The Prefab People (1982)
Editor’s Notes: The following review is part of Next Projection Presents Apocalyptic Poetry: The Films of Bela Tarr. Please look out for more of our original series throughout 2015.
The Prefab People (1982), his first feature to star professional actors, again presents Bela Tarr examining marriage in socialist Hungary. Closing in on the struggling relationship of husband and wife, the film draws from social realism to shore up a background to their not so unique circumstances. A commentary both on marriage itself as well as how marriage is affected by social circumstance, The Prefab People is a deeply layered and emotive film that seeks to observe reality in its many different forms.
Opening with a wonderful long take of musicians performing in the streets, Tarr at once establishes inner and outer space.
Opening with a wonderful long take of musicians performing in the streets, Tarr at once establishes inner and outer space. A poetic insert of a bird flying into the horizon delineates this space as it transitions from the outdoor performance to the indoor domestic dispute. Challenging the mood of the first scene, a joyous pan of beautiful music in the streets, Tarr unhesitatingly throws the viewer in medias res into a huge marital fight. The husband says he’s leaving, but will not say to where. The wife hysterically screams at him, both in anger and in fear. She asks him what she’s supposed to do with the kids. She also asks him how it will feel to be a deadbeat dad. Her words are clear but do not make a rise out of him. He has set his mind, and he is out the door.
This integral scene is sewn from a few long takes. In close-up, Tarr’s handheld camera follows the actors as they move about the house, generally keeping one or the other in the center. When he cuts from character to character, the focus doesn’t necessarily remain on the character in view. This cinematic technique is a certain characteristic of Bela Tarr’s unique personal imprint, his auteurist sensibility. As we will see many times later in the film, Tarr often highlights a character and his or her feelings by intentionally moving the camera away from them. Without cutting, the sense of reality remains, as does one’s sense of where in the out-of-frame the character is. In off screen space, the character is brought into focus by observing the things or people surrounding them rather than the person themselves.
In perhaps the most affecting scene of the film, husband and wife are seen quietly in dispute at a party. After passive aggressively ignoring each other all night, the drunken husband chooses to stick around and play melancholic music with some of the band members. The wife sits alone in misery trying to fight back her tears. The juxtaposition of her anguish and the his pleasure is sharp, almost painful to watch. Though she is a mere few feet away, and the scene is one long take, the camera never exposes us to a two shot. Instead, it slowly pans back and forth. As described, though, shots of the husband perhaps illustrate the wife more than the husband, while shots of the wife perhaps illustrate the husband more. Tarr’s dynamic method of examining character personalities is certainly effective in this scene, if not the entire film.
Tarr’s dynamic method of examining character personalities is certainly effective in this scene, if not the entire film.
As the scene nears its end, the lights abruptly shut off, one at a time, until the husband is silhouetted in darkness, perhaps foreshadowing his lack of effort to his patriarchal role. While he may not be a deadbeat, he is certainly an inconsiderate drunk, and it is clear that whether he stays or leaves, the family will remain in crisis.
Their marital disconnection is made tangible vis-a-vis a fight about work and living situation. He wants to go abroad to make a bit more money, but it is obvious that he just wants more freedom from what he considers drudgery. He suggests leaving for two years; she fights back, saying he just wants to leave her to raise their two kids on her own. They make love in a very dark, silhouetted scene but are unable to. In frustration they sigh and go to sleep.
In the scene that follows, Tarr’s trajectory moves from social realism to poetic realism, a transformation he will play with for the rest of his career. At first, we believe that the scene is exactly the same as the first of the film: a close-up, moving camera shot of the couple fighting. But although the context is the same, the framing is the same, and even some of the language is the same, it is clearly a different scene, taken from a supposed different period in time. A repetition of this event only accentuates the atmosphere of crisis and drudgery found in this family’s life. Maybe this time he is actually leaving for good, or maybe this is just another aimless fight followed shortly by his return. In either event, the scene is a harrowing look into the bitter pains of marriage.
The next and last scene of the film shows the husband and wife buying a washing machine. A seemingly mundane ordeal, this simple scene is a metaphor of the bigger picture. In spite of her wishes, the husband opts for the slightly smaller washer. We never see them fight, the purchase is not shown. Instead, we see husband and wife in the back of a pick up truck, the model of the washer in big letters in the center of the frame. She is silent and depressed; he is silent and insensitive. They live like this for who knows how long.
A commentary both on marriage itself as well as how marriage is affected by social circumstance, The Prefab People is a deeply layered and emotive film that seeks to observe reality in its many different forms.