The lonely human figure in huge geometrical spaces.

These images tell more about the relations of the human subject to technological societies than any narrative or dialogue.

Giving the finger.

A symbolic gesture: Géza Hofi, the most celebrated Hungarian comedian of the communist times, contemplating the inside of a hospital chamber-pot, thus also using it as a mirror. A par excellence image of the subject of state communism.

The ever-present gaze of power.

“What are you looking at?” Bulcsú is the only character who dares to look back (in anger).

The ticket inspectors’ underground hall, with the eye-like neon above them.

The “little boss” at his desk with the red telephone symbolizing “high” connections and power.

The ticket inspectors waiting for work look like industrial workers of communist times.

They look like people who have given up the fight for a better life.

Smoking, cheap clothes, tired faces.

Haptic imagery of non-Hollywood faces.

The games on the tables (as well as the furniture) recall the times before the fall of communist dictatorship.


Let us take a closer look at the constructions of social space in Kontroll and examine the local identity-games and tactics through which the protagonists relate to it. One of the most noteworthy experiences the film’s spectator senses may be the coldness of spaces. The film is set in the Budapest metro, a technological space without anything green or organic, without sunshine or blue skies, sunrises and sunsets: it is all made of concrete, stone, metal and glass. The protagonist, Bulcsú sleeps on the stone floor of the platform each night. There is nothing around him that would make the place comfortable, soft, warm or cozy, and the only lights are the metro’s emphatically cold (and often flickering) white neons. His life in these spaces is often represented by long shots showing the human being as a lonely and vulnerable figure in huge, empty, technological, geometrical, non-organic spaces.

The mise-en-scene lacks everything that could make a metro pleasant in everyday life. There are no musicians, funny posters, colourful advertisements, contemporary art exhibitions, bakeries with inviting scents, or cozy coffee houses. This space is cold and functional. Within this space of modern, rationalized, mechanical mass societies, people appear either as a sort of flowing faceless material (the “normal” paying passengers) or as impurity or aberration (the non-conforming beings who travel without paying and the ticket controllers). People of the first type are almost invisible in the film. Similarly to what we see in other allegorical dystopias such as The Matrix (Wachowski Bros. 1999), they appear as well-tamed, controlled, conformist, uniform beings accepting the common ideological dream.

It is against this background of faceless masses going to work every day that the black comedy of local half-wits is played out. As opposed to in The Matrix, these counter-cultural activists are neither stylishly dressed not trained in heroic combat. They are the real locals, the leftovers of globalization, the compromised ones who hate and obstruct the same power that they serve. It is not by accident that they are the ones who carry out the inhabitation of spaces. They live in the metro (Bulcsú), smoke and drink alcohol there though both are prohibited (Béla, Lecsó, K, Tibi), eat in the subway train (Béla, Bulcsú), do their morning exercises on the platform (Muki), keep eating pumpkin seeds and spitting the shells (the controllers in general). They are dirty, badly dressed and wounded. They swear profusely, insulting and sometimes cursing each other. They fill up social spaces with their bodily smell (Lecsó), with their customs and superstitions (emphatically: Uncle Béla), with their psychological problems. They piss themselves (Professor, Gonzó), throw up (Tibi), spit at each other, and so on.

As Certeau himself also often mentions, in the 20th century one may discern a certain academic interest in these everyday practices. Several key intellectual figures—such as Freud in The Psychopathology of Everyday Life or Wittgenstein in Philosophical Investigations—turned towards the everyday and the ordinary for inspiration or models of understanding, thus bridging what Certeau calls the “cleavage” between scientific thought and practical resistances, a gap typical of modernity (see: 6). The fundamental recognition of this approach is that a community’s life, behaviour, opinions, or its social reality are at least as strongly shaped by seemingly insignificant practical behaviours and habits as by social, cultural or economic macro-processes (the usual targets of scientific investigations).

