Nimród Antal: Kontroll (2003)

reviewed by Steve Jobbitt© 2008

Subterranean Dreaming: Hungarian Fantasies of Integration and Redemption

On 1 May 2004, Hungarians celebrated their “return to Europe.” For some, Hungary's entry into a much-expanded European Union was seen as the culmination of a long and arduous struggle waged by liberal-minded democrats to rescue the nation from nearly seventy years of political intolerance and dictatorial rule, and to reclaim their rightful place amongst Europe's civilized, progressive, and enlightened nations. For many others, however, the post-communist efforts of Hungarian Europhiles to reintegrate and even redeem themselves in the eyes of the west had come at an enormous cultural and even psychological cost. For a number of Hungarians, the interconnected hopes, or more accurately fantasies, of integration and redemption that had guided liberal-democrats in Hungary over the course of nearly two decades proved to be as much of a burden as they had a promise. [1]

Nimród Antal's debut feature film Kontroll provides a useful vehicle for a discussion of this problem in Hungary, a nation that at times seems as haunted by its future as it is by its past. Of course, it should be noted from the start that Antal never intended Kontroll to be about Hungary per se, nor did he intend it to be a commentary on contemporary Hungarian fantasies of integration and redemption. At least, if he did, this was not the story he repeated in the numerous interviews that he gave in both Hungarian and English after the film was released in November 2003. Set entirely in the labyrinthine Budapest metro system (the second oldest subway system in Europe), Kontroll was marketed as a darkly humorous thriller, one in which the system's hapless and despised ticket inspectors or “controllers” are engaged on a daily basis in a supposedly timeless struggle between good and evil. Antal is, in fact, careful to stress this universal theme at the very beginning of his film, choosing to open the movie with a disclaimer read by a director of the BKV (Budapest's public transportation authority) assuring viewers that the story that follows is entirely fictitious, and that the particular characters and familiar subterranean cityscapes should not in any way be confused with the purely universal figures and situations that they purportedly represent.

For at least one American critic of Kontroll, this self-conscious effort at universality is actually one of the film's greatest shortcomings. Writing for the Boston Globe, Ty Burr suggests that Antal missed a perfect opportunity to make a relevant film about an eastern European country at an important historical crossroads (D9). However, though there may be something to this criticism from an American audience's point of view, it is hard to imagine anyone in Hungary seeing Kontroll as anything other than a quintessentially Hungarian film, one that, given its release only half a year before Hungary's accession to the European Union, manages to capture and speak to the collective hopes and anxieties of a people struggling on the margins of 21st century Europe. Though some have suggested that Antal might have done a better job of helping Hungarian audiences navigate the rich symbolism and overlapping storylines of the film (“Kontroll”), there is a general sense that this young, American-born Hungarian filmmaker offers an important glimpse into the conflicted, even schizophrenic, depths of the contemporary Hungarian psyche. According to Budapest film critic Márton Csillag, Kontroll “takes the viewer on a poignant journey through [Hungary's] post-communist subconscious,” drawing attention not only to problems of alienation and marginalization, but also to the on-going Hungarian struggle against “inner demons,” both personal and national. [2]

Csillag perhaps goes too far in his philosophical praise of a film that has apparently only stumbled on these deeper questions of identity and meaning by accident. But he is on to something here, and the points he raises are worth exploring and developing further. Indeed, whether he has intended it or not, Antal provides apt metaphors for a discussion of the post-communist condition in Hungary. From the opening scene of an inebriated young woman descending an escalator onto a deserted subway platform (only to be pushed mysteriously into the path of an on-coming train) to the final scene in which the film's hero finally manages to escape his underground “prison,” Kontroll is an allegorical expression of the problematic and largely unfulfilled fantasies of integration and redemption that have accompanied Hungary's so-called “return to Europe” since at least the late 1980s. The film may be overburdened with blatant symbolism and heavy existential themes, but, as I argue below, these and other cinematic flaws in Kontroll are, from a strictly analytical point of view, the film's greatest strengths. Antal may have left some audiences in Hungary and abroad scratching their heads, but for the researcher intent on gaining critical insight into the culture of post-communist change and European integration, Kontroll is a literal goldmine. [3]

