Hungarian filmmaker Bela Tarr takes kitchen sink realism to the point that it manages to both bore the audience and hold them at attention due to his skills as a filmmaker.
The Prefab People - made in 1981 - is about a working class husband (Robert Koltai) and wife (Judit Pogany) who seem to do nothing but get on each others nerves. They stay together partly because they have two children and partly because they have no one else to turn to and no money to go anywhere. And so amid the bickering and boredom they are destined to live out the misery of their lives together.
The story is pretty straight forward. The woman nags her husband. He is frustrated and wants to leave. He gets an opportunity to go abroad where he could make more money but his wife won't let him. He tries to leave her.
As in many Tarr films there is a bleakness that hovers above the film like a dark cloud. Yet that is part of his gift. He doesn't take any easy way out. Like Ranier Werner Fassbinder, and John Cassavettes - who are obvious influences - he revels in confrontation, which makes the audience a bit uncomfortable.
Much like those filmmakers too, acting is the key to Tarr's films. In The Prefab People the husband and wife seem authentic. They inhabit the characters right down to the messy hair, tears in their eyes and stains on their clothing.
For all the seriousness, though, he does throw in very subtle humor to point out the bleakness of the characters lives. In one scene the husband goes to visit a friend who asks him if it is smoke or a cloud that can be seen in the distance. He says it is both. His friend quips that when you can't tell the difference between the two then it is time to leave. His only response is to ask for a beer.
Bela Tarr is not particularly a political filmmaker in the same way Ken Loach is political yet he does find something to say against capitalism as well as communism. The one time we see the man talking to his older son he gets confused trying to explain the difference between capitalism, socialism and communism.
Tarr's career seems to evenly split into two sections. His early films are raw and full of tension while his later films; notably Damnation, Satantango [which is seven hours long] and The Werkmeister Harmonies are built upon an impressive level of cinematic skill and are notable for being very slow moving. The Prefab People, on the other hand, impresses with its somewhat quicker impressionistic pace [except for one key scene at a dinner party] and its ironic structure. Ironic because it seems more complex than it is.
In the film's first scene the husband packs his bags and walks out on his wife. She cries, the baby cries and he slams the door. Then the next scene comes up and they are together. Are we watching some kind of flashback? Perhaps it is. But as the film carrys on it becomes evident that this is the way they live their lives; he gets restless and bored, they fight, he gets fed up and leaves - then he comes back because he has no where to go. And the cycle starts again.
Technically, the film is rough around the edges. It was shot in 16mm in black and white and has some soft focus shots. At times you can hear the whir of the camera and a couple times the shadow of the boom mic is visible. Somehow, though, it gives the film a documentary feel. And when their youngest son - who is clearly not acting - cries and cries to the point that the woman starts to cry you know this is the stuff of realism. It may not make the audience cry but your sure to feel the pain and that's part of Tarr's intention.
The Prefab People is an effective and realistic Hungarian drama. Notable for being Bela Tarr's third film it displays the talents of an early filmmaker who is still developing his style but very assured with the actors. The film is often hard to sit through but it holds up very well on multiple viewings because it reveals a level of bitter humor. The DVD is bare bones. I would say it is recommended for Tarr fans and those who like gritty Eastern European dramas. For everyone else I would recommend renting it.