76. KONTROLL (2003)

“I had something in mind for most of the scenes and images in the film and almost without fail, people have interpreted those moments differently… What I’ve really learned in this process is that it doesn’t really matter what I think I’m doing, that’s the beauty of it really, that once it’s out and there are all these hundreds of other eyes trained on it, it becomes a conversation.”–Director Nimród Antal on symbolism in Kontroll

Recommended

DIRECTED BY: Nimród Antal

FEATURING: Sándor Csányi, Eszter Balla, Bence Mátyássy, Gyözö Szabó, Lajos Kovács, György Cserhalmi

PLOT: Bulcsú, a Budapest metro transit cop, copes with eccentric passengers and incompetent coworkers as he pursues a veiled serial killer.  Living and sleeping in the tunnels, Bulcsú is bullied by tormentors, chases gang members, dodges trains and follows a mysterious girl as he tracks a murderer who pushes passengers under speeding engines.  As the killings continue unabated, suspicion eventually turns toward Bulcsú himself.

Still from Kontroll (2003)

BACKGROUND:

  • Director Nimród Antal was born in Los Angeles (of Hungarian ancestry) and moved to Hungary to study filmmaking at the Hungarian Academy of Drama and Film. He made his first feature film, Kontroll, then returned to the U.S. to direct conventional Hollywood products, most recently Predators (2010).
  • The city of Budapest allowed Antal access to the subway system to shoot the film during the five hours per night the trains did not run.  A man claiming to be the Director of the Budapest Metro appears in a prologue to the film to stress that Kontroll is a work of fiction and that real Metro employees do not behave in the ways depicted.
  • Kontroll won the Prix de la Jeunesse (Prize of the Young) at the 2004 Cannes Film Festival. It was the first Hungarian film to screen at Cannes in twenty years.
  • Antal cited Andrei Tarkovsky, Stanley Kubrick, Terry Gilliam, Martin Scorsese, and Beat Takeshi as influences on Kontroll.

INDELIBLE IMAGE:  The most enduring image is a metaphor for the troubled Bulcsúis’s transcendence.  The kontroller hides in the underground sanctuary from the real world above. But the outside is only a symbol.  Bulcsúis is really seeking refuge from himself and his feelings.  Uncertain about his own emotions, and lacking in confidence, avoiding the world above is his way of postponing self-confrontation.  What then, can be more symbolic of his waiting deliverance than the symmetrical image of the great, silvery, central escalator leading to the bright lights and certain reality of the surface?  Bulcsú knows he must eventually ascend it but he has not yet the courage to face that eventuality.  Will his love for the mysterious, bear-costumed Szofi become the key to unlocking his emotions and freeing himself?

WHAT MAKES IT WEIRD: Kontroll is a fantasy that stands alone in its enigmatic singularity.


Original English language trailer for Kontroll

The film craftily assimilates drama, suspense and social satire into a multifaceted story in the unusual setting of an Old World subway.  Director Antal surprisingly succeeds at combining an unlikely set of plot elements.  He decants the chaos of social rambunctiousness, the absurdity that entails when authority dictates regulation at the simplest levels of its jurisdiction, and a survey of attitudes and life’s daily ironies into an imaginative story.  The resulting integration creates a unique, alternative viewing experience.

COMMENTS:  Hydraulics hiss, rails clatter, and trains blast at high speeds in the dimly lit, neural convolutions of the Budapest underground.  A man runs for his life through a tunnel between two trains.  A hooded figure emerges from cracks in the wall to launch the unwary under oncoming subway cars.  A puzzling girl (Balla) haunts the maze-like passages disguised as a bear.  Ticket inspectors engage in madcap jousts and chases with each other when they are not comically pursuing a colorful assortment of freeloading ruffians.  A host of eccentric characters cavort and couple in a subterranean round-table of flickering signal lamps, iron and darkness.  The dungeonesque rail network is a facsimile of the social essence in which human comedy and causality are highlighted in a microcosmic imitation of life.

Bulcsú (Csányi), dwells in the middle of the extensive sunken recesses of the Budapest subway. He eats, sleeps, lives and works entirely in the sub-terrestrial grid of the underground system. He dines at passenger cafeterias and auto-mats.  He deadheads through the endless concrete passages and corridors of the colossal subterranean complex, and never abandons his somnambulist lifestyle to ascend into the sunlight of the city above.

Bulcsúis is a “kontroller,” a member of a team of ticket inspectors who strive to corral the barely controllable anarchy of harried masses and hostile riders.  Like Ernest Borgnine’s Argus-eyed character “Shack” in 1973′s Emperor Of The North Pole, he and his motley crew of fellow controllers are charged with ensuring that no member of the public garners a free ride.

Similar to the New York City transit police, Budapest ticket inspectors operate in teams of four or five, bonded by their sooty, untoward jobs, by the tumultuous cacophony and bedlam of the subway system, and by their dread of an abusive general public.  Their mission is no easy task, for the metro clients bitterly resent the enforcers.  Those who have purchased their tickets are irritated to have to show them.  Those who didn’t purchase are loath to be found out.  The situation is conducive to the film’s exposition of the social attitudes and ironies.

The freeloaders fabricate a variety of excuses and attempt to derail the controllers with con games, evasion and escape.  Irritability turns to outright hostility as interlopers threaten Bulcsúis with Old World hexes, used syringes and physical violence.  Such affronts are presented by the nicer passengers.  Even worse are the gangs of paint-faced, pipe-wielding hooligans, a la Walter Hill’s The Warriors.