The Good Thing about a Bad Ending

Kontroll revolves around the character of Bulcsú (Sándor Csányi), a personable if melancholy and introspective ticket inspector in his early twenties who, because he found his past professional life above ground to be too competitive and oppressive, has taken actually to living in the subway full time, working the platforms by day and sleeping on them at night.[4] As the leader of a five-man team of controllers, Bulcsú spends his working hours patrolling the metro system for travelers who have not paid their fare. His is a dreary, thankless task, one that is ultimately no less competitive and oppressive than his former job above ground. Respected by no one, he and his crew quite literally have no power and, thus, find themselves time and again confronting passengers who have no intention of paying, and who often openly mock their obvious lack of power and authority.

Bulcsú's problems, however, run much deeper than mere ticket-less passengers. Bullied by a rival crew of ticket inspectors, he is drawn into meaningless tests of courage and one-upmanship (which he wins), only to be cornered and beaten by the same crew, and left strung up inside a subway car as if he had been crucified. Beyond this, Bulcsú is compelled to confront a hooded, shadowy figure who, dressed much as he is, spends most of the film pushing unsuspecting travelers in front of subway trains. He is, in turn, berated and despised by his boss, and ultimately accused by company “suits” of being the mysterious hooded killer himself. In the end even members of his own crew turn on him, choosing to believe the accusations of the company directors rather than the word of their erstwhile friend and colleague.

The only solace for Bulcsú comes in the form of Szofi (Eszter Balla), a young woman who makes all but one of her appearances in the film clad in a bear suit. The daughter of Béla (Lajos Kovács), a sage alcoholic subway operator who has resigned himself to life underground, Szofi provides Bulcsú with his only source of comfort, and ultimately hope. It is, in fact, Szofi who leads Bulcsú out of the metro in the final scene of the film. Dressed this time as an angel, Szofi walks with Bulcsú to an escalator, holds his hand, and kisses him as they begin their ascent into the bluish light emanating from above. As if to reference both Plato's allegory of the prisoner in the cave and Boethius' idea of the liberating spirit of lady philosophy, Bulcsú is led out of darkness and ignorance into the redemptive light of beauty, truth, and goodness. Perhaps to be sure that the audience does not miss this symbolic point, Antal finds it necessary to have an owl (the owl of Minerva) perched at the base of the escalator, yet another symbol of enlightenment and progress, which underlines and informs the interconnected fantasies of integration and redemption that this final ascent seems to represent.

On first viewing, this overdone and ostensibly happy ending comes across as contrived, unimaginative, and very much out of place, not only because, contrary to the overall grittiness of the film, it is overtly saccharine and formulaic, but also because it glosses over the fact that nothing in the film has been resolved. Each of the relationships that has plagued Bulcsú underground—his antagonistic and perhaps even schizophrenic relationship to the shadowy figure, his distant and ultimately troubled relationship with his crew, his relationship to authority, and, perhaps more importantly, his relationship to his own past—are left wide open. Far from resolving these issues, Bulcsú simply abandons them, leaving the audience to wonder how, given his past torments, he could possibly hope to find salvation and meaning above ground. As one critic complains, the film lacks an effective ending, adding that, “if Antal doesn't care [whether or not the issues in his film are resolved], then why should we?” (Smith 48).

But it is perhaps precisely because these issues are left unresolved that we should pay close attention to Antal's film. As formulaic and unsatisfying as the ending may be, it nevertheless has the potential to open our eyes to aspects of the film, and by extension aspects of the post-communist condition in Hungary, that we otherwise might have missed. On the one hand, the conclusion to Antal's film highlights the gendered aspect of the narrative. If we had any doubt about this before, Bulcsú's final ascent with the angel-winged Szofi assures us that the film addresses an undeniably masculine fantasy of integration and redemption, one that provides a useful way into a discussion of how notions of public and private, not to mention concepts of subjectivity and agency, have come to be redefined in Hungary within the context of European integration. On the other hand, the optimistic ending leads us to question how useful and even healthy it is for Bulcsú simply to escape into a fantasy that does nothing more than mask the conflict and anxiety that persists within society and within himself. Is the fantasy really an escape, or does it merely repackage a myriad of unresolved tensions past and present, simply deferring their resolution to an unspecified point in the future? Given the lessons of history, what hope is there that these issues will ever be resolved?

