The Platform (El Hoyo) (2019)
The Platform (trans. El Hoyo) (2019)
Beckett meet Bunuel in Gaztelu-Urrutia’s haunting surrealist horror that depicts the harsh realities of social inequality.
Vertical Self-Management Centre
Echoing Samuel Beckett’s tragicomedy Waiting for Godot (1953), the opening scene depicts two men in a holding cell. It emerges that the protagonist, thirty something Goreng (Malay for ‘fried’) has elected to be imprisoned for six months in return for a diploma. It is also revealed through a tentative discourse between the two men that Goreng’s cellmate, the elderly Trimagasi (Malay for ‘thank you’), chose imprisonment over psychiatric sectioning following a frustrated outburst which resulted in his throwing a TV out of the window and accidentally killing someone; an illegal immigrant, against whom Trimagasi asserts: ‘he should’ve never been there in the first place’.
The prisoners were allowed one luxury item to bring to the Centre. Goreng chose a copy of Miguel de Cervantes’ classic novel Don Quixote (1612), and hoped to fulfil a lifelong ambition to read it, whilst quitting smoking and receiving a diploma to ostensibly improve his employment prospects upon release. Trimagasi opted for a Samurai Plus self-sharpening knife that he saw in a TV commercial. Trimagasi threw his TV when learning that the Samurai Plus had recently replaced the Samurai Max, a less impressive tool that he had only just recently purchased. He remarks that he ‘couldn’t take it anymore’, the rigged, expanding range of consumer goods that renders purchases outdated soon after their consumption. The opening ten minutes set the tone for what’s to come: a dialectic between a desire for self-improvement, and a struggle to maintain perspective. Both are challenging ways to exist in the game of life under the market logic of neoliberalism; what one is, and what one has, is never good enough.
The inmates are on level 48 of the Vertical Self-Management Centre (VSC). They receive food once per day, which is served on a central platform that is lowered throughout the building. They eat the remainders from the 47 floors above. Goreng is revolted by this, whilst Trimagasi, who’s been imprisoned for many months already, scours the remains in frenzied manner. Food items may not be kept for later consumption. Much like in the financial market, money needs to be moving to keep the charade in perpetual motion.
‘Eat, or be eaten’
As the month progresses, a montage reveals that the pair have become rather friendly with one another, with Goreng now gorging on the daily leftovers in feverish a manner as his counterpart — we adapt to our ever changing environment quicker than we initially imagine. This can be experienced, as I have, by commuting on a rush hour London Underground train, which can almost become perversely enjoyable! After a month, however, Trimagasi reveals that they will be anesthetised and find themselves on a different platform. The higher the better, obviously, even though many inmates jump to their demise. Food isn’t an issue, but there’s what feels like interminable time to be left tortured by one’s thoughts — those in relative luxury often grow bored of gluttony. It is unknown how many levels there are, just that lower increases the chances of starving to death. The pair awaken on level 132, and Goreng finds himself tied to his bed, with Trimagasi telling him that, regrettably, he will have to sacrifice his cellmate in order to survive. Responding to Goreng’s accusations that he’s heartless, Trimagasi disagrees, calmly citing that he is merely ‘scared’. Just as under the contemporary neoliberal logic of the market, we don’t choose the level we start on: hereditary privilege, genes, fortune and luck take care of that. We then do what we must to survive, in the hope that we are able to ascend a social/property/financial/career ladder.
Goreng is saved from his predicament by a bloodied and mute woman, Miharu (Japanese for ‘to guard’), who appears on the feeding platform and puts paid to Trimagasi, who had earlier revealed that she travels up and down the structure in search of her lost child, murdering cellmates who threaten her descent, and to increase the scraps that will be available to the child.
The next month, Goreng finds himself on level 33 with a woman dying of breast cancer, Imoguiri. It is revealed through a flashback that Imoguiri used to work for the VSC administration, and actually interviewed and admitted Goreng. She confessed that she was unaware of the pitiful conditions within, and that learning of her impending death, volunteered to enter the infrastructure in order to improve conditions by rationing portions and convincing cellmates to do likewise. She coins her approach as ‘spontaneous solidarity’; in effect, Anarcho-syndicalism, where inmates band together. Her dialogic method proves ineffectual, and is only partially taken on board by those on the level below when Goreng threatens to defecate on the feeding platform should they not ration their portions — crude force over dialogic negotiation.
