Bela Tarr films human dignity

Bela Tarr
Hungarian film director Bela Tarr says he makes films about human dignity that succeed because he does not lie.
MPR photo/Euan Kerr

Bela Tarr has piercing eyes that show little compromise.

He says he wanted to study philosophy when he was a young man in Hungary. But he displeased the communist authorities. It was the 1970's and he made a film about gypsies. Officials told him he would never gain admission to any Hungarian university as a result.

Bela Tarr
Bela Tarr has been making movies since the 1970's. He says little has changed since the fall of communism when it comes to making films. Instead of facing the censorship of politics, now he says he faces censorship of the market.
MPR photo/Euan Kerr

So he says he started making movies about human dignity. But don't say he makes films about 'ordinary people.'

"I don't like this word this 'ordinary' people," he says. "Because everybody has (his) own life, every body has just one life and the quality of this life, it's really important for me."

While Bela Tarr has made a series of feature films since that time, human dignity has remained his central theme. In "The Outsider" he explores the life of a man working in a mental hospital. He plays his violin to sooth his patients, but sometimes grapples with them when they get out of control. In "Pre-Fab People" Tarr portrayed the disintegration of a marriage amidst the stresses of 1980's life.

Even as Communism lost it's grip on Hungary Tarr kept working. When asked if the fall of Communism made any difference he shrugs and says not really.

"You know what has changed?" he asks. "During my youngness I had censorship of the politics. Now I have censorship of the market."

Not a lot of people have seen Bela Tarr's movies. In the US that's the market speaking. But internationally, critics hail Bela Tarr as one of the great auteurs of European cinema, with an individual style that is bleak, beautiful and challenging.

Tarr makes films that turn most Hollywood conventions on their head.

Not for him the high paced, quick cutting of the action feature. He doesn't believe in playing to folk with short attention spans.

Tarr lets his camera roll, and roll, following the action in real time. For a while he let himself only be limited by the film capacity of his cameras. He likes people to watch. No, he demands that people watch.

"I need your concentration," Tarr says. "I need you, when you are sitting and watching this movie, I need you. And I always believe you are clever and you are more sensible, and you are more creative than me. I need an adult audience."

Not that Tarr is lackadaisical about his direction. Everything is carefully choreographed.

His seven hour epic "Satantango" is based on a Hungarian dance. It won raves when it was released fourteen years ago. When asked if it's too long for American audiences he says he is sure someone could edit "War And Peace" too. It's a question of giving stories the time they need.

"I did a five minute long movie once in my life and I did a seven hours long movie because this is a big novel and the other is just a haiku," he says.

In the US Bela Tarr's work is shown in art houses and film festivals. He says most commercial releases make money for three months and then, as he puts it, get thrown in the garbage.

He admits he's no box office smash, but he says he has staying power. He says people keep discovering his films. He recently went to see a screening of on of his films in Paris.

"When I entered I was terribly shocked, because it was fully packed with some young people who were around 20. And this movie it was 19 years old. Can you believe when your audience is the same age as your movie?""

Bela Tarr says it may take 20 years, but his films will make as much money as any movie today. When asked about why that is, he gives a simple answer.

"I don't lie. I don't lie. I tell you and I show you the world how I see."

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