Cleaning and Registering
A metal elevator door is visible. Clicking and creaking, the steel doors roll open. We see inside. Surprisingly, there is no elevator cab, but a stairwell, where a woman is mopping the floor. Her hair is tied back in a small plait. She wears a white blouse, and over that, a blue smock. The woman goes down the steps backwards. The stairs wind downward, bounded by a curving bannister. She keeps working, silently and sedately. She does not register our gaze, the presence of viewers. The atmosphere is cool, uncomfortable, and emotionless. The door closes again. Again we hear the noise of interlocking metal pieces.
Waiting and Riding
The narrative thread is cut off. Change of scene. Now the camera shows the interior of a subway setting. The train is in motion. Just as before, the camera is still. The neon light is still cold and artificial. A young man in a sand-colored suit stands in front of the subway train door. His left hand is hidden inside his pants pocket; the right hand hangs down at his side. He waits, stock-still. A teenager in jeans leans against the barrier next to the subway door. The two are separated only by the vertical pole set in the middle of the doorway. The younger one’s leg is at an angle. The older one ignores him. His gaze meanders into the void, past the younger man and past us, the viewers. In the meanwhile the younger man looks contemplatively out the window. Unusually, once again, we do not see the dark of the tunnel, but a series of elevator doors passing by. The metal doors form a visual rhythm, similar to the meter of a clockwork mechanism or the barely audible pulse of the body. The beat accelerates with the propulsion of the train, eventually coming to a steady motion. Before the subway car arrives with its two passengers at the next station, there is another interruption, another change of scene.
The Surprising and the Usual
In the next sequence the elevator door appears again. It seems as if we have been taken back to the beginning. Once again, the camera is still. A more careful look, however, tells us that it is not the same place as before. This time, the door is greenish-gray. It is integrated into a wall of the same color. In the foreground one can see black-gray artificial stone plates and a barrier protecting the space on both sides. The bars recall the stairwell from the first scene, but this time they are parallel to the frame, not curved. As soon as we are capable of distinguishing similarities and differences, the elevator opens and confronts us with a new image. New stimuli prevent us from overthinking; new unfamiliarities disturb the images we have seen. Questions cluster: how can there be a staircase behind an elevator? Why the glaring artificial light? What do waiting, cleaning, riding and mopping have in common? What is the meaning of standstill and motion? Content that is difficult to interpret seems to have been molded into a strikingly uniform formal vocabulary. Precise registration characterizes these recordings, along with an aesthetic approach that embeds an unusual group of events into a metallically cool atmosphere. And the film continues as a sequence of interruptions; recording motifs, then varying and discarding them. The first door appears, with its parquet floor in the foreground. It opens and behind it is another one. Like a strongbox concealing several similar boxes within, door after door opens up. The gaze penetrates the depths depicted in the clarity of a vanishing-point perspective engineering drawing.
Recognition and Remoteness
Anuk Miladinović has shot a film of oppressive intensity. It gives spaces and places a strange life of their own. They seem motorized, changeable, mobile, like the rail cars and cabs already seen. They continue to multiply through the opening doors until we are confronted with another motif: the blue subway. Since it is recognizable, it provides a supposed anchor to the mind, which has been shaken by irrationality and discontinuity. Nevertheless, it also continues to move, unrestrained, unstable, without offering the expected sense of security. At the deepest point in the picture it looks like the remotest possible strange vision. We look through windows into the car. The two men, whom we suppose are in it, cannot be seen. Finally, the train departs. The farthest door closes and once again we see the back of the woman with the mop. She is cleaning the areas in between, as if there were narrow corridors between the Russian nesting dolls of existence. Still, it seems as if the return of the motif has restored the chopped-off connection. It is inside the fixed, formal framework of her activity, the hard and fast border of space and time, in which the idiosyncrasy of these scenes is photographed.
