Uncle Béla smoking and drinking before his morning shift begins. (Béla is one of the names often used for a not too educated everyman in Hungarian.)

Béla’s private world in the train.

Béla as an angel.

Bulcsú finds Béla at night in his “home” in a subway car.

Kusturica’s Balkan gypsy paradise – another self-made, bricolage place at the margins of civilization.

Kusturica (as well as Béla’s example) seems to suggest that happiness is possible in these self-made worlds, separated from power, the centre or politics.

Inhuman eyes facing the protagonist.

The human figure is just a blurred stain in a closely watched technological space.


In other words, I argue that Kontroll employs specific means of film language (mainly mise-en-scene, composition and camerawork) in order to contrast the subway’s controlled, panoptic spaces with the haptic human bodies that perform its inhabitation. The images showing the “inhabiting” locals are not based on the visual logic of control over the image and visual space, but rather on a rich, multi-sensorial overload. Film’s usual control over space and meaning is overthrown by the spectator’s bodily-stored, sensorial memories evoked by the thickly saturated sensuous images. Marks regards these processes as typical features of intercultural cinema, which (similarly to the “inhabiting” characters of Kontroll) must articulate its meanings and identity-games in a dominant, foreign cultural space. Marks calls attention to the roles of the body, memory and sensuousness in these cinematic processes:

“By appealing to one sense in order to represent the experience of another, cinema appeals to the integration and commutation of sensory experience within the body. Each audiovisual image meets a rush of other sensory associations. Audiovisual images call up conscious, unconscious, and nonsymbolic associations with touch, taste, and smell, which themselves are not experienced as separate. Each image is synthesized by a body that does not necessarily divide perceptions into different sense modalities.” (222)

In other words, the typically post-communist clothes, food, objects, bodies and habitual practices seen in Kontroll do not work simply as local color, as entertaining, comic elements (though recognizing oneself in something comical and laughing at oneself are important parts of local identity-politics). These visual details also function as more than comments on or representations of post-communist subjects desperately trying to live a life they can call their own in spaces controlled by a power that they do not recognize as their own. The sight of these opens up a completely new dimension of the Eastern-European spectator’s relation to the film. It is the dimension of involuntary physical responses, non-symbolic significances, bodily stored sensuous memories, one’s deep, physical connections to a region and its smells, tastes and practices. These associations and memories add an extra layer to the (more or less) international narrative patterns and genre conventions utilized by the film. Through the sight of these haptic images and the physical-sensuous reactions evoked by them the spectator may also “inhabit” these cinematic spaces, that is, fill it up with one’s own personal and (probably mostly) unconscious sensuous memories.

After all, most post-communist Eastern-European subjects have travelled on the packed morning bus or subway together with people smelling of stale clothes, unwashed bodies, the spicy sausage or garlic toast they had for breakfast. We all have sensorial memories of the furniture of the socialist era, of the old telephones on the desk. We know the characteristic smell of second-hand clothes shops, the touch of an old deck of cards or these games the characters play. We know how these cheap neon lights could hurt the eye on an early morning. We have walked by benches surrounded by shells of pumpkin or sunflower seeds that people have spit and left there. This non-symbolic, non-discursive significance of the film image adds to Kontroll as a genre film and twists its meaning in a manner similar to the way the “inhabiting” tactics of the non-conformist characters twist and bend the power-relations operating the metro (and the social) system.

Apart from the above-mentioned examples, the scenes involving the metro driver Uncle Béla exemplify best the processes and practices of “inhabiting.” He is Bulcsú’s friend, a kind of mentor figure and the father of Szofi, Bulcsú’s love interest. As we learn, Béla also spends most of his time in the metro system, and he has also “inhabited” it in the full sense of the concept.

