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Falling into the ethical Abyss of „The Platform“

Falling into the ethical Abyss of „The Platform“

Class hierarchy is the critical focus of Galder Gaztelu-Urrutia’s dystopic horror but it should not obscure the film’s intrinsic exploration of interlocking existential and ethical instability. The brutal boost in social injustice in our own pandemic prison has given all the more relevance to The Platform’s sardonic scrutiny of human susceptibility to rationalized ruthlessness.

The current consolidation of class limits is accurately mirrored by the hermetically closed setting. Regulated by an obscure administration, the so-called Vertical Self-Management Center is an architectural allegory for economic inequality. Each of its stacked cells contains two inmates anticipating a specific gain from their voluntary detention. The Center’s purpose is said to be eliciting „spontaneoussolidarity.“Even though the narrative marks this piece of information as unreliable, solidarity — a concept commonly perceived as socio-psychological remedy for precariousness — remains a focal point. Due to the recentrenaissance of solidarity rhetoric, the plot’s implementation of this concept provides a poignant link to the present and might help us to reflect upon the nature of solidarity as well as the public discourse in which it is used. In a reality profoundly different from the pre-pandemic times of the film’s release hinging social access to medical certificates and their local validation, the main protagonist Goreng (Iván Massagué) asking for a diploma in exchange for his detention seems much more momentous. A Quixotic hero in more than one sense, Goreng gets into a cell to gain „a degree” of freedom, just to become painfully aware that there is no such thing as a free lunch. 

“There are three different types of people: those at the top, those at the bottom, and those who fall…”

Opening lines from The Platform

Every day the titular platform lowers a culinary feast from highest level to ground floor. Every month cell partners are moved randomly to a new level. Inmates change, the hierarchy remains. Against this backdrop of individual transience and structural inflexibility, the frailty of ethical guidelines becomes a key motif. While the high-lives gorge themselves, the low-lives exist on carcasses, crumbs and cannibalism. The room at the top is just another cell with a better menu. In this sarcastic deconstruction of meritocracy, food becomes a token and tool of power which the upper levels deliberately withhold. Unable to get at those literally untouchable above them, the upper-to-mid-levels direct their frustration at their inferiors. It’s trickle-down economics all over again, as acted out by Goreng’s cellmate Trimagasi (Zorion Eguileor). The malevolent mentor promises to some inmates below wine, then proceeds to urinate on them: a crass but adequate metaphor for a society used to dispose of their excess goods and junk with dismissive generosity to the less privileged. If everyone only took their share, there would be enough food for all, Goreng learns from center-clerk-turned-inmate Imoguiri (Antonia San Juan) who’s serves as example of psychological detachment from profitable complicity in corruption. 

By shifting the blame to the inmates Imoguiri exculpates herself as well as the Center’s inner clockwork, designed to foster exactly the kind of solidarity she displays: ideological allegiance to a system and a notion of shared culpability. Thus, solidarity can be understood as synonymous with systemic conformity, masked by connotations of social responsibility. Commonly perceived as opposing ends of a socio-political spectrum, solidarity and competition complement each other within the Center’s framework of permanent insecurity, food envy and socio-economic destabilization. In an Orwellian twist, even solidarity becomes competitive as Imoguiri and Trimagasi try to meet the supposed expectations of the Center’s administration. With the Center established as moral authority and its repressive but reassuringly reliable structures as the only possible order, questioning the rules is seen as socially disruptive by Triamgasi who is not so much amoral as unethical. In fact, Trimagasi has done what most do in modeling his moral codex according to the social behavior, legislative guidelines and executive force around him. Like so many people, he is willing to do unspeakable things as long as there is an ideological narrative allowing him to frame his actions – such as binding Goreng and starting to eat him alive – are unavoidable. 

„… First comes food, after that comes moral“

Lyrics from „What Keeps Mankind alive?“ from The Threepenny Opera¹

In contrast, Goreng is influenced by independent philosophical ideas, as implied by the novel he brought as reading material. His copy of Don Quixote identifies him as counterpart to Miguel De Cervantes’ protagonist (whom he even physically resembles): an anarchic figure of scorned chivalry, idealistic delusion and violent impetuosity. He channels his fear and frustration into an initiative for change, going down atop the platform supported by a Sancho-Panza-like companion, first to protect the food for the lowest levels, then after a change of perspective to make a gesture of defiance by returning one untouched dessert to the kitchen. When the platform eventually ends its nightmarish tour, the bleakness and brutality have plunged Goreng into humanistic disillusionment. Even though he makes one last idealistic move, choosing practical compassion over moralist signaling to save a hungry child, he realizes he is beyond redemption. In a cynical turn, Goreng has ended up among the shambles of his shattered integrity — where his adversaries started out at. The ground floor’s numeric reference 333 implies that this is Hell: not a physical place, but a psychological state he can never overcome. So why not get comfortable at the bottom of the pit evoked by the Spanish original title El Hoyo? 

Starting out as a memento of downward mobility and upward aspiration, the titular hoist way transforms into a captivating metaphor for the beckoning abyss of ethical apathy. With its formal procedures, impeccable kitchen service and constant surveillance, the Vertical Self-Management Center emanates an air of bureaucratic propriety. Delicacies contrast with spoilage, signifying the rottenness eating through civilized facades. All it takes for decay to set in is some time under the wrong conditions. Illusionary safety conjured up by regulatory overreach persists in the face of mutilation, murder and madness, just as the competitive capitalist conjecture persists in the face of a superficially socialist solidarity ideology. Under the Center’s absolute authority, any individual integrity is assimilated or corroded to nihilistic despair. This nihilism translates into the final lightless emptiness surrounding Goreng as he watches the platform lift the little girl from the squalor to the kitchen where they might feed her — or feed her to someone. The comfortably conventional horror of Galder Gaztelu-Urrutia’s claustrophobic settings and abject imagery is undercut by the alarmingly familiar sight of plain people eagerly adapting to a dehumanizing concept. It’s an abstract terror some might recognize when (re)watching this film after living through times perfect to spur our moral rot. 


¹) The same song by Kurt Weill also contains the quite fitting lines: 
“What keeps mankind alive?
The fact that millions are daily tortured
Stifled, punished, silenced and oppressed
Mankind can keep alive thanks to its brilliance
In keeping its humanity repressed”

Image © A24 | Gerardo Lisanti

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