Place and Condition
At this point in the video we have long understood that scenes are not being played; instead, shots that could better be described as ideas, dream images, and imaginary pictures are being recorded. Unrealities and paradoxes disturb the continuity of reality. The fictional permeates the supposedly familiar conditions of the world, infiltrating and subverting habitual reality. The woman moves forward, yet does not come any closer to us. Surprisingly, she opens the door behind her, revealing a view of another recurring motif: we see the bottom edge of an escalator. It is moving upward, as if it were a counter-move to the previous directions, which always went downward or followed the perspective line inward, or came forward. Finally, then, the view toward the back is disclosed. Doors open, embrasures, frames, and in-between zones multiply. They all move toward a vanishing point whose remote incomprehensibility leaves us no less fearful. We understand that the ordering of spaces in these surreal sequences do not denote random positioning, but indicate systems of reference, in which caskets and elevator cabs are substitutes for mental states. The acoustic effects of hinge and lock mechanisms accompany the wordless mime. Noises, like the snapping of the escalator steps remind one of the mechanization of everyday life, as well as of the physicality of the subway rhythm, the psychological tension of the passengers, the uncanny dovetailing of doors and chambers.
Encounter and Ascent
Recent change of scene: a man stands in a subway station. He is middle-aged, wears a gray trench coat, a suit, and an olive-colored shirt. He is waiting for the train arriving at the station. His arms hang down at his sides. He is gazing toward the tunnel. Cold light dominates the subterranean space. It comes from a row of lights mounted above the edge of the platform. The motionless camera shows the empty platform, the darkness of the tunnel, and an escalator moving upward. A train arrives and a young man gets out. He carries his coat over his arm, and pulls a suitcase on wheels behind him. The older man briefly embraces him. Then the two turn around and walk toward the exit. One stands behind the other as they ride the escalator up and vanish behind the row of lights, while the train continues its journey through the tunnel. The greeting is disconcerting. The embrace of the older man is intimate, yet simultaneously stiff. In addition, the younger man, who is much shorter, does not return the gesture. The younger man simply lays his head on the older man’s shoulder. He is like the older man’s young charge, a subordinate, not on the same level of authority. Regardless of what causes the social difference between the two men, their encounter is typical of two people whose actions are mutually agreed-upon. The greeting is a motif with a secondary, cryptic significance, just like the cleaning in the previous scene. In fact the encounter between the two men recalls well-known formulas of Christian imagery: the meeting of Abraham and Melchisedek in the Old Testament; the ensuing sacrifice is regarded in Christian tradition as a premonition of Christ’s death on the cross. One is also reminded of the so-called Visitation—the meeting of Mary and Elizabeth when both are pregnant.
Wish and Shift
And, in fact, theological motifs are part of the inventory of the whole film. Metaphysically permeated states, such as waiting, cleaning, and walking and riding upward indicate this. Thus, the two men allow themselves to be taken up on the escalator. They will arrive at another level we know nothing about—whether it will be friendlier, more personable, or just brighter. Their journey upward makes it clear to us that ascent and descent, elevators and staircases, are not just symbols of common transportation methods. Rather, they are abbreviations for in-between areas, mediating between different levels of existence and psychological conditions. They are transfer points for mental and metaphysical levels, thresholds for ontological transitions. The “ascent” of the two men can also be understood in this way. Just as in Dante’s Divine Comedy, in which Virgil accompanies the poet through the underworld, telling him about the fates of sinners, and ultimately leading him to the upper levels of heaven, toward paradise. According to Judeo-Christian thought, the ascending path leads to transformation and salvation; according to Platonic notions, the path of salvation is knowledge, which leads to the idea. In both traditions, transcendence is achieved; in one way, through sincere belief, and in the other way, through the tireless urge to acquire knowledge. Both variations are about an ascent in a higher sense, which is rewarded in the end by the reflection of infinite light. The path to the sphera lucis is a movement toward the dawn of the world, the opening of the eyes, the transgression into paradise.