As Szofi tells Bulcsú, Béla used to be an engine driver “above” until once, presumably under the influence of alcohol, he misjudged the breaking distance in the Budapest Keleti train station. No one was hurt, but he caused much damage and was banished to here, underground. The first time we see him, he is standing on the platform, leaning against a pillar, smoking and drinking from a big, leather-bound flask (presumably home-made pálinka, the Hungarian national brandy, with usually 40-50% alcohol). During the scene there is an announcement that smoking is strictly prohibited in the metro. Béla has another drink from the flask, and steps into the subway’s driver cabin. This cabin offers a perfect example of inhabitation tactics. Béla—obviously violating each and every traffic regulation—has made this space his own, furnished his cabin according to his own taste. It is densely packed with candles, pictures of saints and other religious objects, and there is even a bead curtain hanging at the door, evoking the atmosphere of weekend houses, rural kitchens and Eastern seraglios. When Szofi, his daughter, visits him, she sits next to him in the driver cabin, another traffic violation. They eat the sandwiches, presumably brought by Szofi, while talking about issues of life.

During his night time wandering Bulcsú also meets Béla, who is just having dinner in one of the parked underground cars. Surprisingly, this time the metro car appears as a cozy, habitable space. Apparently, Béla has furnished this car with the typical nostalgic objects of socialist retro. There is a checked blanket on the seat and a small camping table standing in front of it, laid for dinner: a portable gas cooker, tin mug, and all the elements of a typical rural supper, bread, bacon, onion and apple. In the window behind Béla there is an old radio from the 70s and a framed picture. On the right side, behind him, we can see the official map of the metro system, with the small picture of a woman, probably a model, placed in the corner—exemplifying how people colour the official order with their individual tastes and fantasies. (The picture of the woman may remind the spectator of car repair garages in the region, where—in the Socialist era when political correctness was an unknown term—the walls were usually decorated with pictures of half-naked women, mostly simply torn out from magazines and placed on the walls.)

All in all, Béla not only brings his religious beliefs into the official, technological, controlled spaces of the metro but the practical, personal objects of his life, his food preferences and his tobacco and alcohol addiction as well. The film (just like Bulcsú) seems to regard and record these oddities with love and enjoyment. Uncle Béla’s world may remind the spectator of Kusturica’s Balkan paradises, such as the one in the opening scene of Black Cat White Cat, in which the film’s protagonists are enjoying themselves on the margins of civilization, at the river bank on their makeshift pier made of recycled garbage.

The tactics of “inhabitation” presented by Kontroll may be less extreme and extravagant than those in Kusturica’s films, but they also present marginalized people living on the edges of mass societies, applying creative, idiosyncratic, not-exactly-legal tactics so as to get by. Béla, similarly to the gipsies in Black Cat White Cat, is a likable bricoleur trying to establish his peculiar, habitable space on the periphery of civilization, bending the rules that can be bent, and obeying the ones that cannot. He is not a hero, he does not fight the system, does not want to change things. He does not dream about a grandiose, Hollywood-style happy ending where all turns well. He only colours, furnishes, makes things look like, smell like, feel like his own. He inhabits the space given. Kontroll seem to grant some kind of an ontological reality to these subjective, idiosyncratic worlds. The ontological status of the hooded figure remains undecided, we do not learn for sure whether he is a real person or just a fantasy figure. When the Professor is cursed by a gypsy woman (another non-paying customer), we hear a tinkling sound presumably indicating magic; and Béla also tends to appear as an angel. (It is Szofi who calls our attention to the way the light in the driver cabin produces a halo over Béla’s head while he is eating his sandwich).

These local characters in their local colours inhabit the metro’s globalized, technological spaces of surveillance in a way much similar to how Kontroll inhabits the international genre of the thriller. As a result, the film also becomes more interesting, colourful, ambiguous, multi-layered than the “standard” mainstream genre film. This enriches the context of Bulcsú’s inner quest, underground wanderings and personal development. It is no coincidence that it is Uncle Béla that Bulcsú asks guidance from in the above mentioned supper scene. He is lost down here, but Béla seems to be alright, seems to know his way around, he seems to have made this cold and empty space habitable. Therefore the question “Uncle Béla, how can one get out of here?” is clearly allegorical. The two eat bread and onion together on the checked blanket in the subway car, telling bad jokes, and maybe this seemingly simple, innocent practical ritual turns into an act of angelic guidance.

