The film’s poster, with the dark male figure and the angelic woman at the bottom of an elevator, already foreshadow issues of space, power, and ethical choices.
Breaking down the iron curtain between Hungary and Austria in 1989 at the so-called “Pan-European Picnic.”
Citizens of the former Soviet Bloc are breaking out from behind the barbed wires. For many East-German families this was the first time to see their West-German relatives.
The press photos of the event clearly indicate the symbolic aspect of the event, as the people rush through the opened gate.
The queues at the newly opened Hungarian-Austrian border, on pilgrimage to the Austrian consumer paradise.
The Gorenje refrigerator on top of a socialist car has become one of the icons of the regime change.
“We will not be a colony!” Mass demonstration in Budapest against the EU in 2013.
Nimród Antal’s Hollywood debut, Vacancy (2007).
Armored (2009), another Hollywood genre film by Antal.
Predators (2010). Antal’s genre films also show his ability to create condensed dramatic situations in closed spaces, yet they never grow out of the boxes created by genre conventions.
Kontroll, the first feature film of the Hungarian-born filmmaker Nimród Antal, was shown in Hungarian cinemas in late 2003, only a couple of months before the country joined the European Union. [open endnotes in new window] This was the time of what was probably the most significant historical turning point of recent Hungarian history besides the 1989 regime change, which ended the Soviet occupation of the country together with state-party communist dictatorship. In 2003 the vast majority of Hungarians were looking forward to the EU accession, the political speeches were about the country’s long-awaited return to Europe, about Hungary finally regaining its rightful and dignified historical position in civilized Europe (which at the time was unanimously and uncritically identified with the relatively new organization of the EU). Thus, the time when the film was shown marks a symbolic boundary that is somewhere halfway between the 1989 regime change and the present moment.
In 1989, as a secondary school student, I participated at the political demonstration in my hometown, Debrecen on March 15 (a national holiday celebrating the 1848 Hungarian uprising against Habsburg rule). Three generations of my family were there at that demonstration, shouting “Ruszkik haza!” (Russians go home!), together with thousands of others. It felt like times were changing. Some people whispered that Russian tanks were approaching the centre of the town, coming from the suburban barracks, as in 1956, but it proved to be a fake. As far as I know, this was the only political demonstration in the recent history of the country that all members of my family could wholeheartedly support. Hungarian political life does not often present occasions of unambiguous meaning and value: to this day this was the only political demonstration that I participated. The Russian forces left, the country officially regained its freedom, the iron curtain at the Western border was dismantled, and the Hungarians invaded Vienna’s shopping streets so as to return home in their smelly, loud, now officially post-communist cars fully packed with refrigerators, music centers and video players, intoxicated by the apparent richness of consumerism. The long-awaited political, economic and social transformation of Hungary began.
The years since 1989 saw dramatic (and often unexpected) changes that strongly influenced Hungarian identity-politics, cultural patterns, and my fellow citizens’ view of the EU. In 2013, when I returned to Hungary after spending a month abroad, the first government-paid TV ad I saw showed Hungarians protesting against the EU, holding a huge banner saying “Nem leszünk gyarmat! / We will not be a colony!” Apparently, in 2013 “We will not be a colony” was a sentence with such popularity that it could be mobilized for purposes of political propaganda.
Kontroll takes the viewer to these confused and confusing years, where some of the basic questions of Hungarian identity politics were asked again, as a result of the ambiguous experiences of the country’s change to consumer capitalism. This confusion and remapping, which led to a fascinating artistic output in the early 2000’s, seems to be an experience shared by Western visitors and critics as well. As Katherine F. Cornell argues in “Paradise Redrawn: Film and Transition in Eastern Europe”:
Here I argue that Kontroll is inspired by precisely these tensions, contradictions, and the mixing of old and new ways, ideologies and practices—phenomena shared by both postcolonial and post-communist countries (see: Moore 115). The protagonist’s night time wanderings in the Budapest metro (looking for a “way out”) reflect a very common feeling of confusion in the Eastern-European subject after communism. In the following analysis I will follow the footsteps of Anikó Imre’s groundbreaking study of Eastern-European cinemas and Steve Jobbit’s reading of Kontroll in particular. It was Imre who highlighted the intricate connections between Eastern European cinemas, the historical context and the region’s distinguishable identity-politics in her Identity Games, and it was Jobbit, who first attempted to read Kontroll in the context of the EU accession. My reading is also informed by Christine Grimes Topping’s interpretation of the film, which places the protagonist’s struggles in the context of power, powerlessness and postmodern societies.
Following these works and relying on Michel de Certeau’s inspiring post-Foucauldian analysis of space and resistance tactics, I will place the film in a peculiar Eastern-European context, with a special focus on relations between (geo-political) space and identity politics, with an eye on the historical background of these politics. As an Eastern-European post-communist subject myself, I wish to analyse those aspects of the film and the cultural issues raised by it that perhaps may be explored in their complexity only by those who live or lived in the region. In my interpretation, Kontroll takes the spectator to a (culturally constructed) land struggling with issues of (post)-coloniality, exploitation and inferiority complexes. The film depicts a time when coming to terms with the past and the evaluation of possible futures are key aspects of the historical situation.