The whole discipline of anthropology may be characterised by the aim of giving meaning and symbolic significance to everyday practices, and the work of such influential figures as Foucault or Bourdieu also point towards the integration of material practices in social theory. Michel de Certeau’s above quoted The Practice of Everyday Life belongs to this intellectual trend. In that work, his goal is to analyse and understand the practices of marginalized people similar to Kontroll’s protagonists. He wants to trace the tactics of resistance with the help of which “order is tricked” and these marginalized subjects “make innumerable and infinitesimal transformations of and within the dominant cultural economy in order to adapt it to their own interests and their own rules” (xiii-xiv). Certeau follows Foucault’s footsteps but with an opposite goal—to investigate modes of resistance:

“If it is true that the grid of ‘discipline’ is everywhere becoming clearer and more extensive, it is all the more urgent to discover how an entire society resists being reduced to it, what popular procedures (also ‘miniscule’ and quotidian) manipulate the mechanisms of discipline and conform to them only in order to evade them…” (xiv).

According to Certeau, the weak cannot hope to change the system, they do not have a space of their own (18) from which they could launch strategic attacks on the dominant social formation. Therefore they manoeuvre in alien spaces and institutions, making do with whatever the moment may offer in order to evade disciplinary power and to bring playfulness and ambiguity into totalizing social systems of technological rationalism (see: 35-37). These processes, which Certeau also associates with popular culture as such, and the

“ingenious ways in which the weak make use of the strong thus lend a political dimension to everyday practices” (xvii).

One of Certeau’s favourite examples, the Catholicism of colonized Latin-American people, may serve as a useful analogy for the tactics seen in Kontroll. These religious beliefs and practices seem to take over, accept and follow the religion of the colonizing Spaniards although that religion obviously also worked as an operational tool of colonizing power. However,

“the Indians … often made of the rituals, representations and laws imposed on them something quite different from what their conquerors had in mind; they subverted them not by rejecting or altering them, but by using them with respect to ends and references foreign to the system they had no choice but to accept”(xiii).

In my opinion, in Eastern-European societies one may find examples of such power relations and guerrilla tactics that exceed the Latin-American case in complexity by far. In fact, these attitudes and tactics of resistance are so fundamental to the cognitive maps and behavioural patterns of the region that they are often practiced unconsciously as a matter of course. Power is intimately connected with corruption and oppression, so it is only natural that one simultaneously obeys it and tricks it whenever one safely can. The fact, for example, that the ticket controllers of the film are employed and paid by the same disciplinary power that they despise, trick and use to their own ends is a contradiction only for the non Eastern-European spectator.

Let us only recall the case of Géza Hofi, the most popular Hungarian stand-up comedian of the communist regime, who was loved and adored by audiences for his funny and daring critique of the system. As it turned out after 1989, when certain formerly secret state documents were made public, Géza Hofi was also a secretly recruited agent of the State Security Bureau, the most fearful agency of the dictatorship he criticised. What is important to see here—and what is crucial if one wishes to understand the identity politics of Kontroll—is that in Eastern-Europe these two seemingly contradictory things do not exclude each other. People here often had to learn living with compromises and compromised identities. In my opinion the case is not, as some people have suggested, that Géza Hofi was only apparently critical of the communist regime as actually he was an agent and servant of its power.

As I have argued apropos of György Pálfi’s Taxidermia, the present social and ethical problems of post-communist countries—such as the high level of corruption, tax evasion, or low level of social solidarity—may stem from the way traditional, unambiguous historical roles such as hero, traitor, victim were mixed up in the region. This led to a relative scarcity of historical figures of unambiguous value required for “normal,” idealizing identity-formations (see: “What the Body Remembers” 200, Meusburger 58). In other words, in Eastern-Europe it is particularly difficult to be (only) a hero. The subject is always already constructed in a strange, potentially threatening and oppressive social space, in which “straight” identity politics may be dangerous, so one must apply evasive movements and make tactical compromises.
These compromises and the pacts one makes with the system in order to protect oneself and one’s family from real or imagined dangers, however, make idealizing impossible and constructions of identity contradictory. Eastern-European film characters seldom look into the vastness of space with heroic eyes and straight backbones, as Hollywood actors must do—in order to establish the subject’s relation with fantasies of infinity and heroism required for idealizing identification and stardom. The characters in Kontroll never see the horizon, their body postures signify fatigue and quiet compromises, and in one of the last scenes Bulcsú breaks the mirror that shows him the dark secrets he carries. The camera work—when it blurs the lines between the spectator and the killer or between the spectator and the surveillance system—also creates such “compromised” spectatorial positions. As Topping remarks,