What we are left with, then, is an unintentional, though in many ways very useful, critique of fantasy itself. Bulcsú's ascent at the end of the film can be read not as a sincere expression of enlightenment, escape, and self-overcoming, but rather as the final, desperate gesture of an underground man whose understanding of the impossibility of integration and redemption has become all too clear. Much like the pathetic confessions of Fedor Dostoevskii's original underground man, Bulcsú's tale speaks to the futility of holding out hope for “a self-absolution that can never be granted” (Peterson 36).

It is this painful realization inherent in the ending of Antal's film that offers insight into Hungary's post-communist condition (and, more generally, into the post-World War II project of European integration as well). Indeed, both of the readings of Antal's film that I have outlined above overlap with the very real experiences of Hungarians, a people who are gradually coming to recognize that fantasies of integration and redemption are less comforting and empowering than they are frightening, oppressive, and ultimately empty.

Male Fantasies, Masculine Expectations

As I have suggested above, Kontroll is clearly an expression of male fantasies of integration and redemption. Men are, after all, the focal point of both the major and minor storylines of the film, and it is their problems, anxieties, and conflicts that are explored. Women are present in the film, to be sure. However, the few women who have speaking parts serve primarily as color, or background, or, in the case of the paunchy pimp character who appears twice in the film to taunt and torment Bulcsú, as whorish accessories.

The exception to this rule is, of course, the character of Szofi, though her presence in Kontroll hardly challenges the conventional typecasting and representation of women in most films. Hers is a stereotypically feminine role in every sense of the term. Though at one point she mentions vaguely that she holds some sort of meaningless job above ground, her main “occupation” throughout the film is as the nurturer and ultimately savior of her men. It is through her that her father Béla appears to be sustained, and it is with her support and prodding that Bulcsú not only becomes aware of and partially confronts some of his deepest anxieties, but also musters up the courage to mount the escalator and return to the world above ground.

Perhaps not surprisingly, Szofi's role in the film reproduces much earlier visions of the role that women have been expected to play in Hungarian efforts to integrate the nation into western Europe. Since at least the early 19th century, progressive Hungarian politicians and intellectuals have employed exclusivist, and largely essentialist, paradigms of male and female, and public and private, as the basis for their overlapping personal and political programs of political integration and moral and cultural redemption. Certainly some women have come to play an increasingly public role in Hungarian politics and society since the end of World War II, but the conceptual and structural framework that informs and ultimately limits the vision of Hungary's policy-makers remains, at root, inherently masculine and patriarchal.

As Martha Lampland reminds us in “Family Portraits: Gendered Images of the Nation in Nineteenth-Century Hungary,” it was capitalism's transformation of traditional social, political, and economic structures in the 19th century that altered and in turn laid the groundwork for Hungarian gender relations in the modern era. Connected to the rise of nationalism (and, I would suggest, to the rise of imperialism, modernity, and corporate models of globalization and mass consumption), the gendering of Hungarian political thinking in the 19th century led to the normalization of gender ideologies that even today continue to figure prominently in the politics of nation, community, economy, and self.

Part of Lampland's very engaging article is dedicated to an analysis of István Széchenyi's seminal treatise Credit (Hitel in Hungarian), a study of political economy published in 1830, which stands, as Lampland notes, “as an icon of the [Hungarian] reform era” (288).[5] Dedicated to “the more beautiful-souled women of our homeland” (honnunk szebblelku asszonyinak), Széchenyi's classic plan for national development is, as Lampland puts it, “full of passages extolling women's virtue and frequent discussions of marriage and sexual union as metaphors for national development” (288). Much like other liberal-conservative reformers throughout Europe at the time, Széchenyi portrayed women (that is to say, well-heeled genteel women), as paragons of bourgeois morality and domestic virtue; women who, as both symbols and agents, would prove instrumental to Hungary's modernization. Though he was extremely critical of the backwardness of Hungary and its people (especially its ruling aristocratic elite, who apparently had no excuse for such behavior), he still “maintained his belief in their redeemability,” and held out great hope that, with the moral guidance of its women, the nation could, and would, prove itself equal to the standards of civility, progress, and enlightenment set by the great nations of western Europe.

