Noted Hungarian miserabilist Tarr Béla. A movie titled Damnation. What do you need, a road map?

And I would love very much to tell you that you'd be wrong to expect this film to be a punishing, cruel-minded exploration of a world-as-literal-Hell mise en scène, but then I'd be lying. This is every inch the dead and decaying, grimly misanthropic European art film scenario, and if Tarr's previous film, Almanac of Fall, found the director prodding at the themes of human isolation in a dying environment that would define the rest of his career, Damnation witness his enthusiastic cannonball right into the deep end of those themes. It is as bleak and hopeless as movies get; luckily, it's also a straight-up masterpiece of cinema, the first of the director's films to earn that kind of praise. The lingering attachments to Bergman and social realism that flecked his previous work was, with this film, totally expunged, leaving something behind that is almost totally Tarr's own.

The narrative content of the film - which I bring up more so that we have some common ground to discuss everything else, and not because Damnation is in any recognisable way about the snappy execution of a plot - fixes mostly on Karrer (Székely Miklós), a miserable drunk in a miserable mining town in some godforsaken hinterland of Europe. He's sticking around - not that he has anyplace to go - largely because of his deep and abiding passion for an unnamed singer (Kerekes Vali) who works as the main attraction at a miserable bar, the Titanik. I do not know if that name has the same resonance in Hungary as in English-speaking places, but the equivalence between the central location of this film and the most famous disaster of human engineering and manufacturing certainly works in its favor, even if it's just a linguistic accident. The singer is married - probably not happily, because nobody does anything happily in Damnation - to a worn-out, impoverished fellow named Sebestyén (Cserhalmi György), and when Karrer is offered a smuggling job by Willarsky (Pauer Gyula), the owner of Titanik, he passes it on to his lover's husband solely to get the other man out of the way. This cunning plot ends up backfiring, of course, and everybody manages to end up much worse than they started.

The film was the first collaboration between Tarr and novelist-turned-screenwriter Krasznahorkai László, and the director never made a feature without the writer ever again; it's also the first time that Tarr worked with cinematographer Medvigy Gábor, who'd shoot all of the three "core" Tarr films, as it were. It is thus that the last important pieces of the puzzle snaps into place, and the core group of collaborators - further including editor/co-author (Hranitzky Ágnes) and composer Vig Mihály - are assembled like a mighty team of gloomy superheroes, combining their mighty powers to save mankind from undue optimism. Whatever is true of watching Damnation, it is exhilarating and urgent cinema: at two hours long with literally not a single pleasant moment in the whole of that time, it's astonishing how quickly the film flies by, with even its most lingering static shots coiled tight with potential energy. And there are some lingering shots here: further perfecting the version of his aesthetic that most of us now associate with him, Tarr uses plenty of long takes of very little activity, starting with an opening image that spends two minutes watching coal carts slowly inching through the sky on an elevated tramway, like some nightmare version of Disneyland in grotty black and white. This slowly pulls back through a window, into a room, and behind Karrer's back, revealing him to be dully focused on the same view, and thus we are immediately pitched into the film's universe of tedium and stasis.

But the stasis never feels like a slog. Damnation is full of images that crackle with energy, if only because Medvigy's use of contrasting light and shadow is so hard and vivid, demanding that your eye darts across the image constantly, taking in every gradation of black and white. But it bears pointing out that simply because the takes are long, does not mean that they are also languid: one of the things Tarr and Medvigy do in this film that marks it out as the sign of terrific craftsmen is to combine camera movement and blocking of the onscreen action in a way that, rather than suggesting a single flowing moment in time, the images constantly challenger our relationship to the image and the narrative contained within it, shifting the relationship between viewer and space each moment. For a film that's more or less explicitly about being stalled in one physical and emotional place, unable to do anything but suffer from the awareness that nothing is changing, Damnation is extraordinarily fluid, shifting on us constantly, always keeping its depiction of Hell on Earth fresh and intense.

I mean, let's not miss the forest for the trees: for all that it moves and sparkles with dark light, Damnation is a film about suffering with an undue amount of self-consciousness about one's suffering - befitting its title, the worst thing that happens is knowing that one is in Hell. This is carried less by the specific details of the plot than by the moment-by-moment mood generated by the content of each scene: a torch song delivered with sickly noirish gloom by Kerekes, putting a corroded, self-loathing spin on her singing that recalls the waking nightmare interludes in David Lynch; a circular dance in which the camera watches from a corner, like a vulture perched over the action, as seemingly the whole down tramps around and around with directionless momentum. And above all, the film's overriding sense of clammy dampness: not only is Damnation an extraordinarily rainy film - and that rain always takes place at night, snuffing out everything in a pitch black blanket - but even when it's not raining, it is a wet movie, with mud everywhere, and a palpable sense of chilly humidity in nearly every shot. It is a film wherein you can almost smell the mildew, rotting out every interior and ruining the air outside.

This is, in other words, not a pleasant film at all. But oh, it is a potent one - one of the most powerful pieces of cinema of the 1980s. Its depiction of humanity fallen from grace and goodness is pervasive and complete, and a more awesomely bleak portrait of town life is hard to conceive. But conceive it Tarr and Krasznahorkai did, and if Damnation on its own terms feels like quite a pinnacle achievement of unforgiving European asceticism, it's just a warm-up hill compared to the cinematic K2 that the men would scale with their next collaboration.