It was with his 1982 television adaptation of Macbeth that Tarr Béla suddenly and without warning turned into Tarr Béla. No learning curve, no gradual shift - all at once, the social realism that had marked his early features simply wasn't there, replaced with "fuck you, that's why" approach to formalist storytelling that turns his film less into a version of William Shakespeare's tragedy than an exercise in how cinematic blocking dictates our response to narrative. I think that even one who has not seen a single Tarr film and merely knows of his reputation will understand how much more characteristic this film is of his later, more famous work if I share the simplest, most essential facts about it. The opening shot is about five and a half minutes long, on the NTSC DVD released by Facets; it contains the scene of Macbeth (Cserhalmi György) encountering the three witches (played by men; which men, I cannot say with certainty), hearing their prophecy, and having his lightbulb moment about what "king hereafter" might mean, exactly. The second and final shot is 57 minutes long and contains everything else.

It occurs to me, as I let that bit of trivia sink in, that Macbeth is, itself, the "gradual shift" from early Tarr to mature Tarr. There's a lot about that 57-minute single take into which the plot of Shakespeare's shortest (but not that short) tragedy has been compressed which feels tremendously different from the occasional stretched-out camerawork of The Outsider, the latter of which frequently involves documentarylike observation that Macbeth wholly lacks. But in certain key ways, Macbeth is just as clearly aligned with Tarr's realism trilogy, especially in its overwhelming reliance on close-ups. Faces dominate Tarr's Shakespeare film just as significantly as they dominate Family Nest, and as they certainly do not dominate The Turin Horse, to name one example. It is a story told almost exclusively through faces: the stone building playing the Scottish castle where all of the story takes place is devoid of all but the most plot-essential furnishings, meaning that the film consists of basically nothing for the great majority of its running time but yellow stone walls and human beings. The close-ups in the film belong to an entirely different order than the essentially neo-realist Family Nest (there's not a damn thing in Macbeth that can be meaningfully described as "realist"), but the emotional effect of them is more or less the same: we are confronted, with great immediacy, by persons in moments of intense, wrenching emotion, and forced to devote all our attention to how that emotion makes them feel.

This tendency reaches its clear peak during the scene where the witches return to present Macbeth with a vision of the future kings, staged so that Cserhalmi's face is bathed in candy apple red light, as he stares directly into the camera; the most aggressive moment in an aggressive film, and one that could take an essay in its own right to unpack, so I'll content myself with suggesting that by making the viewer co-exist with the horrifying vision Macbeth experiences, the film is making us active participants in his mental decline. Not necessarily in some schematic, gaze-theory manner where we're being condemned for wanting to watch him (though it's not not that. inherently), but that our act of watching him, and having his emotional state beamed directly to us through Cserhalmi's young-looking, open features, is what drives the film's meaning. That is, Macbeth - or anyway, this particular Macbeth, and plainly, Tarr isn't trying to make a definitive version - has meaning only because we're watching it decode that meaning.

For by all means, this is a film that must be decoded, not watched; stripped of everything conventionally entertaining about films set in palaces in the 11th Century where witches and murderers run rampant, the film openly presents itself as a intellectual exercise in considering Macbeth the play, rather than a spectating exercise in being moved by the story. In this incarnation, the story is virtually a shambles, as it must be: there's no conceivable way to fit the content even of Tarr's severely truncated version of events into just an hour, but there's that unavoidable single take insisting that every event we see happens with rampaging chronological and physical continuity. That being a clear impossibility, what we're left with is not the story of Macbeth, meaningfully told, but something like a walking tour of the emotional terrain of Macbeth conceived as a flow rather than a narrative (it is a most fluid movie: the camera practically floats through the castle, gliding back and forth along hallways with a fleetness that's most impressive for a dirt-cheap TV production made by a young director, while the scene transitions involve characters sidling in and out of frame so briskly that it takes a few tries before you notice that they're doing it). A distillation of Macbeth, if you will. One in which the titular anti-hero and his scheming wife (Kútvölgyi Erzsébet, absolutely wonderful in every imaginable regard that a non-speaker of Hungarian can judge) are not walked through scenes but hurtled through an inevitable chain of realisations and impressions in one blast of dramatic fatalism.

This is, all of it, terrifically compelling on an intellectual level and even on an emotional one, the latter effect relying heavily on Cserhalmi and Kútvölgyi's tremendous high-wire acting. I would be horrified to think of it being anybody's first contact with the play Macbeth, even setting aside the issue of it being translated to Hungarian (the Facets DVD uses direct lines from Shakespeare as the subtitles, which I somewhat wish it did not do). It's simply not a version of the story; not really a story at all, and not dramatically comprehensible, really. It uses the framework of Macbeth to explore how people feel, and how their feelings make them interact with their physical surroundings; the physical surroundings of the characters being, of course, particularly present in a film made this, the camera moving in and out of all the hallways and doors it can find. The nice way of putting it is that the film cuts to the immediate emotional truth of the play by using specifically cinematic techniques of staging and acting to dislocate those truths from the genre mechanics of the story; the mean way is that it relies on us already knowing what's going on and what to think as it indulges in snobby art film showmanship for its own sake. Clearly, I tend toward the former interpretation while allowing that the latter argument is easy to make; for all the film's audacity, Macbeth is the work of an ingenious mind more than a sophisticated one, perhaps. There's little in the film, individually, that Tarr himself didn't do better, earlier or later in his career. But he never did it all in one place like this, and that's the reason above everything else that Macbeth is such a stunner: it combines ideas about acting, character, and film creation in specific ways that are both surprising and intuitive, and it's pretty safe to say that there's never been anything else exactly like it.