Depths and the Top Floor
Another change of scene: three men are waiting in front of an elevator door. They are in business attire and carry brown leather briefcases. Although the camera takes the same position and the situation is similar, this is a different elevator. Its doors are dark blue, framed by smooth, sandstone block walls. To the right is a lamp. The door opens and a cleaning woman stands there. At first she is seen from the front. She has a cart full of cleaning utensils, and there is no space for the waiting men. They must be patient. The woman in the elevator cab presses the button and rides down. We can hear that she gets out on the floor below and pushes her cart out of the elevator. The question arises of whether this addresses the underworld or the upper world—or the floor of the ego, processed by psychoanalysis. The men on their way up must wait until the door opens up on the subconscious below. Only then can they call the elevator back to their floor, where we might see the mediocrity of the ego, which has to decide between the id and the super-ego. Even before the door closes upon the men, two more arrive to join them. No decision is made alone; being human always means co-existing with others. Again the door closes and two more men, in lighter-colored suits, step forward to join the group. One more man, a big one, is added to the waiting passengers. Then the door finally closes, so that they will all ride to the top floor together. Some things recall tales by Franz Kafka, which contain a similar tension between unrelated narrative sequences and silent alienation. In Kafka’s “Metamorphosis,” for instance, points of reference and recognizable hallmarks of experiential, personal time vanish. They are replaced by a kind of monotonous, non-progressive repetition. Every attempt at something winds up failing. Kafka uses the space to measure the elapse of time. Like Miladinović’s characters, Kafka’s figures are conscientious, caught in bureaucratic, lifeless working conditions. Structurally, this is also expressed in Kafka and Miladinović’s film through the settings, which are made up of rigid, bureaucratic architecture and stiff, formal office aesthetics.
Slapstick and Speculation
Yet, unlike Kafka, who remains faithful to the gloomy tone, comedic elements come into play in an interim sequence in Miladinović’s film. Once again, we see an elevator door. Once again, we expect irritation, impossible spaces, and cryptic architectural speculation. Yet this time the door that opens is real, and nothing surrealistic occurs. Once again, the men approach the elevator. The button on the side of the metal door frame blinks and the door closes. But at the last moment, two men hurry up. Again, the door closes. And again, in the moment before the elevator is about to leave, another couple of men appear, and so on, until the last one, the big man, tries to open the door before the lift departs. But this time he does not succeed. His failure is an unexpected twist, and therefore comical. Whereas, up until then, we have been inside a prose narrative with a lack of stimuli, stuck in an ostensibly normal, ma non troppo existence, wit and slapstick come into play here. While Miladinović’s art is closest to Godard’s strict method of framing, this detail resembles Jacques Tati’s visual humor.
Climb and Ascent
In the next scene the dramaturgy itself takes up the motif of repetition. The man on the train platform is waiting, but this time he is somewhat more impatient. He is nervous, shifting his weight from one leg to the other. On the screen that usually provides information on the platform, we see an image of a moving escalator. The close up of the escalator is not just a reference to the Christian ascension, the transcendental relationship to the world of neon, but also the key to the film’s most important aesthetic tool: melding images into the picture, reduplicating the other in the same. In the next change of scene, which leads back to the interior of the subway train, repetition and religious motifs again reappear. Like before, the man and the youth stand next to each other in front of the subway door, without making contact. Through the window, out of which the young man looks pensively, we do not see elevator doors, but thickset arches. Surprisingly enough, a gesture follows: he crosses himself wordlessly. In fact the arches come from the catacombs of a Serbian church. Miladinović’s film depicts the hopes behind the eschatological order of creation merely as a worldly reverberation. The artificial lighting, which represents the divine light, but which cannot replace it, is the contemporary balance. Ultimately, the numerous ascension motifs are only anachronistic signs of pre-modern ideals, which are ineffective in the cool, sober space of contemporary transportation systems. Yet, the cryptic grows throughout the hygienic world. The film is cinematic cryptography, a discovery of what is hidden, closed, kept concealed in the channels of contemporary architecture and the psychological states of the people involved. Regardless of the elevators, stairwells, and tunnels opening and closing, they reveal nothing but another opening. Meaning has no ultimatum, no ultimate justification, and no footing. Only the surreal intersection of the world of things, the nesting and inversion of spaces, can alter perspectives and expectations. Only recurrence provides security. That is why the last image is like the first one. The metal elevator door can be seen. With a clicking, creaking noise the steel doors slide open. Behind them is the woman in the blue smock. This time she starts at the top and sweeps downward, and we find ourselves on the lowest staircase landing.