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Going underground
A Hungarian region 0 DVD review of KONTROLL by Slarek

There's something very appealing and appropriate about the subway system as an outsider film location, an underworld where those who do not fit in or have rejected the values of the community above can theoretically feel at home. Geographically speaking, it's a subsection of society in which small pockets of precariously maintained civilisation are connected by a large network of dark tunnels that could house just about anything, areas into which no sane person would venture without the protection of a big metal underground train. In a very old series of Dr. Who, one that really creeped me out as a child, the London Underground system had long since been abandoned and become home to roaming bands of Yeti. Wait a minute, what the hell was a mythical Himalayan beast doing wandering around the Tube? It didn't matter to me at the time – it merely confirmed what I, as a youngster who was irregularly taken on said underground system believed was unquestionably true, that those tunnels housed a dark and dangerous threat.

In 1972 this was confirmed by Gary Sherman's Death Line, a fascinatingly creepy tale of cannibals living in deserted areas of the London Underground. Marc Singer's remarkable Dark Days documented a community of homeless New Yorkers who had created a shanty town in the city's subway tunnels, and the idea of as subterranean social group was the basis for Luc Besson's offbeat and entertaining Subway in 1985. And now we have Nimród Antal's Kontroll, an imaginative, hugely entertaining blend of the dramatic, the comedic and the delightfully oddball, filmed and set entirely in the Budapest underground system.

The story revolves around Bulcsú, one of a gang of misfit ticket inspectors – known as control officers – who are held in low regard even by their fellow officials and especially by their grouchy supervisor. Their daily confrontations with uncooperative or downright aggressive passengers are further aggravated by a running battle with a young fare-dodger named Bootsie, and a mysterious hooded figure who is throwing passengers in front of moving trains.

One of the problems I have with leading characters of many Hollywood films is that even those in the most grubby and punishing jobs rarely look like the people who actually carry out these tasks in the real world, but good-looking actors pretending to be them, a situation increasingly evident in UK TV drama as well. Say what you like about Eastenders, but the cast look exactly like the people they portray. This is the only trait the programme shares with Eastern European cinema – there's not a face in Kontroll that doesn't look like it has wandered in from the back streets of Budapest, and the film is all the better for it. Hollywood relies on the recognition factor for character engagement – oh look, it's Tom Cruise, I know him, therefore I know the character – but in Kontroll you engage with the characters in part because the faces so perfectly fit. You feel you know them precisely because, in a way, you do – you've met them, worked with them, are related to them. Perhaps you even are them.

It helps, of course, that they are genuinely funny people, or at least funny to us – collectively they hold a somewhat negative world view, the result in part of working in a thankless job that offers the thin illusion of power to those who would otherwise never command it. Their authority is tenuous at best – unlike their British counterparts, the Budapest controllers are identified only by a simple armband pulled over their regular clothes, their slovenly attitude and scruffy appearance making it all too easy for those they confront to ignore, argue with or even attack them. It is these very confrontations that provide some of the funniest moments, and if a couple of these groan under the weight of painful stereotyping – the smiling, camera wielding Japanese family, the outrageously camp and predatory gay – others are inventive and wittily handled, and in one case involving a syringe and a saw, borderline surreal.

Character introductions are particularly well handled. Bulcsú, for example, we are at first misled into believing is a vagrant. Waking up on a station platform with a nosebleed and angrily confronting a passing passenger, it is only when he brings the man to a halt that he identifies himself to him and to us as a controller. This technique of comic misdirection is also used on Béla, whose early morning drinking prompts him to almost set fire to his eyebrows when trying to light a cigarette, something the station announcer then admonishes him over the tannoy system for. Swigging from a bottle, he then staggers over to a train and unexpectedly steps into the driver's cabin. And then there's Bulcsú's motley crew, who in a single long take are wonderfully sketched – loutish, narcoleptic Muki, cynically world-weary Professor, diminutive but irritable Lecsó, and eager new boy Tibi, who is there, of course, to ask questions on our behalf and provide a window to the various character and narrative back stories.

The first half is played primarily for laughs, but the film moves into more dramatic territory as the story progresses. Thus a grisly early scene in which the remains of a victim of the hooded killer are scooped into bags is more comic than horrific – "I never thought there were worse jobs than ours" remarks Bulcsú thoughtfully as one of the medics charged with this unfortunate job (played by Gábor Herendi, a noted director in his own right) trots out recipe details to his glum companion – while the later scene in which the neurotic Laci holds a knife to the throat of a passenger who assaulted him is considerably darker in tone. Even the controllers' early high-speed foot pursuit of the mischievous Bootsie is energetically light-hearted, and while Bulcsú's later confrontation with him starts in comedic fashion – his attempt to cockily pull on his armband falters when he can't remember what pocket it's in – it does not end that way, and moves the film into its final act, where the dramatic starts to give way to the metaphoric.

