Based on its opening scene, you might be mistaken as to what the 2003 Hungarian film Control (Where Control) is actually on. A man, ostensibly representing the Budapest metro, faces the camera and warns us in a flat tone that what we are about to see is completely fictitious. The whole thing looks like a state-sponsored news program or something the Hungarian government demanded to be played before the movie, but it could just as well have been a creative choice on the part of the filmmaker – there has very little behind-the-scenes information. on the film, we therefore wonder where the real ends and where the unreal begins.
Control is one of only two Hungarian-language films made by the Euro-American filmmaker Nimrod Antalwho would continue to do things like Predators, Vacation, and some episodes of stranger things. The film follows Bulcsú, a traffic cop for the underground subway system, and his unseemly, mixed group of male colleagues, as they impose their own brand of justice on fare-beaters and riders. They call their bosses the “Gestapo”, but they themselves wear Nazi armbands bearing the Budapest Metro badge whenever they need to express their power.
Kontroll and the Chaos Underground
Whether this ragtag group actually has any power is up for debate, and as many believe when engaged in menial and thankless work, the guys are desperate to retain what little power they have. They abuse and profile their clientele, who abuse and profile them in return, making comedy uncomfortable, sometimes not funny. And then there are the politics, the violence and the bureaucracy of the film. The subway is a dangerous and unpredictable place, and Bulcsú and Company are its ineffectual guardians.
But Control, often cataloged as a comedic thriller, is not limited to tension and chaos. Roughly 100% of the film takes place underground, and the Budapest Metro is so evocative as a location (or, really, a series of locations) that the film is given a dystopian, otherworldly atmosphere, becoming an almost allegorical setting. It’s a society that seems to exist independently of the world above it, and if the world were to be wiped out by a nuclear holocaust, Control claims that the trains would always manage to run on time.
Antal’s film sits somehow at the intersection of Italian neorealism and German expressionism: it deals with the plight of the worker, while seeming to venture deep into the dark night of his soul. The lighting becomes increasingly surreal as the drama continues and the story develops, becomes more ambiguous and fantastical. Tonally speaking, the film is cooler than ice, with an electronic, steampunky soundtrack and neo-noir accents. It was made four years after The matrixbut it almost resembles its aesthetic precursor.
The Kontroll Killer and Characters
The central dramatic issue involves a series of train-related deaths plaguing the subway. Are these just suicides? Or are they performed by an anonymous masked figure – a Grim Reaper in a leather jacket? The protagonist Bulcsú spends his day doing the job to the best of his abilities, but sometimes catches a glimpse of this mysterious person, or maybe it’s just an old drummer who escaped last time. When Bulscú decides to take revenge or express his power, he and his gang give chase, and the film becomes like a Hungarian Trainspotting – maniacal, violent and bitterly funny.
One of the most realistic sections of the film involves a psychiatrist – Bulscú and the other subway policemen have witnessed a horrific event and must participate in a psychological evaluation. The film goes in and out of different denominations, not only with our main cast, but also with secondary and tertiary characters, and, it seems, non-actors who could actually work in the subway system. The result is a composite portrait of a collective psychosis that hasn’t been addressed in too long – it’s funny, but also sad, and it feels like without the traumatic thing they just witnessed, they might never have been able to express their thoughts and feelings.
But none of these characters are actually interested in your sympathy, which ironically is part of what makes them so likeable. They go about their day without complaining when they should be constantly complaining, and as is the case with many of us, their anger and aggression is often directed at the wrong people.
The aesthetics of avoiding your life
Control is a world-building exercise, but in which the world came pre-built. It’s kitchen-sink realism at its core, but its expressions of psychological subjectivity are akin to those of the greatest television dramas, and its tone and visuals are reminiscent of the most elegant sci-fi and fantasy. It somehow manages to oscillate seamlessly between realistic and hyper-stylized aesthetics, sometimes in the same scene.
One sequence sees Bulscú meeting a former co-worker on the subway, from whom he hides his identity as a traffic cop – is it out of shame, embarrassment, something else? Sitting on the train with him, the colleague says that Bulscú is greatly missed in the office and offers him to return to his old job. Bulscú gives a kind of non-committal answer, with the assurance that he will think about it, but you can see in his eyes that he never intends to see or speak with this man again. Why exactly? It’s not that he necessarily likes his current job (poverty seems to be a big part of his daily life), so why wouldn’t he want to come out of hiding if he had the chance? What is he avoiding?
Heaven and Hell in Antal’s Kontroll
The underground rail system looks like a labyrinthine hell, or maybe a purgatory where people are stuck between an ugly past and a future they don’t want to live in (something made explicit by the image of a woman in costumed angel wings sticking out from the basement). The way Bulscú stares with fear and longing at the escalators leading to the sunlight of the world above suggests a certain self-loathing or guilt, where he feels unworthy to leave the basement.
Either way, Bulscú’s reasons for staying underground might overlap with ours: the kinetics, the lack of predictability, and the rich, colorful characters underground are thrilling, but perhaps only from the outside. There is a deep sadness to the protagonist and a few others who live inside this world, a loss or grief that is never fully explained, and in the basement, Bulscú can choose to be anonymous and invisible if he wishes. Her quest to find the hooded figure is almost a great metaphor for her struggle to accept herself and move on.
There’s a dark romance to Control and a sense of hope that seems almost perverse when it comes to the film’s pessimistic presentation. Everything in this film’s palette holds us back, blowing away all smudges of sunlight and clean air. And yet, director Antal brings a touch of levity to the proceedings and reminds us that there is plenty of life and laughter in the darkest places.