Review: Kontroll (2003)


The battle between good and evil is a universal struggle. It transcends religion, culture and politics, and has been the topic of many storytellers’ obsession. In Nimrod Antal’s 2003 film Kontroll, it is clear that the conflict in question is being examined – not only externally in society, but internally within man’s own soul. While the film is not obviously religious, it is absolutely spiritual and drips with overt symbolism.

Antal’s film tells the story of Bulcsú (Sándor Csányi), an apathetic ticket inspector in the Budapest metro system. Unlike his co-workers, Bulcsú works, eats and sleeps underground on the platforms, having abandoned his life above ground for his version of penance in this modern purgatory. This is the ultimate mid-life crisis.

It’s during this time that a series of assumed suicides begin to set the Budapest transit company on edge. Soon, Bulcsú discovers from a gruesome, firsthand encounter that these suicides are actually homicides, as an ominous shadow-man (who looks uncannily like Bulcsú) is stalking and pushing passengers onto the tracks. One could say that this mystery man is symbolic of one half of the conflict raging inside Bulcsú; the conflict he descended into the metro to escape.

The surreal and unsettling world of the Budapest metro is accented by grisly fluorescent lighting, making everyone seem perpetually sea-sick. Kontroll’s visuals are indeed striking, but not in a comforting or beautiful way. They are sharp, contrasting and ugly. Nothing could be more appropriate.

Antal creates a world that teeters on the edge of reality and fantasy. With the unreal characters, odd occurrences, and nighttime metro raves taking place underground, it’s hard to tell if what is happening is real or just one of Bulcsú’s dreams. This world is believable, however, because of its isolation from the surface. It is easy for viewers to let themselves be fully enveloped in Antal’s fantastic depiction of the Budapest metro. In fact, Antal uniquely uses moments of realism as emphasis in the film, instead of the other way around.

One such scene is when Bulcsú attempts to talk a fellow ticket inspector, who has snapped under the pressures of the job, out of killing a passenger. It’s a powerful scene because of its departure from the surreal world it talks place in, and because Bulcsú fails.

With so many versions of good fighting against evil playing out in Kontroll, it’s hard to miss the point. Bulcsú is an unlikely warrior in every scenario, unconsciously preserving the good in humanity while trying to retrieve it in himself.

The symbolism, characterization, and plot of Kontroll are very archetypal in classic storytelling, and even fairytales. The film’s simplicity makes its theme that much stronger. Each character, including an owl as a spirit-guide, is a soldier in Bulcsú’s spiritual struggle to find faith within himself and the world he’s surrounded by. A drunken metro driver, Béla (Lajos Kovács), serves as Bulcsú’s fairy godmother of sorts. Béla’s daughter, Sofie (Eszter Balla), is his princess and all that is good. The shadow-man represents external and internal evil, and in the end man vanquishes evil and embraces good. After Bulcsú is forced to confront the demons within him, and the demons within the metro system, he is free to resurface a new man with a new understanding. This simplistic approach is carefully executed to create a clear and powerful film.

While the subject matter is decidedly intense, the script keeps Kontroll surprisingly light by interjecting moments of humor and quirky characters. This, coupled with the contemporary soundtrack composed by Budapest-native electro/rock band Neo offers a softer edge to the film, increasing its accessibility.

Kontroll takes the fundamentals of the classic hero’s journey and spins a thought-provoking modern fable. It blends humor, action, and thrills to create an entertaining experience. And just like any fairy-tale, it ends with a kiss.

80/100 - Kontroll is a contemporary, dark fairy-tale that explores the constant struggle between good and evil in humanity. The film’s use of archetypal conventions allows its story of personal struggle and victory to ring clear. Kontroll is humorous, exciting, thrilling and impactful.

Jocelyn Codner

Film has has given me some of the best experiences and memories of my life, from connecting with my family to getting closer to my friends. I graduated from Ithaca College's Roy H. Park School of Communications with a degree in Screewnriting and a goal to one day see my work on the big screen. Until that day, I occupy my time with watching and enjoying the work of others and discussing it with all of you!
  • Matt Horton

    I love that movie….and then the director came to America and made Vacancy and Predators.

  • Matt Horton

    Also, great review.

  • Christopher Misch

    I’ve actually never seen this…..

  • Baron Ronan Doyle

    I encountered this accidentally on TV one night and fell completely in love. Found it to be a really profound and richly symbolic work. Would hugely recommend it!

  • Christopher Misch

    I’ve actually been told on several occasions to watch Kontroll. Seem like I should have listened.