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This is one of Hungarian master Bela Tarr's earlier work, his third film and the first one for which he used professional actors, I understand. "Raw" is a word that has been used almost universally to describe Tarr's earlier films. What "Prefab People" depicts is a very ordinary young working-class family of four. If he were to make an entertaining movie, a director could make this into a situation drama/comedy of a sweet warm family, with a general dose of Spielberg spirit. But entertainment is not what Tarr offers. He dwells on the strife, the frustration and the inability to communicate. The movie is so direct and realistic that we feel like peeking into the everyday life of stagnation of this couple, lost in a vicious cycle of nagging complaints and resigned indifference. While the story could be seen as linear, starting with a simple flashback, some interpret it as a repeat of a nightmare-in-real-life over and over again. Certainly not a joy to watch, and not entertaining in the normal sense, "Prefab people" is worth a look to get a feel for Tarr's work and to be reminded how unpleasant life could be, whether by destiny or by choice.
*** This review may contain spoilers ***
Filmed, like all of Tarr's work, in black & white this gem of a movie,
to our western eyes, looks as though it were filmed in the 50s at the
very latest, but this is in fact Hungary in 1981, and shot on a
shoestring budget. The film is about a relationship, about a couple
scraping by, living in hard times, with two kids to feed. But whilst
this is beginning to sound a bit like a Magyar "Cathy Come Home", stop
right there! In Loach's film, Cathy and Reg are very much in love, but
it it circumstances beyond their control that drive a wedge through
them. In "Panelkapcsolat", it is themselves.
Whilst it is clear that they do love one another - or she loves him, at least - neither husband Robi nor his wife (whose name, I believe, we are never given) can blame anyone other than themselves for their lot. He is beginning to see the value of what he regards as "socialism" over communism, but has more time for his friends and his work colleagues than for his wife. Greed is a factor that appears in many of Tarr's movies, even his latest ("The Man from London"). However, Robi's wife, whilst certainly not greedy, is not faultless herself, as she cannot see - until it is too late - that her constant nagging is driving them apart. Or is it too late? One of the interesting techniques of this movie is that Tarr plays around with the chronology. We see the couple arguing, we see them enjoying (albeit for a short while) a tender moment at their 9th wedding anniversary, we see them argue again, we see them in bed. If we assume that the film is filmed chronologically, then it's a happy ending - of sorts (he still gets his way with the Minimat 65). It could quite plausibly be meant to be chronological, after all, we see Robi 'leave' his wife at the start of the film, and we see him leave again - presumably for Romania - in the film's dénouement. At first, we think that the second departure scene is the same as the first, but there are differences in dialogue, which makes one think that perhaps he has left - and returned - many times, hence the final scene is after he has returned - the next day, perhaps.
However, I am fairly sure that we are not meant to take this film chronologically. The film jumps backwards and forwards all over the place, and the final scene in the back of the truck is from happier days, perhaps from when they first moved in together. But Robi's stubbornness in not going for the automatic washing-machine, which his wife would have preferred, shows that their marital journey ahead will be as bumpy as the road they are travelling on in back of the truck.
Cleverly, the viewer is therefore free to turn this wonderful piece of celluloid into whatever he or she wants. I cannot imagine anyone not being completely mesmerised by this film. That Tarr can produce masterpieces of any length, from a relatively short film like this one, to the 7 and a half hour long "Sátántangó", shows that he is a very special director indeed. He is brilliant at capturing moments that others would not even notice. One such moment is halfway through the film, where Robi drunkenly sings the theme to the Godfather and a Hungarian version of "Autumn Leaves", we think (hope!) that he is directing the words to his wife, but end up being quite mistaken. As the camera pans between wife, husband, and musician, we realise that we are watching something quite special indeed.
Let us hope that, now that Tarr has finally finished "The Man from London" after so many years, that he will make more films more regularly, and not leave us on our own for so many years.
