Open Letter to Bong Joon-Ho
Other languages: Français
Snowpiercer, your latest film, has been the subject of countless analyses. Defenders of a planetary Malthusianism see it as an illustration of their common sense. Marxists regard it as an invigorating painting of the class war – despite a shameful sequence of anarchist conspiracy. Liberals see it as a criticism of totalitarianism, “from all sides.“ Other rather surprising articles have highlighted the gnostic background of the case, seeing here a “political fable” offering “disturbing conclusions about the future”, hampered by its “hectic pace” and “cartoony imagery.”
If we choose to add our voice to the cacophony, this is because we see your film not as discursively “political”, but as simply revolutionary—we see it as a work which, like many others, tries in groping fashion to find a way out of the impasse of the present, to live different possibilities, different figures, passages, with a host of worries and strategic recommendations concerning the organization of our party. It is not the first time. Your other movies announced the color. But Snowpiercer is your manifesto. We wanted to share some of the reflections it inspired in us.
It’s always exciting to find a friend. It’s also a very good movie.
Shortly after the beginning of the offensive towards the front of the train, having ingeniously blocked the doors, killed the policemen and the screws, the ragged insurgents arrive in a room still dark—the train crosses a tunnel—which is revealed to have windows. The rear of the train was deprived of them. The tail-enders, the rebellious inhabitants of the tail cars, had not seen the light for 18 years. The train leaves the tunnel, rejoins the bright of day, and the insurgents, some for the first time, contemplate the still frozen world. They stop their irresistible assault on the front of the train, go quiet and look to the side. The race towards the Sacred Engine, towards the seizure of power, along the backbone of the social body, no longer seems so important. Another possibility appears, briefly—to return to the world, which, although it is a desert of ice, remains beautiful and striking. In the meantime, their leader Curtis arrives, who is indifferent, and sees them diverted from their purpose by the world that has revealed itself. He proclaims: we’re not there for that. We’re not here to find the world, but to control the train.
The entire tragedy of the story is summed up in this brief scene. The insurgents do not yet know that the train itself is the catastrophe from which they must be freed, that the harm done to them in the rear does not exhaust the perversions the machine is capable of. Still, the two possible lines of rebellion are revealed in the cold light of the train car: either go forward, or to the side. Reach the Sacred Engine, or get off the train. You are not afraid to plant your foot squarely in the dish, and an hour later, the alternative will take the following form: the big door of Power, which blocks the entrance to the locomotive, or the small innocent door to the side, which restores access to the world. That the two doors are side by side is not the least of your strokes of inspiration. Although the tail-enders are traversed by a contradictory desire for both possibilities, they predominantly embody the first way, which forms the major line of the revolution. It falls to the two strange Korean prisoners to give shape to the second way, the minor line, that of those who have not forgotten the world.
It is useless to reproach the insurgents at the rear of the train for not really paying much thought to a world of which they, more than anyone else, have been deprived. Heaped upon themselves without any windows, condemned to eat the same food every day, subjected to the most arbitrary police brutality, they think only of moving forward. Their position on the train predestines them to take the major path toward taking power, to once again reproduce the hierarchy of which they are the worst victims. Because far from being the negative residue, they are in reality the lodestone. After all, why keep the inhabitants of the rear of the train alive? Only a few of them, particularly the children, actually end up working, becoming slaves to the Sacred Engine who replace the defective parts before becoming too big and useless. Most of them are not even proletarians, as no activity is required of them. They’re purely supernumerary, only there to suffer. But their suffering, their life of integral suffering, hunger and promiscuity, cannibalism and public executions, which is known in secret by all the inhabitants of the train, is not in vain. Supernumeraries exist to make the lives of others bearable, by the measureless cruelty of their existence, which gives the luxurious nightmare of the front of the train an air of privilege. The pure negativity that emanates from these inoperative, policed, malnourished bodies, lacking all memory or history, is not what will end up overthrowing the system; on the contrary, it justifies its most violent, most police-like aspects; it feeds the system, because the latter nourishes itself on death. Their condition does not point to a fundamental contradiction in the system, but to its perfect way of folding back upon itself. Their extreme position, at the rear of the train, is the position that binds all the other inhabitants of the train to their position, their car, their function. It is the special basement of hell that allows the latter to present itself as a paradise. It is the glue of the social body.