As guardians of the nation's hearth, and of its soul, women were key to the fantasies of integration and redemption that Széchenyi weaved throughout his treatise. Already in the dedication to Credit he declares that “…all that is Noble and Beautiful, [and] which exalts Mankind, is the work of Your Sex. You bring to life on your arms the infant child, whom you raise to be a good Citizen.” In addition to this image of the ideal Hungarian woman as a virtuous mother who nurtures and sustains the nation, Széchenyi notes the redemptive role that she must play. “[F]rom your noble regard man absorbs spiritual strength and unflinching courage,” he writes, adding that “You are the guardian angels of civil Virtue, and Nationality, which, believe me, would never develop without You… You raise ashes to the skies and the mortal into immortality. Hail and thanks be to you!” (qtd. Lampland 296).

This is serious praise indeed, sentiments that, if not openly articulated in Kontroll, are certainly reflected in the dual roles played by Szofi in the film (that is, in her capacity as both mother bear and guardian angel). However, such a comforting and safe image of Szofi as a nurturer and savior working her curative magic within the confines of “private” relationships merely serves as a foil for the harsh reality of life in the public sphere. With respect to Bulcsú, her primary role is to dull his pain and to provide him with the inner strength to return to the aggressive world outside the tender, intimate bonds of their amorous union.[6] In the end, her compassion does little to diminish the fact that life outside their happy unit is brutal, competitive, and alienating.

Bulcsú's relationship with Szofi is a vivid illustration of the fact that the logic behind modern integrationist projects in Europe is premised primarily, if not exclusively, upon fundamentally masculine, and thus inherently antagonistic and self-interested, definitions of political and economic behavior. The project of European integration may routinely call for transnational cooperation based on the transcendence of nationalist animosities, for instance, but the persistence of the nation-state as the engine for and the basis of the international system undermines the possibility that such lofty goals could ever be realized. The nations of Old Europe may indeed have consented to the accession of ten new member states in May 2004, but even this gracious act was founded on less than altruistic motives. Denmark and Britain, for example, two nations that supported EU enlargement as early as 1993, did so, in part at least, because they saw the inclusion of a disparate group of states as a useful way of preventing French and German dominance of a “smaller” and more closely-integrated Europe. Far from transcending the narrow interests of the state, this was merely Realpolitik cast in a contemporary light.

As political theorist J. Ann Tickner argues in an early feminist critique of post-World War II international relations, the hope for a truly integrative and redemptive model of European and, beyond this, global cooperation and security continues to be undermined by political and economic realists stuck in a post-Enlightenment, patriarchal mode of thinking. Based upon their fundamental assumption that national and international arenas are governed by Hobbesian laws of nature and Machiavellian principles of power, the principal architects of European integration have been unable to think beyond the self-interested politics and zero-sum games that have dominated European “cooperation” in the post-Westphalian period (that is, 1648-present). As far as Tickner is concerned, the underlying “masculine” belief that individuals, when left to their own devices, will always act according to their own self-interest, even at the obvious expense of others, has essentially handcuffed even the most visionary of European leaders, leading them to endorse a system that continues to value short-term gain over long-term benefit, and the profit of the few (whether this is calculated in terms of the individual, the corporation, or the nation) over the good of the many.[7]

Tickner's critique is certainly a bleak accounting of the realist underpinnings of current models of international cooperation and integration, one that not only probes the harsh philosophical and psychological dimensions of the public sphere, but also outlines the structural violence inherent within a system that continues to marginalize and instrumentalize women, minorities, and the underprivileged in general.[8] Critical of the narrow-minded mean-spiritedness of contemporary domestic politics and international relations alike, Tickner thus calls for a new approach to the study of integrationist projects, one that is committed “to understanding the world from the perspective of the socially subjugated” (19). Such an approach, she optimistically contends, may generate new paradigms for domestic and foreign policy-making, and may even provide an authentic basis for the sort of social, political, and psychological liberation that a character like Bulcsú so desperately seeks.[9]