This is the earliest Béla Tarr film I've seen so far, and it's easy to place in his chronology - while the characters are honest and hold nothing back, they could just as easily have been found 'oop North' in an early Ken Loach film. This does not mean it bears no relevance to Tarr's development as a director - far from it - but as a standalone film, it is not particularly important. As in most of Tarr's films, the moments of joy are there if you choose to see them, but here they are easier to spot, perhaps because they stand out from the temperature of the rest of the film. One scene that sticks in my head is that of the chanteuse playfully picking a "real man" out of the audience for entertainment. It contrasts wonderfully with Judit Pogány's timid housewife character, struggling to hold on to a relationship with a far-from-perfect man. The performances are impressive and you could be forgiven for thinking you were watching a documentary. But in all honesty, it is not as compelling or fulfilled as his other films. I feel 7/10 is a fair evaluation.
*** This review may contain spoilers ***
Bela Tarr began his career making gritty social dramas which centred on
the lives of working class Hungarians. Whilst his later films are slow,
metaphysical and immaculately composed, Tarr's early films were shot
entirely with hand held cameras, and strove for a kind of "kitchen
sink" realism very much akin to the British and French New Wave.
A little over an hour long, "The Prefab People" is one of Tarr's shortest films. Reminiscent of Cassavettes, the film focuses on a young couple who struggle to make ends meet, the husband working at a local power plant whilst his wife stays home, dutifully tending to their two kids. Usually these Hungarian films take aim at socialism, trade unions and the post-Soviet government, blaming the collective unhappiness of the middle class on various institutional factors, but Tarr sidesteps these issues entirely. Humans are innately alienated and unhappiness, Tarr says, is the condition of modern consciousness.
And so Tarr immediately zeroes in on the existential problems of these two characters. The husband struggles to find meaning in his job, believing himself to be "just a button pusher" the world "going on even if he's not there". Similarly, the wife moans about having to constantly supervise the kids, having no money and never spending quality time with her husband. But what is quality time? What is money? What is there of substance outside the 4 walls of their home?
Elsewhere Tarr takes aim at materialism and leisure. He emphasises the banality of human conversation, human acquisition, human pleasure and pokes fun at the way man clings desperately to the class ladder, believing that just one more appliance, just one more object, will bring him happiness. Observe how late in the film the characters discuss whether or not they can afford a car. They can't. And so they buy the next best thing: a washing machine. Maybe next year they'll get the car. Surely then they'll be happy.
It's not a question of illuminating why post-revolution Hungary is unhappy or highlighting what social and psychological factors contribute to this unhappiness (though the film deftly does just that), but in exposing the inherent futility of this type of existence. It will always be unfulfilling, not because the rules of the game are unfair, but because the game itself is unwinnable; radically change your values, alter your perceptions.
The way the couple cope with their problems is illuminating. The husband buries himself in alcohol and tries to stay away from home as much as possible, goofing off with his friends and hiding from his kids. The wife, in contrast, turns to sex and a kind of needy dependency. She believes that if her husband "pays more attention to her" their problems will be solved. Today, coping mechanisms take the form of electronic distractions, food, fads, films, drugs and TV, but Tarr's point is the same.
The film was praised in its day for being remarkably perceptive, highlighting the problems of life in 1980s Hungary, but Tarr's pessimism is broader. His is a cinema of hopelessness, his camera perhaps not empathising with the couple, but rather nauseated by the universe in which they live.
8.5/10 Worth one viewing.
The Prefab People (1982) ***1/2
An early Bela Tarr film, showing some of what was to come, but overall feeling more like Cassavetes than the Tarr we know today. Shot in characteristic long takes and black and white, Prefab People is far more raw and documentary like than stately.
The film revolves around the lives of a married couple with a young baby and a child. The film begins with as Robi, the husband, is packing up and leaving his wife. He seems to be the obvious bad guy here. The film then moves and they are back together, presumably a flashback to happier times. They are celebrating their 9th anniversary, but happiness soon turns to the wife's tears as she presses him about a job and complains about him having to watch him walk away each day. Scenes continue in this way - he's obviously not a perfect husband; he enjoys his beer, his friends, and wants more from his career. She is a caring mother, but perhaps a nagging and extremely needy wife. She complains to friends that he never sees when they are out that she feels the need to dance, and reminisces about her youth. At a dance hall (a trademark Bela Tarr sequence) people dance, while the couple and their friends chat. One of the friends wive's invites Robi to dance, and he does. Meanwhile, the wife is agitated and upset that she was never asked by her husband, despite never making any notion that she would like to do so. In another instance he tells her he's been offered a job abroad in Romania for 2 years that will give him double the pay - they can buy a car and a house. She tells him that she doesn't care about those things and would rather they be together all the time without them than be apart. He's upset, but seeing that she won't budge, says that he will tell his employers no thanks.