According to de Certeau, the lack of a space of one’s own (which is a common feature of both Béla’s tactics of inhabitation and Bulcsú’s underground wanderings) is a typical motivation for and fundamental aspect of the survival tactics of powerless, vulnerable people:

“By contrast with a strategy … a tactic is a calculated action determined by the absence of a proper locus. No delimitation of an exteriority, then, provides it with the condition necessary for autonomy. The space of a tactic is the space of the other. Thus it must play on and with a terrain imposed on it and organized by the law of a foreign power. It does not have the means to keep to itself, at a distance, in a position of withdrawal, foresight, and self-collection: it is a manoeuvre ‘within the enemy's field of vision,’ as von Biilow put it, and within enemy territory. It does not, therefore, have the options of planning general strategy and viewing the adversary as a whole within a district, visible, and objectifiable space. It operates in isolated actions, blow by blow. It takes advantage of ‘opportunities’ and depends on them, being without any base where it could stockpile its winnings, build up its own position, and plan raids. What it wins it cannot keep. This nowhere gives a tactic mobility, to be sure, but a mobility that must accept the chance offerings of the moment, and seize on the wing the possibilities that offer themselves at any given moment. It must vigilantly make use of the cracks that particular conjunctions open in the surveillance of the proprietary powers. It poaches in them. It creates surprises in them. It can be where it is least expected. It is a guileful ruse.” (36-37)

De Certeau’s concept of tactics may serve as an important point of reference for the understanding of the film’s protagonists’ patterns of behaviour. The most self-reflexive and funny scenes of Kontroll present precisely these tactics. We see the highly creative ways non-paying passengers try to avoid being caught. For example, they pretend to suffer from hearing impairment, claim to have no ID with them, they put a curse on the controller, offer a prostitute instead of the fee, they run away, etc.. We also see the counter-tactics of the ticket controlers, helplessly struggling with them in their effort to serve a system they do not believe in either.

Let me mention one example in detail, one that I find particularly interesting from the point of view of tactical improvisations. In one of these micro-scenes Tibi, who must be in his twenties, asks for the ticket of a not very tastefully dressed, overweight, middle-aged woman. First the woman simply tries to pass by him, so as to get out of the space controlled by the metro authorities. When Tibi steps in her way, she threatens to report that he sexually harassed her (“megcsöcsörészte”). It is never mentioned who she wants to report him to, what authorities she has in mind, but it does not seem to matter—in her defence against the ticket controller, she evokes the fantasy of the faceless, controlling Other. Tibi seems to be surprised by such a creative response, but his embarrassment lasts for a second only: after a moment of hesitation he does touch her breasts. The woman hits him with her handbag and indignantly goes away.

Obviously, this scene—which should be about control and obeying social norms and rules—takes place entirely outside the domain of political correctness, in a field not controlled by the power of surveillance. Both Tibi and the woman play creatively with the available social roles, and apply tactics with the help of which they can bend the rules and turn things to their own advantage. The woman’s threat flips the roles of controller/controlled subjects, and Tibi also twists the situation when he willingly and joyfully accepts the role offered to him. In both cases the Law is evoked only as a reference point that can be subverted, bent, and corrupted in games that these not-so privileged people seem to enjoy.