Some of this critical sentiment is present in Kontroll. Of course, Antal is no Tickner, and whatever social and political criticism there is in the film is often compromised by competing discourses and storylines. His film, for instance, does little to examine critically the traditional role of women in modern Hungarian society. If anything, the narrative and imagery in Kontroll simply reinforce it. However, as I have already alluded to above, Antal draws critical attention to the incredible emotional and even existential price that is paid by individuals compelled to seek socio-political meaning and material gain within the hostile and competitive environment of the public sphere. The insight he offers is by no means articulated fully in the film, but through the character of Bulcsú we catch a clear glimpse of the fact that those who enter the public arena are expected to participate in accordance with rules and codes of behavior defined according to a traditionally masculine understanding of subjectivity and agency. Armed only with their autonomy, rationality, and the bourgeois dictum to “make something of themselves,” individuals are more or less left alone either to sink or swim in the often inhospitable waters of public life.[10]

Hoping against Hope: Fantasy as Fulfillment Perpetually Postponed

Bulcsú, of course, is just barely treading water. Caught in a subterranean purgatory situated somewhere between the hell of the past and the promise of better future, Bulcsú struggles to navigate the existential quagmire into which he has sunk. His prospects for true meaning are bleak, however, until he meets Szofi, a woman who, by encouraging him to confront the shadowy figure that haunts both the subway system and himself, manages to rekindle his hope for reintegration into a surface world that he had once found necessary to flee. This confrontation with the shadowy figure, though, is indecisive at best. Culminating in a thrilling chase scene through a subway tunnel, we never actually see the figure get struck down by the on-coming train. His demise is suggested by the film, but one is left with the lingering suspicion that, like a villain from a standard Hollywood horror flick, he will somehow be resurrected. In the end, nothing is really resolved, and we are left to wonder when the shadowy figure might return to terrorize Bulcsú and his fellow travelers.

Bulcsú's unresolved confrontation with his nemesis (a spectral figure that is quite likely his doppelgänger ), parallels Hungary's confrontation with its own past within the context of post-communist transformation and European integration. In part, this need to exorcise the ghosts of the nation's past has arisen in the post-communist period in response to a desire expressed by a number of liberal-democratic Hungarian intellectuals to determine when, and on what terms, Hungarian history had been derailed by the forces of totalitarianism and repression. Which 20th century regime—authoritarian, fascist, or communist—was responsible for pulling Hungary out of its 19th century “stream of progress?” Exactly what were the long-term social, political, economic, and cultural costs of the nation's historical derailment? What had been compromised, at least in comparison with the west, and how exactly could the nation make up for lost time?

This historical soul searching was only amplified in the decade or so leading up to May 2004 by the pressure that the European Union put on Hungary to confront and resolve its putative backwardness and depravity as a condition for membership in their exclusive club. Based upon a set of criteria drawn up in Copenhagen in 1993, Hungarians (like every other nation seeking membership) were given a check list of social, administrative, legal, and economic reforms, which, when completed, would effectively prove that Hungary was ready for accession ( Dinan 273-277). Inherent in the so-called “Copenhagen Criteria” was the need to prove the nation's “Europeanness” to the rest of Europe. Hungarians, therefore, needed to be re-educated, not only about complicated political and economic concepts such as democracy, civil society, and free-market capitalism, but also about basic European values as well. Public service announcements developed by the government found it necessary to remind Hungarians that, as part of a unified Europe, it would no longer be acceptable or possible to beat their wives, or drink to excess, or litter, or transport a child without the proper restraining device, or, as one of the characters in Kontroll discovers, to eat greasy food without being told that it is bad for their health. Combined with the visual onslaught of a rapidly emerging consumer culture, these re-educational efforts did little to ease most Hungarians' anxieties and, if anything, merely accentuated the perceived gap between their so-called “eastern reality” and their “western dreams.” In the end, the fantasies of integration and redemption peddled by integrationists both at home and in Europe served not only as a reminder of the considerable historical and cultural baggage that still needed to be shed, but also as a cautionary tale about the very real possibility that these fantasies were at least partially, if not entirely, unrealizable.

