Kontroll (2003, Director: Nimrod Antal): Set entirely within the subterranean world of the Budapest subway system, this directorial debut is a stylish pastiche of a number of different genres. It follows the exploits of a team of ticket inspectors headed by Bulcsu, a former architect who ran away from the pressures of that life and is now essentially trapped underground. He even sleeps in the subway, flagrantly disregarding the counsel of Petula Clark. His crew is the standard ragtag bunch, stock types who fill out comedies from Budapest to Boston. There’s the Professor, a “lifer” who knows all the rules, written and unwritten, of the system. Tibor (Tibi) is the rookie, naive and just a bit stupid. Muki is the truly stupid one, a hulking simpleton with an unpredictable temper but an equally unpredictable case of narcolepsy. Lastly, there’s Lecsó, a scruffy character who looks like he should be on the other side of the law.
It’s a clever bit of comedy to set these guys up as if they were a group of cops, because that’s essentially what they are, except that they pursue perpetrators of victimless crimes. The subway appears to run on the honour system, but there’s no honour. Hardly anyone pays, and if the inspectors ask for a ticket, people just tell them they don’t have one. This particular group of inspectors are almost completely ineffectual, but they don’t seem to care that much. They’re content to swap stories and engage in macho contests like “railing,” where they race each other through the tunnels just ahead of the last “express” train each night.
The film’s atmosphere is mostly just gritty until we find out that someone has been pushing people in front of trains. Although the members of our crew really aren’t interested in capturing the killer, there’s a sense of the police procedural that drives the narrative forward. Here the director’s style really takes advantage of the setting. Underground tunnels in Budapest have a gothic creepiness that New York’s or Toronto’s would never have, and I found myself thinking about vampires. In fact, it’s half-comical and half-frightening that our main character Bulcsu seems to be bleeding in almost every scene. And he never sees daylight. Hmm…
Toward the end, the film takes a turn into psychological thriller territory, with mixed results. It seemed like the director wasn’t quite sure what type of film he wanted to make, so he made all of them. It’s an understandable weakness in a debut film, but Antal shows he can create something both entertaining and a bit artistic within some very tight constraints.