Lacking a proper place has a special significance in Bulcsú’s case. While the panopticon is based on ordering and locating individuals (“each individual, in his place,” Foucault 200), as this is the essential condition of surveillance and discipline, Bulcsú is homeless, he does not fit the system, cannot be located or placed or categorized within the matrix of power. While, according to Foucault, panoptical disciplining power is based on the systematic ordering and surveillance of individuals (200-201), the film defines Bulcsú as someone out of place. He has left his proper job “above,” and he lives in the metro, and often spends his time wandering in the secret passages of the subway system. De Certeau, in his chapter about city walks, contrasts the systematic, planned, strategic, rational ordering of space practiced by panoptical power with such non-teleological movements in that space as walking or wandering around. These movements have their own logic or “rhetoric” and therefore they can confer new significance to official spaces.

Thus, the human subjects practicing such activities also make these spaces their own (see: 97-100). “To walk is to lack a place”—says De Certeau (103), and by “place” he means the proper place defined and allocated to one by power. Thus, Bulcsú’s walks are particularly interesting from this point of view. He goes to places that are forbidden to him both as a ticket controller and as a passenger, to places behind the scenes of power and subjectivity. What he finds in these hidden places often seems to articulate his relation to the power of surveillance and discipline through visual metaphors.

Wherever he goes, even if he manages to step out of the realm of security cameras, he encounters eye-like forms staring at him. The eyes seem to suggest that there is no escape. He has to face both the system of disciplinary power (this happens when he confronts the head of “the suits”) and his own frightful doppelganger (this happens in his fight and “railing” contest with the hooded figure). The most characteristic and telling images of this allegorical quest story in the dark underground tunnels are those where Bulcsú is present only as a stain or a shadow, often photographed off-focus and ill-lit, an obscure organic object in a system of surveillance and power. What is in focus in these images is the technical environment. Its contours are sharp and clear (evoking the principles of optical visuality) while Bulcsú is hardly visible, a haptic stain, a piece of organic matter out of place, an outcast on the verge of the human, slipping out of the grip of the system of discipline, proper names and sharp contours.

Thus, these shots of Bulcsú can also be interpreted as visual definitions of the subject in post-communist spaces. As Jobbit has also argued, his quest for a way out can be seen as an allegorical representation of the Hungarian dilemmas before joining the EU. Yet the film never becomes a “plain,” easily decidable allegory. The non-conformist characters present a wide range of Eastern-European ways of relating to power so that their resistance tactics are not placed next to Bulcsú’s quest by accident. It is in this context of local modes of inhabitation and subversive tactics that the main character’s story gains its full significance. However, Kontroll also makes it clear that while Bulcsú is in the spaces of the metro (understood as an Eastern-European underworld), it is impossible to reach such standard goals of “Western” liberal-humanist societies as individual autonomy, sovereignty or human dignity. One may learn which rules must be obeyed and which may be bent or evaded by smart tactics of resistance and one may show the finger to “the suits,” but that does not by any means equal becoming free from the system.

Power in these spaces has a sort of pronounced obscurity, all-pervasiveness and obscenity; it works in unforeseeable and penetrating ways. Bulcsú’s relation to the hooded figure clearly shows the complexity of the deforming effects of Eastern-European practices of power. As the film also indicates in its self-reflexive ending, in order to achieve a traditional narrative closure and a happy ending in this region, one needs Sophie’s fairy-wings—a minor miracle, one could say. These are the wings (which quickly gain allegorical importance after the metro costume party) that lift Bulcsú out of the spaces of the underground, from the abyss that the camera descended to in the first scene. The Eastern-European male subject, this beaten-up, lost and rejected lonely anti-hero, can only be saved by such an ironic, Hollywood-style gesture. Yet, the camera does not travel with Sophie and Bulcsú. Kontroll is a film about the Eastern-European underworld, and it cannot show what is above the ground.

If Hollywood is the only alternative, if this is the way out, than this is certainly an exit to a utopian place, to a (literally) non-existent one. The other place is a no-place; in other words, there is no other space. Salvation for the post-communist subject is no more than a Hollywood fairy-tale that one accepts with an ironic wink, with a very conscious, willing suspense of disbelief for the lack of anything better.

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