In Plague of Fantasies, Slavoj Žižek sheds some important light on this phenomenon, suggesting that fantasies themselves often create the anxieties and “horrors” that they were originally intended to obfuscate or mask. On the psychological level, fantasies such as those promulgated by European integrationists can actually serve to heighten an individual's sense of personal insecurity by creating desires and setting standards that are simply too demanding to satisfy. On the social or cultural level, the persistent indulgence “in the notion of society as an organic Whole, kept together by the forces of solidarity and co-operation,” not only prohibits “a full rendering of the antagonisms which traverse our society,” but also underlines the possibility that these antagonisms may never be overcome (Žižek, Plague of Fantasies 6-7). Ultimately, fantasies open us up to the fact that no matter how much we hope to overcome this primordial lack, no matter how much we wish to be fully integrated into some greater unity (the self, the family, the community, the nation), the project will always be incomplete.

And yet, as Žižek himself points out, it is perhaps human nature to hope against hope, to hold on to these incomplete fantasies as if the failure to fulfill them in the present can be mitigated somehow by their deferment to some unspecified future date. Such seems to be the case with Bulcsú in Kontroll. Fully cognizant of the problems that plague society both above and below ground—problems that may never be resolved—Bulcsú nevertheless consents to join Szofi on the escalator and, in so doing, reluctantly reinvests himself into the very same fantasies that had proved so problematic and disappointing in the first place.

Again, Antal himself does not make any claims that this is one of the ways that his film should be interpreted. But regardless of his intentions, he has nevertheless managed to tap into a post-communist phenomenon present not only in Hungary, but also throughout all of east central Europe. As a number of scholars have noted, both directly and in passing, the integrative and redemptive fantasies that accompanied the fall of state socialism in 1989-1990 have persisted, at least in liberal-democratic circles, in spite of the fact that disenchantment with both post-communist transformation and the prospects of European integration has became more acute since the early 1990s. As historian Alice Freifeld notes, for example, the euphoria and hope generated in Hungary by the rapid crumbling of state socialism in the autumn of 1989 had already begun to give way to apathy and despair by the spring of 1990 (279). And yet, in spite of the prevailing discourse of disappointment in the present, even venerated Hungarian scholars like Miklós Lackó held out hope for a better future, one in which Hungary would eventually make the successful transformation from a provincial backwater to a progressive European nation-state. Commenting in the early 1990s on the impact that post-communist change was having on Hungary's capital city, Lackó stated optimistically that “it is to be hoped that the unpleasant aspects of the transition will diminish and Budapest will become a modern, dynamic European metropolis” (8).[11]

Lackó was certainly not alone in his hopes that the unresolved problems and unfulfilled promises of the present would somehow be addressed and resolved in the future. Other politically-engaged intellectuals of east central Europe, whether they had prescribed a program of a more or less straightforward transformation “from socialism to democracy,” or whether they had promoted a “third way” that sought to avoid both the self-stultifying collectivism of the totalitarian east and the degenerate individualism of the capitalist west, held out hope for an improved, even loosely utopian, future. In his Summer Meditations , for example, Václav Havel openly hoped that, in the future, “the shock of freedom, expressed through frustration, paralysis, and spite, will have gradually dissipated from society.” Envisioning a democratic political system entrenched in “a set of established, gentlemanly, unbendable rules,” Havel looked forward to a time when “political life will become more harmonious,” when “citizens will be more confident and proud, and will share a feeling of co-responsibility for public affairs.” In short, Havel held out hope for “a stable Central European democracy that has found its identity and learned to live with itself” (102-103).[12]

