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Kontroll Movie Analysis Essay

“I can’t breathe.
Air is getting old…
I can’t breathe.
Keep it in control...”

These are the opening lyrics to the film Kontroll. (For those of you who know me, I’m sure you will find this strangely apropos!) A killer soundrack by NEO – btw if you can find any recordings by NEO let us know, we tried and can’t.

This is the first feature film written and directed by Nimrod Antal. Antal grew up in LA but his family is from Hungary. During a trip he took to Budapest he was fascinated by two particular professions that he had not come across in the U.S. One was that of ‘The Toilet Lady’, the other was the ‘Ticket Controllers’ on the metro. He chose the latter as the subject for this film. Kontroll was shot entirely on location in the Budapest underground metro system. They were allowed to film only during the four and a half hours per night when the subway system closed down. Shooting for 35 days under this tight and restrictive schedule ultimately rendered a total of 25 hours of film footage by cinematographer Gyula Pados. The photography in every scene is impeccable and the editing by Istvan Kiraly sets the pace.

Upon first viewing I felt that Kontroll was mainly an atmospheric piece with strong, deliberate and insightful character development.

On second view however, I found the plot itself to be important, centering mainly on the mystery of “who in fact is the killer?”

The main character of course is Bulcsu. He is the leader of a team of Ticket Controllers and his crew consists of The Professor, who has thirty years on the job, Muki the narcoleptic, Lesco the unkempt fellow, and the new guy Tibi. Bulcsu has chosen to live entirely in the underground world of the metro and has severed all contact with life on the ‘surface’.

The varied personalities of the characters in the film are revealed as they are shown contending with the demands of their job and hanging out with each other. Through the beautifully orchestrated and meticulously chosen details a vivid tapestry of this underground world is developed.

I could go on for pages about all the things in this film that caught my attention but I’ll try to edit myself by choosing two favorite scenes:

#1. The long and hysterical chase scene that ensues after ‘Bootsie’ (later referred to as ‘The Runner’) sprays Tibi in the face with shaving cream. Here Bulcsu and his team of merry men are filmed weaving in and out of the platform poles and other obstacles. How the hell did they photograph this so smoothly? The shot where Bootsie does a side slide under a descending grate is perfection. This is followed by another great motion sequence of Bootsie “Butt Surfing” down the mid-rail between the escalators. Too frigging funny! The scene ends with the beaten up crew sitting on the platform, seemingly invigorated and nursing their wounds by chomping on pistachios and spitting the shells all over the place.
Factoid: Bootsie is the founder of “The Passenger Liberation Society.”

#2. The long, quiet and serene after-hours sequence in which Bulcsu appears to be on a quest. He searches methodically throughout the bowels of the subway system. Some striking photos here such as the hauntingly lit huge dual vent fans which sit at the end of a track filled tunnel. Blew me away. I noticed that throughout the scene there were many of these symmetrically composed shots.

And I can’t resist mentioning:

1. Check out Muki’s dance propelled by great music and inter-cut with close-ups of each character’s face.
2. Japanese group of tourists playing on Muki! In fact that whole interplay between the crew and passengers before Tibi gets sprayed is great, especially the tight, zany yet somehow believable dialogue.
3. The whole thing with the shrink. What can I say? To quote the Professor’s response to Tibi (who is concerned about having his “‘mind probed”). ”Don’t worry; you can’t make waves if there’s no water.”

Now as to the mystery itself. To me, Bulcsu is unquestionably the killer. Ain’t no “Jumpers” in this here Metro. Why do I think this? In the words of Sofia (the Bear) “Follow me…”

-In Bulcsu's first scene, he looks up at the moving surveillance camera and says "What are you staring at?"

- Note the grey liver spot on the hand of the “Grim Reaper’ (or whatever you wish to call the black hooded man) while it is tapping on the escalator railing.

- In two scenes we see Bulcsu sleeping in the fetal position on the platform. Later, in his dream, he finds the Reaper sleeping in the same fetal position at the end of the tunnel.

- Later, when Bulcsu sees the Reaper and chases him, the Reaper gets away. But why doesn’t Bulcsu tell anyone about this? He knows everyone is looking for the killer.

- While chasing Bootsie down an empty platform Bulcsu sees The Reaper step out of nowhere and push Bootsie onto the tracks and under the train. Bulcsu then stands frozen in a fugue type state, eyes closed, as The Reaper walks slowly and deliberately back towards him, literally brushing against his arm as he passes. After his awakening from this shocked state we see Bulcsu in the bathroom where he spits at and then smashes his own image in the mirror. Later when The Boss confronts Bulscu about this latest death, Bulcsu seems to truly have no knowledge of who the killer is. He never mentions having seen the Reaper. As far as we can tell no one else in the film has seen or mentioned him either. It was at this point that I became sure that the Reaper is a part of Bulcsu, unknown to himself. Note that the surveillance cameras do not show the Reaper as he walks back towards Bulcsu and brushes against him.

- When Bulcsu’s crew confronts him, once again he does not offer up the Reaper. As he walks away from his friends with his back towards us we see clearly, for the first time, the black hood hanging out of the back collar of Bulcsu’s black leather jacket, the same hood we see covering the Reaper’s head at all times.

