DIRECTED BY: Nimród Antal
FEATURING: Sándor Csányi, Bence Mátyássy, Eszter Balla, Gyözö Szabó, Lajos Kovács, and György Cserhalmi
PLOT: A Budapest metro transit cop copes with eccentric passengers and 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.
WHY IT SHOULD MAKE THE LIST: Kontroll is a fantasy that stands alone in its enigmatic singularity. 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 combination 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 presents a unique, alternate 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 Heart. Kontroll‘s optical signature is replete with sharp angles, symmetry and vanishing points.
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 Bulcsúis 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:
“…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)