This optimistic sentiment was by no means restricted to the region's intellectual elite. In a study conducted between 1991 and 1995, for example, a team of social and developmental psychologists from east central Europe and the United States discovered that a very similar discourse also existed amongst youth in both Hungary and Poland. Focusing on the so-called “omega-alpha generation,” a generation that was in its teenage years in 1989-1990 and that came of age politically and socially in a period of rapid structural and conceptual change brought on by an accelerated process of European integration, the study noted not only that these young individuals were disappointed by the fact that the present situation failed to meet their previously held expectations for western-oriented post-communist change, but also that they were at the same time “keenly aware” that these very expectations “were often too great to be satisfied,” at least in the present (Van Hoorn 146). And yet, despite both their immediate dissatisfaction and their general understanding of the unrealistic nature of east central Europe's hopes and dreams, the subjects of the study remained very confident about the integrative and ultimately redemptive potential for the future (Table 5.1 in Van Hoorn, 160). Someday, somehow, their fantasies would be fulfilled.

As understandable as it may be, I would argue that this sort of thinking is hardly liberating, and does little more than postpone fulfillment (economic, spiritual, intellectual, whatever) to a later date, as if the future itself might be capable of retroactively resolving the conflict and disappointment that the present has put off. But how likely are Hungarians to break this cycle of deferment? As Žižek notes, the perpetual postponement of unfulfilled hopes and dreams is one of the underlying principles of history itself. “[I]n order to understand a past epoch properly,” he argues, “it is not sufficient to take into account the historical conditions out of which it grew—one has also to take into account the utopian hopes of a Future that were betrayed and crushed by it.” The present, he adds, “can be conceived only as the outcome of the crushed potentials for the future that were contained in the past.” If this is an accurate understanding of the present, then imagine the madness and despair that present generations of Hungarians are bestowing upon generations yet to come, or even upon future incarnations of their individual selves. If the present really is “a stage” upon which the “ghosts of past generations” engage in futile attempts to “resolve their deadlocks,” then what kind of hope for integration and redemption can they ever realistically expect? (Žižek, Fragile Absolute 189-190).[13]


In the end, there is only so much we can honestly read into Antal's film. Kontroll was, after all, intended merely as an entertaining commentary on the universal struggle between good and evil. And yet, through his cinematic efforts, Antal has managed to channel existing discourses, emotions, and perceptions into a visual narrative that gives us, the viewers, access into the conflicted psyches of a society perched anxiously—and, according to Žižek, hopelessly—on the cusp of social, political, economic, and cultural integration. It gives us access, moreover, into the soul of a nation that continues to yearn for redemption of one sort or another.

If there is a universal message to Antal's film, it is perhaps that these fantasies of integration and redemption—fantasies we all harbor—are not simply unrealizable and inherently destabilizing, but rather serve as the fundamental basis for a global system that manipulates our hopes and fears in the name of progress, democracy, and prosperity. Bulcsú's final ascent should not, perhaps, be read as the pathetic act of a defeated man quietly resigned to his fate as a cog in an all-consuming machine, but rather as a plea to the rest of us to rethink the destructive fantasies that drive our individual and collective quests for meaning. Somehow, someway, we need to find a way to break and escape the vicious cycle.

This is, of course, much easier said than done, especially given the discursive inertia and existing cultural frameworks that do much to channel our desires. Indeed, what do we do when we find, as Bulcsú does, that our own deepest fantasies have already dictated the only way out?


1] This understanding of fantasy is based on Žižek's notion that, working within the framework of an ideological system, fantasy not only “obfuscates the true horror of a situation,” but also “constitutes our desire” and ultimately serves “to blur one's clear reasoning.” But more on this below. See Žižek (Plague of Fantasies 1-7).

2] Reiterating this point, Csillag later writes: “The metro functions as a train through the post-communist subconscious. Kontroll is its examiner.” To this observation he adds the following: “The film's greatest realization and lesson is that in our own fragmented sense of self we see a reflection of our schizophrenic society. But we are all in this together. We travel together. We cheat the system together.” Csillag also notes that the themes of peripheralization and schizophrenia were present in Antal's earlier short film Insurance (Biztosítás, 1998).