Interviews with Antal sound similar to the “disclaimer” of the head of the Budapest Metro system in the beginning of Kontroll. Antal always emphasise the “universal” theme (of good and evil) of the film. Moreover, several reviews written outside the region (see: Topping, for example) and a number of conversations I had at international conferences suggest that Kontroll can be read outside this Eastern-European context, even as a genre film perhaps. However, following a “hermeneutics of suspicion” characteristic of many people in the Eastern-European region, I would choose to read Antal’s self-interpretive remarks and the CEO’s disclaimers as signs or symptoms of the very cultural processes that they wish to hide.
Instead of their official statements, I will rather start out from the experience of Eastern-European spectators, focusing on the specifics of space, time, culture and history, instead of “universal” topics. I would argue that such seemingly fundamental issues of human life as power or identity can never be treated as universals without the risk of seriously flattening them, as these aspect of life are articulated in historically, culturally and geographically diverse forms. Moreover, in my opinion, when taken as a genre film without this historical and cultural background, Kontroll is a relatively mediocre work. However, in light of the context of local identity politics, culture and history, it proves to be a real treasure trove.
Nimród Antal belongs to a generation that may have first-hand memories of communism, the regime change and the cultural shifts that it entailed. His life’s geographical coordinates, however, are exactly the opposite of the typical movements of his Hungarian generational peers. While the national intellectuals and artists born in the 1970s are basically the first generation of Hungarians who could freely travel and study in the West during their university years, Antal was born of Hungarian parents in Los Angeles (as much in the West as possible), and came to study and work in Hungary only after the regime change.
It was Kontroll, the film that he made in Eastern-Europe with a local crew and setting, that brought Antal international recognition. It seems as if the film gained its inspiration and originality from the intercultural encounter brought about by his visit to the country. This “intercultural experience” often appears in the film as a play of perspectives (looking at “the East” with “Western” eyes and vice versa), and as the creative Eastern-European appropriation of certain Hollywood genre conventions (most notably that of the thriller). I would argue that the relative mediocrity of Antal’s later films shot in Hollywood (as Vacancy 2007, Armored 2009, Predators 2010—none of which won such prestigious prizes as Kontroll did) may also indicate that the most memorable momentums of Antal’s oeuvre (so far) stem from intercultural encounters, genre hybridity, and the Eastern-European rewriting of U.S. cinematic patterns. In particular, Kontroll offers a critical dialogue of different cultures, and from a special play of perspectives which offer ironic and often ambiguous glimpses of the peculiarities of the involved cultural formations. (image 8, 9, 10)
The film Kontroll is set entirely in the Budapest subway, in one of these slightly run-down, trashy, graffiti-tainted, sunless, recognizably Eastern-European technological spaces. Its main characters are ticket inspectors, which is probably the most detested job in Hungary (apart from politicians): “Everybody hates us,” says Bulcsú, the protagonist. The spaces and characters of Kontroll are closely tied to such a rich reservoir of local meaning that probably only the “locals” can fully comprehend them. As some “Western” reviews of Kontrol—such as that of Roger Ebert’s short review, or Christine Grimes Topping’s otherwise informative article—clearly show, the significance of the concept of control and the peculiar mechanisms in which it is inscribed in Easter-Europe easily escape or confuse the non-local interpreter (see: Topping 238).
Eastern-Europe, the former “second world,” appears in Kontroll as another kind of space with other mechanisms of power and other constructions of identity than the culturally more privileged, richer, Western, democratic “first” world. When Hungarians first travel to “the West” (a word that carries as much ideological and mythical significance in Hungarian) they are often surprised that the majority of Norwegians, British or Germans for example (they were my surprises 20 years ago) pay for public transport as a matter of course, they do not devote much of their creative potential to seek ingenious ways of tricking the system, and they do not regard the (rarely seen) ticket inspector as a natural born nemesis.
What does the spectator miss who never experienced living under an oppressive political regime? What does a viewer for whom social control was never a means of exploitation miss, someone for whom surveillance never meant a physical or existential threat, who was never afraid of policemen and official letters, who never had to survive in spite of social systems of control, who never travelled without paying and never feared the appearance of ticket controllers?
As the work of Michel Foucault and Michel de Certeau clearly indicate, a community’s life is always more complex and more heterogeneous in meaning than what discursive academic disciplines can express. It always has something more to it than what sociology, history, anthropology or any abstract science may reveal (see: Certeau 6-9). Of course academic studies do analyse several components of these cultural processes, in particular, those that may explain questions raised by regional narratives, films or identities. For example, scholars writing on Eastern-European film have considered the exceedingly traumatic history of the region, its economic and cultural marginalization, the weakness of social solidarity, or the compensatory conservatism of local constructions of masculinity (see: Imre or Hankiss).
