For anyone who doesn't speak Hungarian - and you, reader of this English-language film blog written by an American, will be shocked, I am certain, to learn that I do not speak Hungarian - the work of director Tarr Béla (or Béla Tarr, if you're too good to use Hungarian name order) is typically held to consistent of unnaturally long takes focused on people engaging in highly theatricalised activities staged along rectangular lines. This is, in no small part, because Tarr's first films with any kind of exposure in the West came fairly late into his career: of the 14 features, shorts, and documentaries that make up the entirety of his filmed output (unless changes his apparently firmly-set mind about retirement in the wake of 2011's The Turin Horse), it was the seventh, Damnation, that made his significant splash in the anglosphere. So we all got to miss out on the learning curve period of Tarr's career, of which the short Hotel Magnezit is actually the second step; it was his graduation piece at the Hungarian School of Theatrical and Cinematic Arts in 1978, by which point he had already completed an undistributed feature, Family Nest. Which we shall turn to in its time.

Meanwhile, let's stick with this oddly stiff and - from a backwards-looking perspective - wholly uncharacteristic entry in the director's canon. At just a hair more than 10 minutes in length, Hotel Magnezit is a study of a certain Szepesi (uncredited in the film, and if you can find any production details for this movie anywhere online in English, I'm all ears), who is given marching orders by a member of the Communist Party in the first moments of the film, to vacate the hostel where he's been staying. Apparently, he stole a motor; while neither confirming this nor exactly denying it, Szepisi goes on a tirade in which he begs the rest of the hostel inhabitants for help, turns viciously angry at them when they don't, and ends up a mournful, desperate mess.

It's always tempting to read satire into films made in Communist countries, and Hotel Magnezit theoretically opens itself to an interpretation that Tarr is criticising anyone who stands by passively as the Party runs roughshod over fellow citizens, but that doesn't end up holding water. Szepisi may be a pathetic victim, but he's also a drunken dick who has long since alienated everyone else in the hostel, most of whom seem perfectly happy to see him go. And maybe that's the political angle - the 22-year-old Tarr, at the State film school, taking the safe road of telling a little fable about pricks who break the rules.

But the film is primarily neither of these things, but a character study. Tarr films almost exclusively in close-ups (though not lingering ones: there are more cuts in this short than some of his later features), and seems more interested in capturing the flow of Szepisi's thoughts and emotions than anything else. The unidentified actor who plays the part lives up to his director's needs, creating a complex, quickly-shifting personality who starts with the legs kicked out from underneath him and keeps failing to get his footing, but Hotel Magnezit ultimately ends up feeling very much like an exercise, and nothing more.

Which, of course, it was: proof that young Tarr knew how to make a movie and could go do it professionally. There are some flashes of insight throughout, and even some crude wit - one of Szepisi's rants includes a line that made me laugh even subtitled: "I don't want to offend you, but you're a rat, you shitty fucker" - but it's a largely stiff thing, with frankly bland images that present the human face without capturing much of the nuance and subtle of human expression. Certainly, nothing about it suggests where the director's late career would go, with its general allegiance to social realism bearing no relationship to the arch tableaux we no him for know. But this was a stretching exercise and a warm-up, and it fills those functions to satisfaction, if not to any sort of artistic edification.