3] This paper is written from the point of view of a cultural historian, and so is informed primarily by cultural theory, especially that of Žižek. But it also draws upon, and seeks to fit itself into, a growing body of work by anthropologists, sociologists, psychologists, and others who, running counter to the overwhelming tendency to focus on the legal, political, and economic aspects of European integration, concentrate on questions of identity and meaning in a period of rapid social, political, economic, and cultural change. See, for example, Gillespie and Laffan; Vogt; Kenney; Van Hoorn; and Haupt.

4] During a chance meeting on the metro, a former colleague asks Bulcsú why he left his old job and why he quite literally just disappeared. “Why didn't you finish your work?” he asks, noting that he had saved Bulcsú's “plans” if he ever decided to return. To this Bulcsú replies: “For years I woke up every day knowing that I had to win every battle to prove I was the best at everything. I started to worry what would happen if it turned out I wasn't the best. I just didn't want to worry about that anymore.”

5] Széchenyi was a count from one of Hungary's more prominent, and wealthy, landowning families. Recognizing early that Hungary needed to be reformed socially, politically, and economically if it was to compete and thrive in the emerging capitalist order, Széchenyi argued for moderate, but inherently progressive, reforms which, as Lampland later notes, were “prefaced on a developmental trajectory, an image of change and progress so well known in the tracts of nineteenth-century modernizing reformers” (294).

6] This idea of women supporting their men so that they can do battle in the public arena is captured nicely in yet another of Széchenyi's admonitions to the women of Hungary: “Be helpmates to a more beautiful, more sober beginning! Lead your sons, as once did the mothers of Sparta, onto the fields of merit and virtue!” The mothers of Sparta! Weren't they the ones who sent their sons into battle by advising them to come back either with their shields or on them?

7] See Tickner. For a similar analysis, though with much less emphasis on the gendered aspect of realist politics and European integration, see Gillespie and Laffan. See also Dinan. Himself an advocate of the realist school of international relations, Dinan's study is completely devoid of gender analysis. This being said, his book nevertheless offers unintentional insight into the inherently gendered thinking of the EU's “founding fathers” and their Eurofederalist descendants.

8] For more recent and comprehensive critiques of this structural violence, see, for example, Yuval-Davis; Lutz. See also Eisenstein.

9] “It is doubtful,” she writes, “whether we can achieve a more peaceful and just world… while these gender hierarchies remain in place” (xi).

10] This is, of course, the reality of a social and political system in which competitive individualism, and ultimately alienation, is the norm; a reality that contemporary integrationist projects such as the one pursued by the European Union have effectively done little to counter. For a similar view, see Kende: “…in late modernity it has become almost exclusively the task of the individual to build his or her identity” (21).

11] Even on the eve of EU enlargement in 2004, when the relative optimism which had launched the idea of eastern European integration had all but given way to “enlargement fatigue” in both the west and the east, a significant number of Hungarians continued to cling to the redemptive fantasy that they would eventually be able to make a new home for themselves in a unified, tolerant, and ultimately prosperous Europe. One party's “integrative” slogan was, in fact, “itthon vagyunk Europában” (we are at home in Europe). For a discussion of the idea of “integration fatigue,” see Dinan (279).

12] For a similar view, see also Michnik. For a commentary on the post-socialist visions of intellectuals like Havel and Michnik, see Vogt.

13] See also Žižek, Plague of Fantasies, where he notes “…fantasy is the primordial form of narrative, which serves to occult some original deadlock” (10).

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Steve Jobbitt, University of Toronto

Kontroll, Hungary, 2003
Color, 105 minutes
Director: Nimród Antal
Scriptwriter: Jim Adler, Nimród Antal
Cinematography: Gyula Pados
Music: Neo
Cast: Sándor Csányi, Zoltán Mucsi, Csaba Pindroch, Sándor Badár, Zsolt Nagy, Bence Mátyássy, Győző Szábo, Eszter Balla, László Nádasi, Péter Scherer, Lajos Kovács, Károly Horváth, György Cserhalmi, János Kulka
Producer: Tamás Hutlassa
Production: Café Film and Bonfire

All images courtesy of Café Film (copyright 2003)

Nimród Antal: Kontroll (2003)

reviewed by Steve Jobbitt© 2008

Updated: 24 Jan 08