“the narrative positions revealed in the push sequences eventually place the viewer in a culpable position as well” (240).

Thus, the film not only lets the spectator see these characters’ “compromised” identities: it also turns us into active and “culpable” participants in their identity-games.

One of the “catches” in this situation is that these cultural mechanisms and even one’s knowledge of them do not acquit one from moral responsibility. The particularly dark and often grotesque tones of Eastern-European literature and film may very well have to do with these identity politics and the secret traumas and unacknowledged guilt associated with them. Why does the protagonist of Franz Kafka’s protagonist in The Trial accept his guilt and ask for death? Why does Dostoyevsky’s Raskolnikov fail to be a Napoleonic superman beyond good and evil? Why is Bulcsú so melancholic, like so many other characters of Eastern-European film and literature? Why do they play so often with the idea of death (as Bulcsú does)? I would argue that one sees the logic behind these phenomena only if one knows the typical regional mechanism of power, ideology, resistance and identity.

The cinematic definition of the politics of space in Kontroll is not only shaped by the physical appearance of the characters and their material practices, but also by certain techniques of looking and visual control. The film seems consciously to associate the cold, disciplined, controlled, technical spaces of the subway with a kind of non-human, panoptic vision. This cold rationality and order of the system, and the above mentioned long shots that show the human form as an isolated, lonely stain in the geometric technical environment, are clearly connected to this totalizing and normalizing technology of the gaze and control, which Foucault’s analysis in Discipline and Punish presents as a defining feature of Western societies (see: 195-228). The work the film’s protagonists do is constantly monitored by security cameras (and the film camera often assumes their positions), creating motion picture recordings that only “the suits” (the subway’s chief executives) may see. As it turns out in one of the last scenes of the film, these recordings are not only archived by the management but also manipulated and edited in order to make the subject (in this case Bulcsú) seem guilty.

In other words, the “higher” management that is in control of the “lower” ticket controllers or the agency behind the faceless security cameras is ethically no less corrupted than anyone in the film. The scars on the face of the of the boss (György Cserhalmi) seem to indicate this moral corruption, the obscenity of post-communist Law, while the grey suits and behaviour of the managers clearly evoke the figures of party bureaucrats of the communist era. The uniform suits of the management (as opposed to the very local, torn and dirty look of the protagonists) also place the conflict between “high” and “low” in the context of social conformity. The main characters act and live under the super-vision of this faceless, panoptic, disciplining gaze. They look like organic visual curiosities in a technological space. They often cast down or avert their eyes (for example when “the suits” appear on the platform after one of the “accidents”). Or sometimes they try to evade this all-seeing gaze (as the hooded serial-killer).

Bulcsú is a special case in this sense, as he is the only one who has the courage to look back, to return the gaze (be that the gaze of a camera or that of the boss). His night wanderings in the secret places of the subway system also make him a flaneur, thus establishing a very different approach to space, vision and power. His long walks in the metro, however, always take him to places where he meets metaphorical, superhuman eyes looking at him.