It becomes obvious that neither party is perfect, and both are in one way or another at fault for their situation. Finally we return to the opening scene, only this time the camera moves differently and the dialogue is different in parts. Have we come full circle? Was what we saw a flash back? is this a new breakup? Its a clever trick by Tarr to mix things up. The final scene involves the couple buying a washing machine, leaving us to wonder if they are back together again, or if it is another memory.
While this film isn't as assured or stately as the film's he is famous for today, Tarr shows that he really is a masterful director, able to work at any length (the film runs a minute 75 minuets compared to the 7.5 hour Satantango). Prefab People is a very good film, though I'm not necessarily sure its a great one. On its own, it certainly stands above the cut for its raw and realistic emotional punch (The wife cries (numerous times) perhaps the most sincere tears I've seen on film. Her nagging is annoying to us at times, and understood at others. The acting overall is very good all around, especially the husband.
The film certainly can't be said to be enjoyable - it's painful subject matter, and what happy scenes there are are few and far between and short in duration. It's nevertheless a very solid, and nothing if not interesting effort from early Bela Tarr.
This movie reminded me a lot of Cassavettes, where you are watching a relationship that is stagnant and totally hopeless. I think this is a good movie to watch because it can serve as a lesson on how life can spiral down if you find yourself in this situation. The grainy, high contrast film is also a nice touch which captures the gritty reality that this couple lives in. I must admit I was reminded a lot of John Cassavettes while watching this. One of my favorite parts is that we have a scene in a dance hall, which is revisited in his later movies. It's very realistic and made me feel like I was there. I highly recommend this film if you are a fan of Taar, or just like to see realistic depictions of domestic situations.
I liked it a whole lot, while at the same time this film has absolutely
nothing to do with Sátántangó Béla. This I knew before I watched it,
which is why I didn't really expect to like it. The only thing it has
in common with his more recent films (starting with 'Damnation') is
that it doesn't have much that you could call a plot, but it IS very
"Plot": It's no more than a very simple portrayal of a couple with two kids. The man is working as a "button-pusher" while the woman watches the kids at home.
She cries and yells a lot. He tries to evade her as good as possible to spend his time watching TV, reading the paper, playing pool, drinking beer with his workmates,...
She wants: -To be with him more often. -Some quality time with the family. -And also some quality time for herself, walking around in pretty dresses, doing girl's stuff. She doesn't actually know what she wants because she lacks interest in any hobbies, nor does she have any friends apart from her family.
He wants: -Freedom to do whatever he wants to do at any given moment.- Enough money to buy all the stuff one has to have to have made it in life (e.g.: a car, a house,...). He doesn't actually know what he wants, because he is stuck with one woman, he isn't a rock star, he isn't the world's most popular man, he isn't filthy rich,...
About the style of 'The Prefab People': The film certainly isn't noteworthy for its visual appeal. The whole movie is shot hand-held. There is a preference for long shots but neither are they meticulously planned nor does Béla Tarr limit himself to only using long shots. Dialogue scenes are rather conventionally edited, with cutting back and forth. The camera points at the preferred action and that's basically it. Rarely it shows characters "doing nothing". It's dialogue-heavy and the dialogue is very basic, or "real", if you want to call it that. No poetic stuff or monologues.
It's like a Michael Haneke film for Hungarians. But not as judgmental of its characters and the result of unfulfilling, monotonous, invisible imprisonment in socialism are frustrated human beings, rather than anti-social and eventually violent ones, as in Haneke's films. I've read that it's like a Cassavetes film, but I wouldn't know anything about that. Other than of Haneke I was also reminded of early Fassbinder. If it played in Germany and the cast was speaking German, it would have worked just as well. The film's title could have been: "Why Does Herr F. Go Away?"
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