2014, Jump Cut: A Review of Contemporary Media
Jump Cut, No. 56, winter 2014-2015
Inhabiting post-communist spaces in Nimród Antal’s Kontroll
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 -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.
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.
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:
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
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,
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.
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:
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:
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:
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.
1. This paper was supported by the János Bolyai Research Scholarship of the Hungarian Academy of Sciences. [return to text]
2. According to the 1995 study by the Institut für die Wissenschaften von Menschen (IWM) and the 1997 study by Meridán, the Hungarian population felt most disappointed by the democratic cgange [diction. Correct word?] from all post-communist Eastern-European countries.
3. Among other awards, in 2004 the film won the Prix de la Jeunesse in Cannes, the Gold Hugo at the Chicago International Film Festival for the best film.
4. In the summer of 2013 I had the chance to show the film to a group of Polish and Hungarian secondary school students, and later discuss it with them. My experience was that both Polish and Hungarian teenagers recognized the film and its typical situations as their own: they saw Kontroll as an Eastern-European film about local issues. Moreover, the questions regarding the human subject and one’s relation to power often evoked multigenerational collective memories, which gave a unique, sombre overtone to the otherwise comic situations.
5. “Amikor a mélység visszanéz rád: a posztkommunista tér jellemzoi Antal Nimród Kontroll címu filmjében.” KULTer, 2013/11.
6. Reading the Hungarian press in 2014 seems to prove Paul de Man’s dictum in Allegories of Reading “Metaphors are much more tenacious than facts” (5). 25 years after the democratic change the Hungarian opposition claims that the government oppresses and exploits the people in a degrading and shameful way, while the government in turn claims that it is the alliance of the EU and multinational corporations that does this to the Hungarian people. Degrading oppression seems to be a constant key metaphor in Hungarian political thinking as well as in the film Kontroll.
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