It is this panoptic, all-seeing, controlling, normalizing gaze and the space constituted by its mechanisms of power that must be somehow tricked by the non-conformist local anti-heroes of the film. First of all, the disorderly physical appearance of the controllers may catch our attention: they are shabby, badly dressed, wounded and smelly. In their introduction of Bulcsú’s team in the metro’s underground buffet we see Muki in shiny sports clothing (generally associated in Hungary with ghetto loungers, small-time crooks and uneducated entrepreneurs) putting a huge amount of ketchup on his French fries that he has for breakfast. The professor, smoking next to him in clothes left over from the past regime, keeps disparaging him for eating “such shit.” They look up, surprised by a sudden attack of a bad smell, but they realize that it is only their teammate Lecsó arriving.

The morning briefing in the next scene is equally telling. It takes place in a ramshackle underground community room, lit by cold neon lights, furnished with tables, chairs, lockers clearly left from communist times. The controllers look like industrial workers of the previous era, or poor and unemployed people waiting for the social benefit allotment. They are badly dressed, bored and depressed, playing cards or chess, eating pumpkin seeds, talking softly.

The room is packed with unattractive, worn objects of communist times, the reminders of the tasteless pragmatism of communist ideology, and some funny, unfitting, non-functional objects. The “little boss” arrives, and he tries to brief the demoralized mass of workers and get them to work for the panoptical system that they probably all despise. Clearly, nobody loves this job, they all feel miserable, yet, they exhibits no sign of solidarity or any heroic conspiracy against the system.

The symbols of the controlling power to which they are subject are also present. When the “little boss” starts speaking, he steps on a little stool that makes him look taller and rise above the rest. He keeps pointing at the map of the metro system with his pointer; the map and its red dots standing for the stations clearly signify the geometrical, normalizing, panoptical ordering of space, and the pointer is a phallic, sadistic tool of power. On his desk we can see several old type of telephones, a well-established visual trope of bureaucratic power; and finally, the neon hanging over their heads is round-shaped, reminding the spectator of the gaze of the controlling, all-seeing Other.

These examples may indicate the way Kontroll employs two distinguishable modes of visuality so as to further define the opposition between the System’s controlling power and the local subjects wishing to survive in its controlled spaces. As I have indicated above, the camera constructs the subway’s technological spaces as geometrical, transparent, controllable and empty. These are the spaces of panoptic visuality: structured, functional and non-organic, the parts of a superhuman system of control. In contrast, the non-conforming characters, including the ticket controllers and the non-paying passengers, are usually presented in a markedly different visual style: these images are as uncontrollable, organic, tangled and sensuous as the people they show. The pictures of the briefing scene evoke the smell of stale clothes, unwashed bodies and cheap cigarettes: the look and feel of the clothes reveal that none of these are new, freshly washed or ironed. The inspectors’ clothing gives the impression of worn-out items or pieces collected from second-hand shops. (Second-hand clothes shops with pieces collected and imported from Western countries appeared in Hungary in the late 80s, and they are still important for those not too well paid or with a nonconformist taste.)

The materiality of these bodies and clothes is almost tangible—one can almost smell it. For the post-communist spectator these images evoke multi-sensorial memories: factory workers on the morning bus, dressing rooms of public sports facilities, local pubs with smoke, old furniture and tired bodies, smells of spicy sausage, pálinka, onion and garlic. The pictures detailing the human inhabitation of post-communist spaces seem to follow the visual logic of what Laura U. Marks calls haptic visuality. The term “haptic” comes from the Greek verb “to touch” and Marks applies it to such modes of cinematic representation where the object shown is close to the spectator and possesses some kind of a sensual materiality and saturation. In The Skin of the Film Marks contrasts optical visuality—dominant in Western painting and visual culture, based on the separation of the subject and object of the gaze, that aims at control over the visual space and the transparency of the relations of objects within that space—with haptic visuality:

“The ideal relationship between viewer and image in optical visuality tends to be one of mastery, in which the viewer isolates and comprehends the objects of vision. The ideal relationship between viewer and image in haptic visuality is one of mutuality, in which the viewer is more likely to lose herself in the image, to lose her sense of proportion.”(184)

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