The following month, Goreng finds himself on level 6, with his latest cellmate, Baharat, who attempts to negotiate with those above to help him ascend. His attempts are met with racial slurs, and being quite literally defecated on by those above. Estimating that there are likely 250 levels, Goreng persuades a disheartened Baharat to descend all the way, withholding food until level 50 (for those inmates are sufficiently nourished), before apportioning rations, by force if/when necessary, to the remaining levels; in other words, a communist revolution by force. Goreng argues that this will break the system of the VSC administration. On one level, a wise old inmate who is disabled, elderly, black and an immigrant, with rudimentary Spanish, explains to the pair that they ought to send a symbolic message to the administration by leaving a single, delicate, dish untouched: a panna cotta.
There is no ‘they’
Political allegory is overt in The Platform. Its depiction of the violence of neoliberal competition and the supposed virtues of trickledown economics is clear to see. That said, the film doesn’t extol the apparent virtues of supposedly progressive alternative forms of socio-political organisation such as communism, either. Imoguiri’s compassionate, dialogic anarcho-syndicalist approach comes across as the most desirable, but also lacking efficacy. Growing frustrated with her approach, Imoguiri chastises Goreng for bringing a book to the VSC. For Goreng is a naïve individual; like the protagonist of his novel, he is far too quixotic to thrive in an organisational structure such as that of the VSC. The Don is from a bygone era; there is no riding off into the sunset, the time is too late for individual heroes now. Goreng’s desire to improve by kicking a bad habit and earning a qualification matters little in the scheme of things, where the overarching structure of society is unfairly rigged; inequality is coded into it.
I distinctly remember a first year philosophy class at Cardiff University in 2005. The lecturer, who, fate would have it, went on to become my PhD supervisor (thank you again, Andrew Edgar!), gave us a redacted excerpt to study. It echoed Plato’s Republic, where society ought to be stratified into four distinct groups in order to keep people in their place, and encourage the flourishing of an elite few, at the expense of others. A similarly conservative and elitist philosophy is espoused by the Brahmin school of thought within Hinduism. Andrew revealed that the excerpt was straight from an article from The Daily Telegraph under the Thatcher years in the 1980s, when neoliberalism, and a concomitant privatisation of industries, the disbanding of solidarity movements, and ‘no such thing as society’ was very much the new game in town.
In 2021, we are very much in the throes of neoliberalism. Think of the ‘gig’ economy, the removal of social protection mechanisms, and the precarious situation many workers find themselves in. With economic inequality at its most marked levels since the end of World War II, it is evident that the current socio-economic structure serves few at the expense of many. But, if as Hobbes would have it, that existence outside of the polis would be ‘solitary, poor, nasty, brutish, and short’, and, as Thatcher deemed it, ‘there is no alternative’, then revolution is the only route left for a different way. There is no ‘us’ and ‘them’, ‘we’ are inextricably linked, for even the wealthy in a gated community need their rubbish collected! As The Platform shows, the administration, with former employees like Imoguiri, are inevitably connected to the fates of inmates: the fate of contemporary government officials is tied to that of citizens.
We are in a toxic era of divisive politics, including at local levels within organisations, such as the UK university I work at, where ad hominem attacks and empty rhetoric are woeful substitutes for substantive dialogue and debate. As Terri Murray pointed out in her review (Issue 114) of The Last Supper (1996), an echo chamber is a dangerous place to exist in. It is evident that across the political spectrum, political governance, in its current guise, is not fit for the purpose of the vast majority of citizens.
It would be hubristic of me to claim an Archimedean standpoint and argue a preferable way out of our current socio-political challenges. That said, amidst the gloom and cynicism, The Platform does offer one golden nugget that is hard to dispute. It is depicted through the immigrant, proto-lumpen-proletariat, orphan child of the now murdered Miharu. Goreng and Baharat find the child alone, mute and afraid under a bed at the lowest level of the VSC.
The girl is the message
American novelist Pearl Buck (1892–1973) asserted that ‘the test of a civilization is the way that it cares for its helpless members’. The immigrant girl, found in the depths of a Dantian inferno on level 333, is clearly the ‘least of them’. The film culminates with Goreng, bloodied and messiah like, comforting and placing her on the platform for an ascendency to the administration as a symbolic message. Goreng, the dreamer and knight errant like Don Quixote, steps aside to perish, whilst the possibility of a better way may unfold through the next generation, through the symbolic voice of the hitherto voiceless. Neither late capitalism, neoliberalism, communism or socialism will suffice. As the left turned right wing Churchill remarked: ‘the main of vice of capitalism is the uneven distribution of prosperity. The main vice of socialism is the even distribution of misery’. So, instead of these tried and tested paradigms, what is needed are hitherto unimagined possibilities, from those previously silenced; the Fanonian ‘wretched of the earth’. Whatever your political leanings, The Platform certainly offers much food for thought, if you can stomach it, that is.
Dharmender S. Dhillon is becoming more and more sympathetic to, what he once considered the quite preposterous theory of, Anarcho-primitivism.