You put your finger on the tragedy of Marxism: the most wretched of the lumpen-proletariat are not the class with the exclusive capacity to explode class society, to free us from our own cars, but on the contrary the one that hooks each of us up to our own proper class positions, and not without a sigh of relief. “Check your privilege.” And if such a proletariat is doomed to perpetuate itself, it is not so much for economic or scientific reasons, nor is it because “capital” is fundamentally a producer of “inequalities”. It’s for moral reasons. Somewhere, someone must suffer more than us. If this is necessary, it is so that, in the rest of the train, there is really no reason to revolt—or the reasons are too futile to warrant being taken seriously. From here on, the principal element of the tragedy rests lies in the recognition that the desire driving tail-enders towards the front of the train is so impoverished, so elementary, so detached from the world of which they have been deprived that it alone can not undo the orderly arrangement of the train. The trap is ready, already laid out beyond the great door of power, the cry of the stomach converting itself into a dream of control. Where survival forms the central concern, the train will always be the best option.
Still, tail-enders can surprise their own destiny. They release two Korean prisoners, a father and his daughter, who do not come from the back of the train. The father is the engineer who built the safety system regulating the doors of the train, his daughter an idle junkie. We never really know why they landed themselves in prison, but once released, they make an alliance with the tail-enders and open the doors, car after car. They embody another revolutionary figure: not the proletariat in arms, but the class traitor. Junkies, hackers, psychics (the girl sees behind the doors); they are familiar with the front of the train, they have lived there, and therefore know it for what it is—a hell from which a door must be blown open. They pay attention to the signs, the texture of the snow, indices of the return of animal life, they watch for the slow melting of the ice, for the moment when the world will once again become habitable.
You know, a lot of people have neglected the presence of these two characters, laughing at the superficiality of the “American” insurgents from the back of the train, the clumsy thread of the intrigue, with its heroic moments of sacrifice leading up to the final conclusion that everyone can see coming. We don’t think this superficiality is an error or concession on your part. It’s you who ironically tells one of your characters that the revolution led by Curtis is “a real blockbuster, with a devilishly unpredictable plot.” You know exactly what you’re doing. You side with your compatriots, and ridicule the major line: you would follow the other line, the one that seeks to find the world, which flees positions of power and dialectical reversals. And certainly, these two Korean characters leave the rest of the American cast looking more than a little clumsy, having only one word on their lips: forward. But behind the obvious snub to the codes of Hollywood cinema, we have the setting-in-motion of these two possibilities. Above all, you understand the necessary alliance, and the confrontation that it makes possible. The little and the big door are placed side by side. Without the two Koreans, the insurgents would not arrive at the threshold of the Sacred Engine. Without the insurgents, the prisoners would remain in prison, where they have languished in expectation for years—not to mention the sizable number of fascists that need to be taken out along the way. Without the power and ingenuity of tail-enders, the lost world remains lost. Albeit in a simplified way (given that what is in question here are conceptual personae), you paint the fundamental heterogeneity of our party.
