With 1982's The Prefab People, the third film in what we might profitably think of as Tarr Béla's "Social Realism Trilogy", we finally reach the defining point where social realism seems to have begun loosing its appeal for the young director, who began with this film to explore the styles and very characteristic rhythms that would define his later aesthetic. It is the first Tarr feature where a modern-day viewer, aware of Damnation and Sátántangó, might be able to say, "I can tell that Tarr made that". (Or perhaps not. Also in 1982, Tarr directed a television adaptation of Macbeth, which would make a strong claim on that development, but I have been unable to determine with absolute certainty which one was released first - IMDb suggests Macbeth, but I am suspicious. At any rate, The Prefab People appears to have been shot earlier). This despite it lacking one of the definitive traits of Tarr's later work, an expansive running time; clocking in around 80 minutes, give or take - the Facets DVD that I watched takes - it's a bare wisp of a thing that, from the outside, you'd never suppose would be able to reach any kind of emotional heights in such a compact frame.

But emotional heights are reached nonetheless, resulting in the best of Tarr's early realist films, and not by a little margin: it is, at any rate, the only one of the three that lacks any clear and obvious flaws, while also feeling much deeper and richer and rawer in its depiction of marital dischord. Eschewing the melodrama of Family Nest and the uncertain pacing of The Outsider, The Prefab People settles in on an unnammed married couple (Koltai Róbert & Pogány Judit), on the day that the husband finally decides he's had it, and he's walking out. This is presented gruffly and bluntly, with Koltai snapping about emotionlessly, and we're as thrown by it as his wife is, with her pathetic confusion informing our own. But this not a story about a cruel man abandoning a woman. For once we see the end point of this relationship, we are then allowed to see all the rest, as the bulk of the rest of the movie depicts in no immediately obvious order the couple's life together, allowing us the opportunity to watch all of the happy and unhappy moments of their marriage as something like pieces in a puzzle: since we know that this will end badly, we're encouraged to look for the cracks long before either of the characters have understood them to be so.

The results are wonderfully even-handed and objective and analytical, notwithstanding the opening scene that makes us so clearly identify with the wife. Once again, Tarr's thesis is that life in Hungary under communism is soul-crushing, and that the suffocating world outside the family unit negatively impacts the family to effectively communicate and co-exist. Only in the case of The Prefab People, it doesn't take the same pummeling with political content to make that point. The one explicitly political scene in the whole film finds the husband attempting to explain to his son the difference between capitalism and communism, and why it's preferable to live under the latter, and it quickly becomes clear to him and to us, and probably to the son, that he has absolutely no clue about communism or capitalism or anything like that; he just knows that everything kinds of sucks the way it is for him, and trying to sell a happy version of it confounds him.

As presented, this is the Tarr version of a funny scene, and it is certainly the lightest moment in The Prefab People, on top of being the most political. The film as a whole is far more invested in exploring the ramifications of dehumanised life in Hungary than in explaining it, like he sort of did in The Outsider and explicitly did in Family Nest. It does this with brutal directness in depicting the husband and wife consistently failing to make connections of any sort with one another, with Koltai and Pogány giving two immaculate performances, begging for neither sympathy nor understanding from the audience, but just existing in the most natural way they can. They were the first professional actors Tarr had worked with, and the shift is tremendous, all apologies to the non-professionals in the world. There's so much more nuance and elegant simplicity, and most of the film's best moments rely extensively on that.

It is, for example, the reason the director could get away with a handful of shots that do absolutely nothing but park and stare at the characters, probably the biggest single jump this film makes towards being more like later Tarr. There's a scene at a dance hall that is very nearly the perfect mixture of neo-realism and the proescenium-like tableaux of later Tarr; the emotional content is very character and psychology-driven in the fashion of his more conventional films, but the way we viewing the film access those emotions is not nearly so simple, relying as it does on comparing and contrasting different moments within the same frame, and understanding the physical relationship between the people based on the way they are presented in the flat panel of the image. The final shot (my favorite part of the film) does much the same thing.

As far as prefiguring future development, there's one lengthy, spurious moment of men riding on office chairs that feels particularly close to the director's later work, in terms of its absolute focus on the image and the moment rather than plot or "meaning", but in the main, it's not fair to The Prefab People to demand too much that it functions as a "transitional" film. For the most part, it's clearly not that - it is a simple, straightforward realist tale of two people in a bad situation that let it get worse through their somewhat self-destructive choices. The flashback structure muddies that a little, but mostly, this film is a very good example of something that was certainly not new by 1982; it finds Tarr attempting to do new things to make more interesting realist stories, not to abandon realism altogether. Taken for what it is, though, and it's hard for me to imagine it being any better. Naturalistic dramas about failing marriages are easy to find, but this is unquestionably one of the most sociologically intelligent and psychologically acute that I've ever seen.