Third time out director Nimród Antal handles both the comedy and action with considerable aplomb, switching almost invisibly between the static camera of the ensemble scenes, hand-held montage sequences of the controllers at work and the fast cut mobile camerawork of the chases. The comedy springs not just from character but from the audience's familiarity with oft-used cinematic sequences. As the controllers set out to work, strutting down the platform like wayward Reservoir Dogs and accompanied by Neo's effective butr largely unmemorable techno score, they position themselves at the platform's edge ready to leap into action, only to have the train they are waiting for overshoot its mark, which puts the music on pause while the train edges back to its correct position. That Antal also provides a witty link to an earlier sequence is typical of his planning and attention to detail. Even when the drama takes over, the comedy makes a nicely timed return in a wonderfully edited montage in which the controllers visit the company psychiatrist, a sequence that accelerates to such a manic speed that the final stages are simply impossible to subtitle.

Dramatically, the film is enjoyable enough, but in the end it's the richly detailed characters and sometimes laugh-out-loud comedy that you remember it most for, and which gives it an appeal that stomps merrily through national boundaries. This may be the first we in the UK have heard of 32-year-old newcomer Antal, but I have a sneaking suspicion it won't be the last.

sound and vision

Framed 1.85:1 and anamorphically enhanced, this is a largely impressive transfer given that the film was shot on location in the Budapest underground using what looks very much like available light, resulting in a sometimes very narrow depth of field and muted colour. It's a look that is emphasised by the deliberately drab costumes, all of which gives the visuals a slightly (and appropriately) grubby look, which was pretty much how it played in the cinema. Sharpness and contrast are otherwise very good (with a couple of slightly greyed-out exceptions), and compression artefacts, though occasionally visible, are never intrusive.

The English subtitles are clear and grammatically sound, with only a couple of incorrect words betraying their non-UK origin. The menus are very classily done, and could teach most UK releases a lesson in how to present a movie on DVD.

There are three Hungarian soundtracks available: 2 channel stereo, 5.1 and DTS surround. There's no real contest here – despite the strengths of the 5.1 track, the DTS is far and away the best, having a fine dynamic range, excellent separation and some very nice lower frequency work. The stereo track is considerably inferior to both.

extra features

Oh, to be able to speak Hungarian. This single disc Hungarian region 0 release is also available as a 2 disk set, but it seems very unlikely that the extras on the second disk would be subtitled in English. On this single disk version there is only one real extra, though this could very well be priceless....if you can speak the language: a commentary track by 'The Five Control Officers', or at least the actors who play them. This sounds a very lively and fun track – there is a fair amount of laughter and lively chatter, but not speaking the lingo I was unable to follow what is being said. The track is not subtitled, but I would hope that any company planning a release either here or in the US would pay someone to do a translation, as this sounds like a great deal of fun.

Also included here is a trailer for the second disk (1:37), rubbing your nose it in a bit by showing you what you're missing if you only have the single disk version. Included are video biographies, storyboard comparisons, what looks like deleted scenes, a featurette on Neo and the creation of the music, filmographies and a fair amount more.

It should be noted that the version included on this Hungarian DVD includes – like the version shown at international film festivals but not in UK cinemas – an introduction by Aba Botond, the director of the Budapest Metro, in which he ensures us that his employees do not behave as depicted in the film and says how pleased he was to help this young and upcoming film director.


At the time of writing Kontroll is still not available on DVD in the UK. Apparently ICA are to release a disk in April, but given their past history of sub-standard, non-anamorphic transfers and scant extras I am not exactly holding my breath. At present this is the one to go for, and can be ordered via the Hungarian DVD store Numero7 for about £15. Particularly impressive is that the disk itself is packaged in a paper sleeve inside the plastic case, which effectively prevents it coming loose and getting scratched, something that has happened a few too many times to me. Nice one.

I would still love to see some enterprising UK or US distributor get that commentary track subtitled. Kontroll is an inventive and enormously entertaining comedy-drama-thriller with a great cast, a lovely line in humour and the sort of snappy handling that marks Nimrod Antal as a talent to watch. Highly recommended.


Hungary 2003
105 mins
Nimród Antal
Sándor Csányi
Zoltán Mucsi
Csaba Pindroch
Sándor Badár
Zsolt Nagy
Bence Mátyási

DVD details
region 0 (Hungary)
1.85:1 anamorphic
Dolby stereo 2.0
Dolby 5.1 surround
DTS surround
The Five Control Officer's commentary
Trailer for disk 2

Budapest Film
review posted
22 March 2005

See all of Slarek's reviews