- After having been beaten up by Gonzo and passing out on the platform there is a quick close-up of Bulcsu staring at his bloody hand in which I could clearly see the same dark liver spot that was on the Reaper’s hand earlier in the movie. Now walking through what has become a wild underground party, he catches another glimpse of the Reaper making his way through the crowd. As before, even when Bulcsu has the perfect opportunity to look at the Reaper’s face he chooses not to do so. However he does now seem determined to follow the Reaper to the end. He finds him in a closet, a fight ensues, the two of them go down amidst a pile of clutter but I only see one figure in the pile as Bulcsu rises and leaves the closet. (Compare this to a similar scene in the movie ‘Fight Club.’) Moments later the Reaper appears again and a deadly game of “Railing’ begins between the two of them. Bulcsu wins, jumping safely onto the platform just as the train arrives. We can only assume the Reaper has been killed on the track.

- Bulcsu then comes across Sofie kneeling down dressed in an angel costume.. Unfazed by her friend's bloody, beat up appearance she points serenely to the Owl who is sitting at the bottom of the escalator. The Owl’s bright eyes turn and focus upward towards the surface. Hand in hand Sofie and Bulcsu walk onto the escalator, a beatific look upon their faces as they rise to…

I ask you all, is Bulcsu now dead, having actually killed himself when he killed the Reaper? Is this symbolic of him now rising to heaven? (Or perhaps to hell as this case might call for..) Or has he killed off only the damaged side of his inner self? Having left his demon's behind is he now ready to live a ‘normal’ life on the surface (albeit having committed quite a handful of murders)?

Or do you believe I’ve gotten this all wrong? If so what do you think happened?

My ratings of Kontroll: LLI (long lasting impression) and a definite FAH (fun as hell!) TTTI (time till total immersion) was under 2 seconds. (see KEY written in blue on the right side of page for more abreviations!)

PS – I have added 2 new features to this blog: a small selection of my own photographs (a new set to be added on the day of each new movie posting) and a short cellphone camera clip of my fine fish friends.. Both are on the right side of the page, immediately after the ' I just watched' section.

Nimrod Antal's "Kontroll," filmed entirely in the Budapest subway system, one of the oldest in the world, begins with a disclaimer of sorts, delivered by a public transit official reading from a clipboard. Mr. Antal's request for access to the tunnels and stations underneath the city, this man says, were at first greeted with some apprehension, and he admits that the finished movie might not create a favorable impression of the subway or its employees.

Still, he thinks it will be clear enough that the filmmaker's intentions were "symbolic."

"Symbolic of what?" you may ask yourself, and chances are that by the time you surface from this nerve-jangling underground journey the question will still linger in the air. Like many modern allegories, "Kontroll," a tour de force of grime, fluorescence and destinationless velocity, is more concerned with atmosphere than meaning. Still, the chaotic world it surveys -- a lawless realm that makes the title sound like a grim joke -- is not entirely obscure or unfamiliar. The movie throws in its lot with a group of soulful, slovenly ticket inspectors, known as controllers, working stiffs whose function seems to be to serve as receptacles for the contempt of their fellow citizens. Identified by red-and-black armbands, they are not so much guardians of public order as embodiments of social absurdity. They look like bums, think of themselves as heroes and make their living where the sun doesn't shine.

In place of a straightforward narrative, Mr. Antal cooks up a stew of genre conventions. Like intersecting subway lines, various plots trail off into the darkness. At times, when it examines the workaday routines of one particularly hapless group of inspectors -- including a cynical, chainsmoking veteran; a gangly, unkempt narcoleptic; and an excitable rookie -- "Kontroll" resembles a platoon picture or a police procedural. When its leader, a handsome fellow named Bulcsu (Sandor Csanyi), who left behind a promising aboveground career of some kind, meets a pretty young woman in a fuzzy bear costume, a whimsical romantic comedy seems to be blossoming amid the dirt and noise. But a sinister figure hurling passengers in front of oncoming trains suggests a serial killer movie, with Bulcsu in the dual role of chief detective and prime suspect.

"Kontroll," which opens Friday after being shown today (at the Walter Reade Theater) and tomorrow (at the Museum of Modern Art) as part of the New Directors/New Films series, is both more and less than the sum of these parts. Mr. Antal is an exuberant stylist with a cranky sense of humor, but his aesthetic demonstrates more punk-rock bravura than postmodern glibness. Self-conscious as it is, "Kontroll," his first feature, also has a throb of raw, genuine life that distinguishes it from other recent examples of international provocateur cinema. The film noir and horror movie set pieces in "Kontroll" feel a bit perfunctory next to the loose, extended scenes of the inspectors trundling through train cars trying to cajole and bully reluctant riders into proving that they have paid the required fare. A ragged, hectic foot chase suggests that Mr. Antal may have a future making action movies, which would be fine as long as he doesn't clean up his act too much.

In the end, in spite of Mr. Csanyi's hangdog charisma and the inspired clowning of his crew, the star of "Kontroll" is the Budapest subway itself, which comes to seem, if not exactly enchanted, then at least possessed of a scruffy, durable magic. It may be a symbol after all, of the ways that creaky, battered cities, by their simple day-to-day persistence, can become strange, mythic places, turning their scruffiest inhabitants into heroes.


Written (in Hungarian, with English subtitles) and directed by Nimrod Antal; director of photography, Gyula Pados; edited by Istvan Kiraly; music by NEO; production designer, Balazs Hujber; produced by Tamas Hutlassa; released by ThinkFilm. Running time: 106 minutes. This film is rated R. Shown tonight at 6 and 8:45 p.m. at the Walter Reade Theater at Lincoln Center, and tomorrow at the MoMA Roy and Niuta Titus 1 Theater, 11 West 53rd Street, Manhattan, as part of the 34th New Directors/New Films series of the Film Society of Lincoln Center and the department of film and media of the Museum of Modern Art. Opens commercially in Manhattan at the Lincoln Plaza and the Angelika Film Center on Friday.

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