Once the revolutionary alliance is sealed, this strange bicephalous force undertakes a singular venture across the social world, from caboose to locomotive. At this point Snowpiercer informs us of our enemies—of Empire, more so than of Capital. Prisons, butcher shops, factories, classrooms, nightclubs, medical offices, hairdressers, swimming pools, bars and sushi-bars, buffets, saunas, greenhouses… The train looks familiar to us. Car after car, we see existences in distinct forms juxtaposed, each wisely remaining in its little compartment, while feigning mutual ignorance. The old wealth regards us with suspicion, the wealthy youth with contempt. The familiar blackmail of ‘catastrophe’ is repeated to the point of saturation, from the mouths of repressive officials to that of a teacher at ease with her propagandizing of infants. The most idle of the citizen-nightclub morph casually into a fascist militia. The exterminators speak French, and the repression shines by the excellence of its staging, as much as by the endurance of its nihilism. The train is animated by the same senile desire of eternity—eternity, rather than history—i.e., the reproduction of oneself. An immense machine to be replicated, whose luxurious decor makes no effort to hide the violence underwriting it. An artificial cocoon wrapped around an uninhabitable planet, like a parasitic plant around the trunk of a tree, fleeing the devastation it carries within, in an endless quest to survive itself. In the very words of its conductor, we govern by maintaining “a satisfactory level of anxiety, fear, chaos and horror.” We live better when endowed with a strong dose of madness. It lets us enjoy the happy countdown and the approach of a new year.
The interest of the film lies not so much in a condensation in linear form of the various facets of contemporary sadness, as the interesting and unconventional genealogy of which it offers. Complex images are offered to explain the filiations of this imperial misery that we know well—the aquarium, and especially the Sacred Engine. Empire is first of all cybernetic. It is managed in a subtle way, as one manages a closed ecosystem on itself. When our heroes pass under an aquarium, the metaphor becomes explicit: the population must be carefully controlled in order to maintain a balance between different species of fish, between different classes. Number, count and measurement are the guiding principles of government.
This aspect is symbolized by the sinister administrator dressed in yellow, measuring everything she can so as to find a place for it in the machine. At the beginning of the film, she measures the children who will be used to replace the defective parts; in the end, face to face with the homemade bomb that will destroy the train, rather than turning it off or defusing it, she whips out her measuring tape. Who knows, perhaps this negativity—so pure, so unequivocal—can also be reintegrated somewhere, through measure, through the art of management. The entire infrastructure of the train is a closed circuit, where precious and scarce resources (water, energy, food) are re-injected permanently, skillfully distributed between the wagons to produce, where necessary, an artificial comfort or a groundless misery—in each case accompanied by a constant feeling of anxiety at the cruelty of nature, and a menacing entropy. It’s about maintaining an island of civilization trapped up in a universal death. To govern after the end of the world. To feast on the end of history. Memory is lost. The insurgents have no idea how long they have been on the train. Even revolutionary violence becomes a question of feedback: a too-high mortality at the front of the train will generate feedback, by means of a compensatory reduction of the population at the rear. Delay the imminent implosion by channeling negativity into a renewal of the system. And life repeats itself.
These aspects are obvious. But upon them, you superimpose an older form of power, the medieval Christian empire, conquered in Europe by the emergence of modern states and capitalism, and which returns, in a cybernetic and paranoid form, when these latter begin to decompose. The Christian empire is based on the simple idea that all light and power comes from God. He pours his influx from heaven to earth, through the very movement by which he creates the world. But the sin that our spheres of existence bear by their nature always jeopardizes the diffusion of this divine life.
Hierarchy offers a solution. Empire is nothing other than the political edifice designed to best distribute this influx issuing in any event from the first cause of all things. The political standing assigned to the various creatures He creates—from God to angels, from angels to the pope, from the pope to the cardinals, from there to all the clergy, from the clergy to the whole of society through the administration of the sacraments—is there only to ensure uninterrupted circulation of the divine light, which is life, knowledge, and salvation. Without this, the world would not be uniformly and continuously irrigated by the blessings of God, His goodness always at risk of being lost and scattered in the meanderings of the world. The order of things, like the government of the world, functions like the maintenance of a highway. Power, light, speech, energy, goodness, love, wisdom, knowledge: all these things issuing from God must be arranged in their vertical flow so as to maximize the perfection of creation, to beautify what He has already done.
