Bela Tarr: Family Nest (1979) - Can't Stop the Movies
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Bela Tarr: Family Nest (1979)

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Every Tuesday Andrew will be examining the work of the Hungarian director Bela Tarr.

Andrew COMMENTARYOn many lists of films to see before you die, a name comes up that provides a sort of roadblock to anyone that wants to be versed in all forms of world cinema.  The names Jacques Tati, Werner Herzog, Yasujiro Ozu, Sayajit Ray should all be known to anyone that loves movies, even if you haven't had the time to absorb their catalog.  Still, there are a few directors that have produced unique works of film that are alluded to, but few folks have had first hand knowledge with.

To that pile, I would like to add the films of Bela Tarr.  His filmography is a bit daunting to anyone that has only taken a passing glance to the films he's made.  For example, a lot of people have heard of his seven and a half hour Satantango, but even fewer have seen it.  Perhaps it's too much to ask that people set their time aside to fully engage in a work that demands your attention, but that doesn't excuse the same individuals from seeing the rest of his work.

At the same time, I don't want to approach his films with a kind of elitism that will prevent other folks from watching them because Satantango is an exception to his work (only in terms of length).  From the beginning, his films have been dealing with the reality of living in post-Communist Europe more than any filmmaker, and touching on themes that resonate throughout every country on this relatively green earth.

So I begin today with his first film, Family Nest, released in 1979.

Before the plot has even started we see Tarr playing against one of the most cliched tropes of cinema, "Based on a true story."  Because, really, any work of art is based on something that's true.  Whether it's a feeling that you get wandering through the park on a pleasant day, or the pain that ricochets through your body after the passing of a loved one - all great art comes from a place that everyone can identify with.  So why do we feel the need to tell everyone that the story that they are about to see is based on a true story?  Consolation, perhaps.  So that we can remove ourselves from the situation, and find ways to sympathize with the players, rather than empathize.

That is one feature of Tarr's movies that I identify with and cannot escape from.  Despite the nightmarish qualities that they sometimes represent, there is a sense of immediate reality that cannot be ignored.  But I am sitting on my perch again, let's look at the film itself.

The first thing we see is a title card that says "The following is not a true story, it didn't happen to the people in the film but it could have."  He's already asking us to suspend our disbelief from the actions and scenarios that are present, but it's a sneaky approach.  If based on a true story, we can examine what is different and separate ourselves from their reality.  If presented as fiction, we are forced into a position of identification, looking for ways that our lives are similar to the desolate ones that he presents.

Tarr shoots his first story in a stark black and white, presenting the lives of his characters as plainly as possible with little of the cinematic catharsis that we've come to expect from the zoom, the quick cut, the close up.  We will watch as these people live their lives, and form conclusions by ourselves.

The story is a simple one, if you consider struggling to survive a simple task that can be accomplished by anyone.  Credits roll as we watch some men and women go about their daily lives in factories and plants, hoping for the break that will let them live more comfortably in their daily lives.  Eventually Tarr settles on a family that is extensive, with many members, forced to share a single flat with each other in one of the poorer districts of Hungary.

The specifics of the characters, such as their names or desires, are not as important as the conditions that they are forced to endure.  They are all watched over by the totalitarian rule of the father, who divvies out criticism and hate as he sees fit.  If he doesn't like the way one of his sons is living, he will find a way to wound him with that knowledge.  If he doesn't like the way one of his daughters spends her free time, "hanging out" with a bunch of men he doesn't know, he will immediately qualify her as a whore.  Just not in so many words.

What little release any of them can find is in the form of alcohol and their jobs, which demand more than they can feasibly provide.  The grating sounds and heat that the factories produce cause wearying feelings in the family.  The alcohol lead to discretion of marital values that go against the standard grain of commitment.  Then, at times, those discretions are forced by weak strangers that cannot find release in their own lives, and find that the only release that they can find is to rape those that can't fight back.

Still, those that are exploited find ways to hope in the dreary days.  Packing sausages into boxes, hoping that the work that they put in (twice from the week previous) will be rewarded as such.  Then they receive their pay, and see that their work is not worth twice as much pay.  If anything, it is worth less than the effort that they put forth the previous week.  But still...maybe if they work harder they can get a place of their own, away from the family and from the harsh father, and maybe...

That's all there is.  Perpetual hope that persists in the expression of persistent torment.  Why does Tarr present the material like this?  There aren't any central characters to really root for, hardly anyone is named specifically, and it doesn't seem like things are getting any better for anyone.  It is because he wants us to identify with the situation and with the feelings, not with the superficial realities of the people that are onscreen.  He recognizes that we separate ourselves from the story by saying "That couldn't happen to me...look at how they live."  But by removing any form of direct identification, he challenges the audiences to relate to the characters in their own way - beyond boundaries of country or race.

From his beginning, you can feel Tarr pushing against the constraints of conventional cinema.  He's not interested in diverting our attention away with quick cuts and isolating close ups.  His shots convey a sense of intimacy that forces us to examine the lives of these individuals and, even if we don't want to identify with them, find some way to connect their lives with our own.  There are two particularly excellent shots at the end of the film, both done in unbroken takes, that detail the hopes and dreams of a man and wife that can't get away from the systems that have driven their hopes so deep.

This is the effect that Tarr's films have.  Despite their, at times, harsh style, they force an identification with the characters that you don't get from other films.  Despite the lack of outward signs (names?  peh), he identifies with the universal nature of their struggle, and presents it accordingly.

Sometimes that struggle will be ugly, as is the case with Family Nest.  Seeing a group of unnamed, hardly recognizable and hurtful people tear themselves apart isn't pleasant.  But there's a note of truth in his presentation that goes beyond the material, and led to my decision to focus on his films for the next couple of months.

Keeping that in mind, next week I'll be examining a film I hated the first time I watched it, The Outsider.  Look forward to happy skies ahead!

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Family Nest (1979)

Written and Directed by Bela Tarr.

Tarr with text

Posted by Andrew

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