Tarr was born in Pécs, but grew up in Budapest in a working class family. His mother took him to a casting by the Hungarian national television (MTV) at the age of 10 and he finally won the role of the protagonist's son in a TV-drama adaptation of Leo Tolstoy's The Death of Ivan Ilyich. Apart from a smaller role in Miklós Jancsó's 1986 film Szörnyek évadja (Season of Monsters), Tarr never tried acting again. He began to realize his interests with film-making at the age of 16 by making amateur films and later working as a caretaker at a national House for Culture and Recreation. Most of his amateur works were documentaries, mostly about the life of workers or poor people in urban Hungary. His amateur work brought him to the attention of the Béla Balázs Studios (named in honor of the Hungarian cinema theorist, Béla Balázs), which helped fund Tarr's 1977 feature debut Családi tűzfészek (Family Nest) at the age of 22. Tarr shot the film without any budget with non-professional actors (participating in the film only by "friendship" and without any salary) and on original locations in six days. The film was faithful to the "Budapest School" or "documentarist" style popular at the time within Béla Balázs Studios, maintaining absolute social-realism on screen. Many critics thought they detected in the film an influence from the directorial work of John Cassavetes, though Tarr denied having seen any of Cassavetes's films prior to shooting Családi tűzfészek. (The film was eventually released in 1979).
After completing "Családi tűzfészek" Tarr began his studies in the Hungarian School of Theatrical and Cinematic Arts. The 1980 piece Szabadgyalog (The Outsider) and the following year's Panelkapcsolat (The Prefab People) continued in much the same vein with smaller changes in style. The latter was the first film by Tarr to feature professional actors in the leading roles. With a 1982 television adaptation of Macbeth, his work began to change dramatically; comprised of only two shots, the first shot (before the main title) was five minutes long, with the second 57 minutes in length. Not only did Tarr's visual sensibility move from raw close-ups to more abstract mediums and long shots, but also his philosophical sensibility shifted from grim realism to a more metaphysical outlook similar to that of Andrei Tarkovsky. Tarr himself considers Rainer Werner Fassbinder as his main influence and idol.
After 1984's Őszi almanach (Almanac of Fall), Tarr (who had written his first four features alone) began collaborating with Hungarian novelist László Krasznahorkai for 1988's Kárhozat (Damnation). A planned adaptation of Krasznahorkai's epic novel Satantango took over seven years to realize. The 415-minute film finally appeared to international acclaim in 1994. After the epic he released a 35-minute film Journey on the Plain in 1995 and fell into silence until the 2000 film Werckmeister Harmóniák (Werckmeister Harmonies), occasionally shot in very intense circumstances. The film itself was very warmly welcomed by critics and the Festival circuit in general.
Many if not most of the shots in these later films are up to eleven minutes long. It may take months to do a single shot. The camera swoops, glides, and soars. It circles the characters, it moves from scene to scene. It may, as in "Satantango," travel with a herd of cows around a village, or follow the nocturnal peregrinations of an obese agoraphobic drunk who is forced to leave his house because he's run out of booze.
After Werckmeister he began filming The Man From London an adaptation of Georges Simenon's novel. It was scheduled to be released at the 2005 Cannes Film Festival in May, but production had to be shut down because of the suicide of producer Humbert Balsan on February 10, 2005 and there were disputes with the other producers over a possible change in the film's financing. Finally it was greenlighted and could be finished in 2007. It premiered on the Cannes Film Festival the same year and was released worldwide in 2008.
For many years, none of his work was available on DVD (except in Japan). But recently, Werckmeister Harmonies and Damnation have been made available on a two-disc DVD in Europe, courtesy of Artificial Eye. Both films are now available in North America on separate DVDs from Facets Video. Tarr's early works; Family Nest, The Outsider, and The Prefab People; are also available on DVD in the USA, courtesy of Facets. Facets was supposed to release Satantango on DVD on November 28th, 2006, but was delayed until July 22, 2008. ""Artificial Eye"" released the film on November 14th, 2006. A comparison of the two DVD editions has been posted at