Nimród Antal, director – Hungary (2003)
Most of the time, edgy young filmmakers from abroad dream of being called to Hollywood once they make their reputations. That may still happen for Nimród Antal, but if he does make the trip, it will be the return leg of his artistic journey. Although he was born and raised in Los Angeles, Nimród Antal’s Hungarian heritage called him to Budapest as a teenager, where he eventually began working in film. His first feature, Kontroll demonstrates Antal’s admiration for the city’s rich cultural traditions – particularly those of the late Hapsburg and post-WWI eras -- but obliquely. If Kontroll is a love song to a place defiantly unlike the diffuse sprawl of the L.A. basin, it is a melancholy one, suffused with an existential irony rooted too deeply to laugh off.
Kontroll slots rather neatly into the burgeoning genre of the ensemble “city film.” Like the New York City of Martin Scorcese’s and Woody Allen’s classic films; the Sydney, Australia of the sorely overlooked Lantana; and the Los Angeles of Grand Canyon, Magnolia, or this year’s Oscar winner Crash, the Budapest of Kontroll is at once highly specific and unapologetically universal. When a representative of the city’s transit authority opens the film by explaining why Antal was given permission to film in its subway system, the world’s second oldest, he draws our attention to the uniqueness of the filmmaker’s project: the people of Budapest simply aren’t as used to the intersection of the film industry and everyday life as their counterparts in Los Angeles are. At the same time, though, he also provides the perfect frame for the picture’s deliberately ambiguous tropes.
Our experience of the modern world is one where we are consistently required to present a “pass” to inspectors private and public. Even if those inspectors are, like the real-life transit official or the film’s fictional ticket checkers, insignificant functionaries who struggle to do their jobs in the face of overwhelming indifference and a fair measure of hostility, they still remind us of the social and political control exerted on us whether we like it or not. Interestingly, the “city film” that Kontroll most closely resembles in tone is Wim Wenders’s Wings of Desire – as well as its lamentable American remake City of Angels – in which the figures watching over ordinary citizens are representatives of a remote higher power who find their appointed task frustratingly empty. Ticket inspector Bulcsú, brilliantly played by Sándor Csányi, experiences the same sort of existential quandary as Bruno Ganz’s angel Damiel in Wings of Desire. That Bulcsú's beloved happens to be, not an elegant trapeze artist, but Szofi (Eszter Balla), the scofflaw daughter of a train conductor who rides the Metro in a bear suit, doesn’t detract from the gravity of their encounter: the stakes are just as high.
Significantly, the film’s light and heavy sides collide with greatest force in the sequence immediately following Bulcsú’s making of a date to meet Szofi at a masked ball. Bulcsú sees a young man who has repeatedly made sport of the ticket inspectors and gives chase, only to watch the mysterious, hooded figure who haunts him – a nifty allusion to Nicholas Roeg’s Don’t Look Now – push the offender into the path of an oncoming train. When Bulcsú is called before a police commission investigating the crime and accused of being the culprit, the invitation to allegory is clear. It is to Antal’s credit that he finesses his way out of providing us with a key to that narrative lock. Kontroll extends a ring to the audience, but there is more than one key to choose from.
Kontroll could be interpreted as the story of one man’s struggle with himself. But the conflict between mind and body in Bulcsú’s story is paralleled by one with more general application. The ticket inspectors either wear black leather coats or red-and-white armbands, attire that recalls the SS and their Hungarian fascist collaborators. And their superiors are the sort of card-carrying bureaucrats for which the Eastern Bloc was famous. If Kontroll meditates on the difficulty of controlling the violence within us, it never forgets that this violence is as much the product of social and political forces as of our individual natures. For that reason alone, Antal’s modest claim that he is, “too young to make any kind of strong, intelligent social commentary,” underestimates his debut film’s power to make us think about the price we are willing to pay for control, whether of others or ourselves.
IAS Film Notes: Kontroll
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