Review: Bela Tarr’s “The Outsider”



Bela Tarr’s second feature The Outsider (1981), which recently screened as part of the Film Society of Lincoln Center’s Tarr retrospective “The Last Modernist,” right at the outset sets up a juxtaposition of scenes that clearly sets out the filmmaker’s stance on the state of contemporary Hungarian society.  The film’s protagonist Andras (Andras Szabo), who we first see playing violin for the patients at the mental hospital where he works, gets into a vicious fight with a patient who refuses an injection he is trying to give him.  In the next scene in a bar (where Andras spends most of his free time, given his proclivity for drinking), a man resists being tossed for refusing to pay for his drinks.  In other words, there is no difference between “normal” society and a mental institution, at least in the world of The Outsider.  Andras struggles to cope with the difficulties of existing in this world, and resists, just as strenuously as the mental patient and the deadbeat bar patron, becoming a conventional, “responsible” member of society.  From the many lengthy conversations that make up much of this film, details about Andras’ life emerge: initially a promising musical talent, he was thrown out of conservatory training, and has spent his life working many different jobs, including his nursing work at the mental hospital.  He loses this job, as well as most of the others, due to his drinking.  Andras, true to the film’s title, cannot fit in either the artistic world or the working world, and he makes as much of a mess of his relationships with women as he does with his jobs.  He insists on paying child support for a woman whose child is probably not his, which puts a strain on his relationship with Kata (Jolan Fodor), another woman he takes up with afterward.  One of the film’s best scenes occurs in a nightclub where Andras is working as a DJ, when he has an argument with Kata, and where they scream at each other over the ear-splitting volume of the dance music.  The sonic wall preventing the two from hearing each other reflects the wall Andras has put around himself, an ultimately futile attempt at insulation from the demands that society insists he conform to.

The style of The Outsider will be a bit of a surprise to those more familiar with Tarr’s later works, beginning from Damnation (1988), to his latest and reportedly last film The Turin Horse (which is currently playing at the Elinor Bunin Monroe Film Center at Lincoln Center).  In contrast to the deliberately paced, somber black-and-white films with hypnotically long takes and incantatory repetition (especially in the case of The Turin Horse), The Outsider has a documentary-like, self-consciously “realist” style that has been compared to the films of John Cassavetes.  The rough-and-ready chaotic camera framings, while not as elegant as Tarr’s later works, does effectively convey the working-class struggles depicted in the film, which has potent affinities to other similar kinds of films being made in Eastern Europe at the time.  Tarr’s early films, despite their stylistic differences with later ones, show that Tarr consistently had an intense focus on how human beings struggle to interact with and understand the environments they find themselves in.