Every Tuesday Andrew will be examining the work of the Hungarian director Bela Tarr.
"I'm never judging"
It's difficult to make a film that doesn't take a specific moral stance on it's characters. Every decision that the director makes slant the film toward some kind of subjective position with the view of the camera. There are a plethora of tricks anyone can use to make their characters seem more imposing, or meekly shrinking into the background, or simply two faced (easy to do if you have a mirror around).
The best directors make the best films because they realize that evoking sympathy for characters is not the same thing as empathy. In the first, we are just agreeing that the situation is bad and gosh darn it rough situations make us sad sometimes. In the second, we are put in a situation where some part of ourselves can be used to identify the feelings and actions of the onscreen characters. With sympathy, we have the comforting distance between their lives and our own. Empathy closes that gap, and strengthens our bond with the text.
To put things in a very broad scope, I've noticed two specific ways directors do this with their films. It's either by placing the subjective lens of the film so far into the characters mind that every image is painted with their feelings. Or it's by simply being content to sit back and watch the characters interact, with very little involvement of the camera. The films of Ingmar Bergman are very alive with the more subjective approach, painting the images with the throbbing red of the soul, or seeing death walk toward you. The Dardennes Brothers take an entirely separate approach, fixing the camera around the central character and refusing to look away. There are very few tricks to their style, allowing the natural sounds and rhythms of life to envelop the characters without the distraction of a traditional plot.
One of the things that makes Bela Tarr, and a lot of the Communist/Post-Communist directors, so fascinating is that his career involved a switch from one end of the spectrum to the other. Up to and including today's film, The Prefab People, he was content with sitting back and watching the characters live out their day to day lives in Hungary. All along we could feel him straining against the style, but today it's especially prevalent.
While there were more than a few cuts between characters in his previous film, this one keeps watching even after we think the scene should be over with. At the beginning, Feleseg (Judit Pogany) and Ferj (Robert Koltai) are fighting as Ferj is trying to leave the home. All the while, their baby is screaming and crying, desperate for some kind of attention. But Feleseg is concerned with Ferj's declaration that he is leaving, and she is screaming at him to tell her what that means. It means just that, and soon he is gone.
All of this is done in one take. The lessons that Tarr learned from experimenting with Macbeth payed off quite well. We can't look away from the two of them, and we have nowhere else to run. The flat is claustrophobic and the baby is crying, the street is alive with music, but none of that good cheer leeks into the apartment. This is the reward of the young couple that desperately wanted a flat in Family Nest. Another level of hardship and pain.
But Tarr has done something tricky here with the supposedly objective camera. It seems as though no aspect of their married life is going to be hidden from us. But the next scene shows the two of them back together, not happy, but considerably more functional than in those first few minutes. The following scenes illustrate that the story has jumped back in time a few months to show us how they ended up in the argument at the beginning of the film. Already Bela Tarr illustrates of the maxims of his career - the camera lies to us.
But before we are tricked into believing that something is going to happen with his story he includes another interesting detail. Despite the long takes and almost surgical approach to his camerawork, he still shows that the story is taking place entirely in the minds of the characters. A little over halfway through the film, when Ferj and Feleseg are having lunch with their baby, the camera pans slightly to the left and we see that they have another child. In their self involvement, fighting and paying attention only to the baby, we see that they are neglecting their older son.
With one slight twist of the camera, Tarr adds a dimension to the situation that we were completely unaware of. Were we thinking of these characters lives as our own? Or were we maintaining that distance? It's a personal choice at this point. When I watched the film, that slight revelation floored me. How much do I really know about these characters? Such care and detail is put into the minor touches of the film, but I still maintained my own level of distance. That one detail, taking you further into their perception (which is apparently shared by the camera), destroyed what distance I could maintain.
The title of The Prefab People comes from the parties that they attend where Ferj and Feleseg get to pretend that they are of the wealthy elite. A lounge singer performs for a dressed up crowd in a shoddily assembled ballroom, while half-interested waiters serve drink after drink to the audience - little realizing they are performing their own little act. The most telling moment in this scene is in the midst of all this pretending, Ferj pretends that he is dancing and singing to another woman, instead of asking his own wife to dance. Shortly after that party, Ferj is offered a job overseas, and he and Feleseg have the fight that we see at the beginning.
But that's not the end of their relationship. Or at least, we're led to believe that it somehow continues. After the fight, after Feleseg's tearful breakdown to an unseen observer, we see the two of them on the back of a truck. They sit quietly, say nothing, and share in each others space as the truck goes around and around. Is this scene in the future? Their past? Does it matter? Not for the purposes of this film. If most films have tricked you into thinking something has happened, this is the antidote to that idea. We end as we began, unhappy, uncertain, and circling around with no clear destination in mind.
I think that The Prefab People was a brilliant way for Bela Tarr to end the first phase of his career. He engendered empathy in a situation that we might not have any direct relation to, and did so in a stylish fashion that was used well in the moments we spend with Ferj and Feleseg.
Next week we will see Almanac of Fall. This is one of Tarr's forays into color, and the first film that utilizes the drifting, nightmarish style that will become his signature.
Written and directed by Bela Tarr.
Starring Judit Pogany and Robert Koltai.