Hierarchy is not there to divide society; it is rather an operator of continuity. Because it orders the world, it guarantees that the latter opens without obstacle onto a universal circulation. And with respect to this circulation, all are servants, since all are creatures. From the upper rungs of the angels to the lowest peasants, all perform the same operation: to receive the divine illumination and transmit it, according to hierarchical rule. The difference that exists between the lower or higher positions has no actual content in itself: what matters is that everyone has a position: the world is built around an axis that no one escapes. The difference between the ranks serves only to attach each to the vertical axis, to the great weir of the Good and the True. From this point, the body metaphor is never far away. From Christ’s head to pleb’s feet, it is one and the same body, one and the same circuit, one and the same humanity. The difference of the members changes nothing as to the fundamental imperial requirement, namely, that there be only one body, of which fragmentation forms the first guarantor.
Two elements betray this theological substratum aboard the Snowpiercer: the rigid hierarchy that orders the cars, and the Sacred Engine. The positions are “preordained” by the ticket purchased on the train, just as existences were predestined back when God ruled the world. The machine room has something surprising about it, formed not of piles of cables and gears, but by a simple living room. At its furthest extremity is nothing other than the First Principle, circular, eternal, silent, slowly turning on itself, dispensing movement, life and energy incidentally and indifferently. “The Sacred Engine” is like an embodiment of the immobile Aristotelian first mover—a kinetic God, the primary cause of all self-centered movement, that thinks itself, that is absorbed in its own contemplation. Its center is empty, its power is nothing political. Faced by its eternal neutrality, Curtis do nothing but collapse.
As Mason, the spokesperson for the train driver, states, “all things flow from the Sacred Engine”. Water flows. The current flows. Heat and movement are transmitted. And this order, which is the real barrier against icy death, is transmitted from wagon to wagon by the concern that everyone has to stay in its place. “All things in their place. So it is.” This is the meaning and direction of Gilliam’s “treason”, sent from the conductor to the rear of the train, and which foments insurrections to give a pretext for the reduction of the population. As in the 13th century, feet and head are in solidarity, working together. And if Wilford the conductor is so anxious to cede way to Curtis, the former cannibal from the back of the train, it’s because deep down, no matter who’s leading, only the function matters. Everyone is a servant, even the highest of masters; and the lowest of the servants is the best candidate to become the highest of the masters—he will never forget his humility.
Faced with God, we are all basically equal in our servitude, and we invent an artificial inequality the better to assume it. Just as, in the face of the placid rotation of the Sacred Engine, we are all merely maintenance agents, relays of the neutral power of the machine. The latter is silent, demands nothing, and never replies. When Mason calls to the conductor to address the tail-enders, we hear only the white noise of a radio over which no one speaks. When we enter the heart of the machine, we see only an empty circle. It is this desperate submission to neutrality that leads the extreme suffering of the tail-enders to be forgotten. It is the sadness of living motionless on a train that never stops that we must be avoided at any costs, by recourse to the spectacle, the class war, or by outright repression. All the divisions, all the contradictions, all the tensions, all the negativity are, in the end—and on purpose—recycled in continuity, unity, universality. This is the fundamental imperial operation. It was accomplished yesterday by the celestial and ecclesiastical hierarchies, today by measurement, surveillance and feedback.
The superimposition of these two empires forms the paradoxical symbolic structure of the train: a government of the world become infrastructural, a desire for eternity satisfied by technology; a hierarchy become horizontal. The Snowpiercer is to Empire what Leviathan is to the state: its recap.
What about the end of your film? For us, it has the beauty of something simple and uncompromising. Of course, as you must know, many laughed at it. Some, because they are too jaded, others, too civilized. All because it’s easier. It must be admitted that the return to the world does not seem obvious. It’s hard to look it in the face. The animals do it well, but still, they are lucky. It doesn’t take much effort for them, since their animality is already given. We are the only animals that have to learn our own animality. It’s the only difference between them and us. You do not seem to know more than us about how this learning will take place—but who can blame you? You already say a lot. Everything is worth more than the train.
Sincerely yours, Some passenger friends.
PS : Since only the final destruction seems to bring a semblance of hope to humanity, would train sabotage be the revolutionary act par excellence?