Friday, March 28, 2008

Nimród Antal, "Kontroll" (2003).

Sometimes I will choose to watch a film simply because its setting appeals to me in some way. Session 9 is an excellent example of this- for those not familiar, it's a movie that takes place almost entirely in an abandoned and deteriorating mental asylum. In that flick the building itself is like a character. There's an inescapable oppression at its core. I don't know exactly why urban ruins appeal to me, but I'll often seek them out whenever I get the opportunity. In a strangely similar way underground environments have always interested me. Whether its a cave system, the sub-basement of a large building, or any sort of tunnel- it makes me curious. I guess it's because there is a suggestion of hidden activities and unique conditions in the dark recesses of such environments. The idea of another world beneath our feet is stimulating.

When I first read about the Hungarian film Kontroll (directed by Nimród Antal), I knew I wanted to see it. It was created against the backdrop of the subway system in Budapest, Hungary. It's the second oldest underground Metro system in the entire world, and construction on its very first line began in 1894. Amazingly it only took 2 years to complete it. While it was a remarkable feat of engineering during the time it was built, it is now an operating historical landmark. One of its distinctive features is the presence of roving pass controllers. Their job is to verify that all riders have passes. Although they may be stationed at the bottom of various escalators, they often turn up in unexpected places to surprise the unwary.

Kontroll is based on the activities of a team of these controllers. The ticket inspectors under the supervision of Bulcsú (Sándor Csányi) are a motley bunch. There is the grizzled veteran, the enthusiastic novitiate, the narcoleptic and temperamental giant, and the slimy cynic. Together they monitor their assigned daily section and play off each others' practical jokes. They also engage in a less-than-friendly rivalry with another team of controllers. Like in any other workplace, the subway workers establish alliances, discover ways to passively protest their conditions, and feud with those they "serve". Apparently the inspectors are resented for their petty authority and certain riders go out of their way to make their jobs more difficult.

Much of the enjoyment of Kontroll is to be found in exploring the culture of the underground. It's such a surreal place of employment that it can carry a large burden in the struggle to maintain viewer interest. What would tempt people to work in such place? You'd have to be a quirky character to spend a third of your life beneath the city. The interaction between these workers is often humorous and otherwise engaging. The dark comedy of the film offsets the creepy ambiance of the tunnels themselves. It's a bit of a shame that Antal felt a need to introduce conventional action elements into the tale. Certain plot threads seem contrived and out-of-place in what could have otherwise been an effective slice-of-life sociological study (in this respect it reminded me of Art School Confidential). But I suppose this type of forced drama served to hook a less sophisticated audience that will likely ensure a cult status for Kontroll.

The other directorial misstep lies in the soundtrack. At times the heavy techno-industrial music served to heighten the tension. Yet at other moments it seemed overdone. Using too much of that sort of thing makes a movie seem like an MTV promo spot from the 80's. That kind of choice can seem hip at the time of production, but it causes the movie to age poorly. There's also a subtle undercurrent of political commentary regarding life under an authoritarian regime. Fortunately none of that needs to be understood to enjoy Kontroll. Ultimately much of this film works. It's got the pace and editing of a "popcorn flick", and its context is unique enough to hold the viewer's attention. I wouldn't be surprised to find this director lured to Hollywood with promises of a big budget and American stars.



Anonymous Marc said...

hey merge,

A couple of things came to mind upon starting to read this post..
One, that I was just talking to someone yesterday about how I'm going to be organizing a cave trip to WV at some point in the next 3 or 4 months. It is a short (1- 1/2 mile), safe, one-way trek through a well-established and mostly large-enough passage that my cousin and uncle have done. From what they describe, it's a great "caving" experience without the hassle of uncertainty, potential danger, etc.. It'd be great for you to come along...
Secondly, I've had this Budapest underground movie on my shelf and my eye has skimmed it to watch a few times now, but I haven't yet (I had to skip to the end of the post, because I knew you'd describe some elements considered 'spoilers' in your review..).
Have you heard about/read Jennifer Toth's "The Mole People: life in the tunnels beneath New York City"? I haven't, but it's sitting on my shelf and definitely on my short list...
anyway, just wanted to let you know about the planned trip, perhaps we could explore our mutual fascination with underground spaces together.

10:57 AM  
Blogger Merge Divide said...


As appealing as the prospect of some light caving sounds, I don't know whether I could still handle the experience. I've become increasingly claustrophobic over the years.

Yeah, I read and enjoyed the Jennifer Toth book. You'll have fun with that. You saw the documentary "Dark Days", right? It's about people who lived in an abandoned AMTRAK tunnel in NYC.

7:46 PM  

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