However, life in a cultural space necessarily has some kind of a surplus or leftover that cannot be grasped with traditional academic modes of theoretical-conceptual discussion. These are often seemingly small or insignificant, material, practical, physical or behavioural phenomena that nevertheless express key elements of one’s experience of living in that particular culture and space. I believe that of all known art forms, these tiny, materially defined elements can be best represented in film. Film—as all the major figures of realist film theories have argued—has that special connection to the material world that can easily turn it into a rich reservoir of hardly verbalizble or symbolizable gestures, postures, bodies and material elements.
According to Foucault, the history of a given community may be understood and analysed on basis of the way it relates to and organizes space (see: Szekeres 39). The politics of space in Kontroll (as I have argued elsewhere) may be understood as one constituted by the relations of East and West, exploited local weirdos and faceless normal citizens, an emptied, abject postcolonial space and its global, technological invasion. However, there are certain aspects of the issues of space, power and subjectivity that cannot be reduced to these metaphors of geopolitical power and colonization. I would argue that the politics of space and subjectivity in Kontroll may also be understood as constructed by the relations of a culturally dominant, disciplining and controlling social-ideological-technological environment (or system) on one hand, and the subjects who seek tolerable ways of life and forms of identity in this space.
The main characters clearly regard the space and the system they inhabit as alien, hostile, something forced on them by powers beyond their reach—an attitude similar to that of marginalized groups analysed by Certeau who “lack their own space” and therefore have to survive in a space “instituted by others” by “foiling the other’s game” (18). This, of course, is a recurrent motif of social and political life in Eastern-Europe, where subordination, oppression, exploitation and deception are key elements of the subject’s relation to state (official, bureaucratic) power almost regardless of what parties are in government, or whether it is a communist dictatorship or a democracy. The film, similarly to Hungarian social spaces, is strongly influenced by metaphors of power and control.
In this sense, the space of the metro in Kontroll is constructed through a dominant, globalized, technological rationality, a space constructed by the working of an apparatus of power and ideology that the subject inhabiting it recognizes as oppressive and all-powerful. As opposed to geopolitical regions with more victorious popular histories and longer democratic traditions, Eastern-European subjects seem sceptical about their ability to change the system with heroic deeds, so they apply guerrilla tactics. Of course, as Foucault demonstrated throughout his oeuvre, these struggles are not simply about “getting” or “having” power or “giving power back to the people.” What is at stake is rather the organization of social spaces and identities, that is, the order and meaning of things. In the film, the space of the Budapest metro seems organized by such a dominant social mechanism. It organizes social spaces, interactions, things and identities by relying on the technological regulation of space and also by applying certain well-definable ways of looking, ideological value systems and social practices.
Thus, the Budapest metro, much like Bentham’s Panopticon, functions in the film as an “architectural apparatus” that works like “a machine for creating and sustaining a power relation independent of the person who exercises it” (Foucault 201). It is much more than a mode of transportation. In line with the recent Eastern European cinematic tendency to use allegory in discourses of crisis (see: Virginás 133), in Kontroll the metro system grows into an allegory of Eastern-European social space; it refers to an oppressive system productive of social-symbolic order, visibility, meaning and identity. The film’s protagonists are antiheroes who desperately try to swim against the current or trick the system in order to turn this identity and social position given to them into something tolerable, dignified and even fun.
It is clear in the film that none of the ticket controllers came “down” to work in the metro voluntarily. These people were forced to go underground by some misfortune, accident, weakness or trauma. People who work (or live) here are not heroes, as they do not believe that things can be changed, that there is an ultimate victory waiting for them. The basic premise of their lives is the acceptance of their inferiority to the system, which however, does not imply the acceptance of total subjection. The “space” of the identity politics acted out in the film is set precisely in this gap between inferiority and subjection: it is about what the weak may do to trick the system. The originality of the film and the spectator’s joys, I would argue, stem partly from the film’s showing how these antiheroes can form “liveable” identities in hostile spaces, that is, from representing the tactics that might help the post-communist subject appropriate or inhabit this un-homey space.
The Hungarian language has a very useful expression for this activity of making a space habitable or homelike. The sentence Péter a házban lakik means Péter lives in the house, while the sentence Péter belakja a házat means that Péter does things that make the house he lives in feel like his own space or home. Be in Hungarian is a preposition meaning into, so belakni does not simply stand for habitation in a given space (house, room, apartment), but also what one does to it. It is in this second sense that I wish to use the English expressions to inhabit and inhabitation, implying that inhabiting is not something passive, but a rather complex process in which human beings build a personal relation with the space they inhabit: they grow emotional ties to the space, establish repeated practices that make certain parts of the space meaningful (for example, This is where I drink my morning coffee. This is where we cuddle up in the evening.). They even place the inhabited space within a larger cultural-ideological matrix—defining one’s home—consciously or unconsciously—as a land of peace, a place of resistance, a bachelor’s room, an opium den, a bunker, a place of taste and culture, a family nest, a luxurious place for others to envy, etc.. The key element in this complex process of the inhabitation or appropriation of space is that—as the Hungarian expression also shows (lakni mans to live or dwell)—it is done while and through living in that space. One can decorate or furnish a house without living there, but this kind of belakás / in-habitation can take place only through one’s repeated daily activities in that space.