Coping with the gloomy dank solitude of his surroundings and the irascible, wily riders, Bulcsúis must also contend with a Kafkaesque bureaucracy lorded over by a cantankerous locomotive of a foreman (Cserhalmi) who has no patience for Bulcsúis or his misfit colleagues.  There exists a hierarchy among the controller teams, based on performance and ticket quotas.  Bulcsúis’s band of controllers is coming up dead last.  Compounding their disgrace, the little aggregation of underdogs is on probation for breaking rules.  Assigned to the worst details, Bulcsúis’s order of ruffians competes against a rival ticket police faction whose members strive to make life miserable for them.

Complicating the situation, in the late of night a mysteriously cloaked figure has taken to darting out onto desolate platforms.  Platforms lights flicker mysteriously as the attacker prepares to strike.  More phantasm than human, the reaper’s jolting strikes are like an arcing flash of sparks from a train contact shoe hitting a crossover ramp. Propelling unsuspecting passengers under speeding trains, he quickly vanishes again into the cloistered recesses of the maze of burrows and shafts.  The control boss assigns the control crews the task of apprehending the assassin, but given his contempt for the squad it is obvious that he harbors little confidence that success is a station on their line.

Along the route of his trials and misadventures in the tunnels, Bulcsúis cavorts with a host of quirky, intoxicated riders and employees, such as the lush- faced Béla, who used to drive trains on the surface until he crashed one due to “lack of braking distance.”  Another is an elusive love interest in a bear suit who enigmatically appears and disappears like a poltergeist.  She is Bulcsúis’s Ariadne.  He shadows her.  The wake of her passings through the transit system guides Bulcsúis like a trail of yarn. Aggregated in the cyclic rituals of riders, rogues, and routines in a Gothic metropolis of perpetual night, he relentlessly pursues the girl and the abstruse slayer through the labyrinthine underworld like a modern day Theseus.

Filmed on location in the Budapest subway system, the second-oldest in the world, Kontroll is visually arty and distinctive.  Balázs Hujber’s production design proffers more back-lit, slowly turning fans than Alan Parker’s Angel HeartKontroll‘s optical signature is replete with sharp angles, symmetry and vanishing points.  Part of the appeal of Kontroll is its unusual subterranean setting, which fosters a variety of novel and striking imagery. Antal delights us by capturing the symmetry of the structural installations such as the rows of ceiling lights in the stations, the neat columns of trains docked for the night, and the central vanishing point formed by tracks fading into the darkened abyss of long tunnels. These symmetries contrast with and accent the chaotic events that unfold, and the disordered lives of the characters caught up in them.

Scenes are stylishly illuminated by flares, and the red glow of warning signals.  Montages and perspectives of progressive motion along subway tracks, tunnels, and steep escalators propel the production to its final destination.  Kontroll also advances tense action sequences along the rails as Bulcsú races against the clock and oncoming trains.

There are cat and mouse hunts, chase sequences, drama, romance, and satirical sequences such as when a succession of subway workers convey their issues to a psychiatrist and a man chokes on a French fry while being lectured about the dangers of cholesterol.  Despite the contrast between its inherent components of humor and thrills, Kontroll manages to balance these diverse elements.  In combination with a chic cinematic motif, the film successfully packages a uniquely enchanting, very weird viewing experience into a thoughtful, arty satire.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“Anyone familiar with Carnival of Souls will lock on to the aspiring allegory. Bulcsú never surfaces from the underworld. Neither does the movie—literally or figuratively.”–J. Hobermann, The Village Voice (contemporaneous)

“Smoothly switching gears between the surreal and the everyday, this is as unpredictable as the Northern Line but offers a much more memorable ride.”–Matthew Leyland, BBC (contemporaneous)

“…if ‘Kontroll’ doesn’t develop at least a modest cult following, I’ll eat my copy of ‘The Psychotronic Encyclopedia of Film’… what works so memorably about ‘Kontroll’ is its delicious, almost lustful capturing of seedy ambience, and its creation of a post-Kafka world that seems both unreal and totally convincing.”–Andrew O’Hehir, Salon.com (contemporaneous)

IMDB LINK: Kontroll (2003)

OTHER LINKS OF INTEREST:

The Thinking Man’s Nimrod – Walter Chaw of Film Freak Central interviews director Nimrod Antal on Kontroll‘s American release

Recommended as Weird: Kontroll (2003)Pamela De Graff nominates Kontroll for inclusion on the List

DVD INFO: ThinkFilm’s Region 1 DVD (buy) comes with no extras whatsoever.  The release has also been criticized for not being an anamorphic (optimized for widescreen TVs) transfer.  Kontroll is a visually stunning burgeoning cult film that could clearly benefit from a top-notch re-release; remastered, it would look great on Blu-ray.

2 thoughts on “76. KONTROLL (2003)”

  1. Great review, summed up most of my thoughts and feelings on the film. I Watched this last night and really enjoyed it.
    Although some of his fears of failing to meet his own expectation were evident I thought Bulcsú came over as quite a confident guy though who just didnt want to challenge himself with life anymore. The tunnels kind of representing his comfort zone where little is expected of him. Although he wanted to escape and push on with his life he could never find reason to do so until circumstances forced him to with his job and his falling for Szofi.

  2. I love this movie. I recommend it often. But I usually have to say “Not the movie about Ian Curtis. Kontroll with a ‘K’.”
    I first saw it late at night after coming home from the pub…I was like “What is this!?!” and fell in love.
    I tell people it’s a ‘black comedy/thriller/horror that ends with a rave’.
    I think something bad happened to Bulcsú and he’s hiding from it in the underground. We get a hint of his life before, in the world above, when he runs into an old co-worker on the subway.

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