reviews
Robin Clifford 
  The Prefab People
Laura Clifford of Reeling Reviews
Laura Clifford 

Bela Tarr is a Hungarian filmmaker who has followed his own vision for over 30 years but the name is little known in the US outside of film circles. Fortunately, the Harvard Film Archive is here to correct that and brings us a collection of this remarkable director’s works, including his 7+ hour long “Satantango,” with their program “The Melancholy World of Bela Tarr,” running from March 9 through March 25 at the HFA.

One of Bela Tarr’s early films, “Prefab People (1982)” enters the lives of a Hungarian couple, she a constant nag and he a seemingly thoughtless lout. It sets the stage for Tarr’s future filmmaking style as he developed his penchant for long-running takes, some lasting 5, 10, even 15 minutes and beautiful shot composition. For instance, in one of his films (“Werckmeister Harmonies”) we watch two men as they walk, walk, walk away from the camera until they are just two tiny figures going their separate ways. It sounds boring but the artistic style and shot composition are mesmerizing. Tarr’s films are visual masterpieces and, surprisingly, never boring.

Having never seen this artist/director’s visually stunning works, we took the opportunity to watch four of Tarr’s films chronologically, from “Prefab People” to “Damnation (1988),” “Werckmeister Harmonies (2000)” and his latest film, “The Turin Horse,” over the span of a couple of days. This is a real treat for a film buff to see an artistically brilliant filmmaker evolve from his early days through to the present, “The Turin Horse,” a film that answers the question of what happened to the beaten horse Frederich Nietzsche tried to save. (Look it up.)  

There are recurring themes, like the civil unrest first seen in “Damnation,” in Tarr’s films and, seeing them back to back, you also get to appreciate the economy of the man’s filmmaking, using Kodak black and white film stock years after most filmmakers forgot about the quality of that medium. Tarr hones, over the decades and from one film to the next, his acute sense of shot composition, camera movement, economy of dialogue and minimalist editing and we watched, in a short span of time, the evolution of a true artist of cinema.

“The Turin Horse,” at over two and a half hours long, contains all of the above elements of Tarr’s works and consists of just 30 separate shots. Consider that it is a turn-of-the-20th century film about an old farmer, Ohlsdorfer (Janos Derzsi), with a useless right arm, his stoic daughter (Erika Bok) and the titular dying horse. It takes place over the course of six days and is all about their day-in, day-out routine of their bleak, isolated life – only a handful of other characters make brief appearances during the laconic story. Here is the amazing thing: as I was watching, raptly, this slow tale, I checked how long it had been running, thinking it was just an hour in. To my surprise, 2+ hours of truly hypnotic filmmaking had transpired.

If you really think yourself a film (versus movie) lover, do yourself a favor and spend some time at the HFA (if you are in the Cambridge MA area) and take in the works of this genius filmmaker who has followed his own vision all his career. I, personally, am thrilled that I had the chance. Laura claims she is going in to see the 7+ hour “Satantango.” I’ll make her up a box lunch that day.

Thanks HFA!

Béla Tarr's third full length feature (his first with professional actors) is like an Eastern Bloc tribute to Britain's kitchen sink dramas.  The film is in his preferred b&w, but unlike his later films with writer László Krasznahorkai, this is a fairly straightforward tale that is at once an age old battle-of-the-sexes and a reflection on the ties between happiness and material wealth.  The film's midsection previews Tarr's future stylistic direction with an evening out of dancing and singing that feels as long as the Corleone wedding (and Tarr evidently does have a sense of humor as the theme from "The Godfather" is used during this sequence).

The film opens on a dreary apartment block surrounded by ugly utility wires.  A bird flies out.  That would represent Férj (Róbert Koltai), a civil engineer feeling suffocated by his life with wife Feleség (Judit Pogány) and their two young children in a tiny apartment.  She nags and wails about having no life, he packs and leaves then returns in a never ending cycle.  When he finally takes her out for a night, he dances with another and closes the club singing drunkenly with his friends while she sits and pouts.  An offer for a two year job in Romania which would pay double salary begins the real argument of what each is looking for.

Ironically, given Tarr's later intoxication with the long, leisurely take, some of the scene transitions in "The Prefab People" are so abrupt they're disorienting, but once one gets used to the rhythms of this strained marriage, the final jump provides a surprising compromise.    Pogány issues the wife's misery in a sympathetic stream that nonetheless becomes unbearable nagging against Koltai's passive flight.

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