is an excellent dystopian thriller that was recently released in theatres and for download. Most people, including the director, believe the film to be a critique of capitalism, but this essay will look at the film through Azerbaijani eyes.
Note: this essay will contain plot details from the film, be warned. SPOILER ALERT
The basic plot is that global warming was a tremendous problem and an experiment to counteract it actually caused the earth to freeze. Pretty much everyone and everything on the planet died. But some people survived and somehow they ended up on a train. This isn’t some commuter train – towards the end of the film we learn that it was a special luxury train created to travel through the entire world over 365 days. So somehow this train picked up survivors and the film begins 18 years after the big freeze.
The new world on the train has evolved into a class system where elites live a luxury life at the beginning of the train and the poor are in the back, where the conditions are awful. We don’t see the front’s life until later in the film, but imagine that it is like the Hunger Games. Our only early exposure to the elites is through a particular vivid scene where the military-esque leader of the elites comes to the back of the train to remove a professional violinist as well some children for an unknown purpose for the front. That leader is completely loyal to the “ruler” of the train – the eccentric man who invented the special engine that has allowed the train to perpetually operate.
The film begins with the poor in the back of the train plotting a rebellion against the elite in the front. We learn that there have been a few other attempts at rebellion but they always fail because the rebels can’t take control of the engine. As the film progresses, we go through the train cars with the rebels and face various obstacles and witness a lot of violent battles, as well as progressively see how the elite live so well.
Watching films that involve repressive rule and class warfare of course leads one to think about Azerbaijan.
ELITE VERSUS NON-ELITE AND FALSE CONSCIOUSNESS
The poor have very little interaction with the elites except through food provision, head counts, and punishment and this is all via military personnel. Similarly, the elites seem to have no sense of who the poor are other than broad and often inaccurate stereotypes perpetuated in classrooms and conversations. This sort of “false consciousness” in which classes have no real sense of how the other class lives is the method by which a vastly unequal society operates.
Notably, the primary military leader with whom the poor interact was herself a poor child who was groomed to be a military leader and is incredibly loyal to the leader. In her speeches, she emphasizes that the poor need to stay in their place (they are the shoe, the elites are the head) and this “everyone has his or her place” idea is repeated throughout the film.
Like Azerbaijan, in Snowpiercer, the elites are living a life that is completely different from non-elites. In one memorable scene, the rebels enter a classroom train car where the elite children are being indoctrinated — they chant and sing loyalty to the leader (the guy running the train’s engine). Their teacher praises the leader in a way that may seem over-the-top to an American audience but did not seem all that unique to me. Additionally, the children are socialized to believe that survival outside of the train is utterly impossible. The children of the back of the train, on the other hand, are seemingly receiving no formal education although they are being taught how to survive,
on the train
, sometimes through criminal actions. There is a moment where the inability to survive outside of the train is made evident to the poor people though – so this message
given to all.
Another elite versus non-elite theme in the film is regarding food. The poor are provided jelly-like protein bars a few times a day. (We learn at the end that there was no food whatsoever for the first few months on the train and things got a little crazy. We also see the protein bar manufacturing car and learn some unfortunate things about how they are made.) As the rebels progress toward the front, we see a car where fruits and vegetables are being grown, a butcher car where there is a ton of meat, and then a car that is sort of like an aquarium tunnel, full of fish. At one point the rebels are invited to eat sushi – the perfect symbol of cosmopolitan food, no? The stark difference between what the poor and rich eat is shocking – even more shocking than what one sees in the Hunger Games.
Similar to the Hunger Games, we see that the elite have medical care, schooling, fancy hair and clothes, seem to be engaging in hedonistic behavior (although we only see them on New Year’s Day, so this may have changed things), and the difference between the squalor at the back of the train is painful to see.
So one may ask – why do the elites allow the poor people to remain? This is one of the major questions of the film – it isn’t entirely clear. One can speculate that some poor people are needed to clean and cook for the elites. But at the end of the film we learn that the engine is so intricate that it requires small children to maintain. Making children of the elite work on the engine would seem unreasonable thus they need the tail section of the engine to maintain the world.
It is possible that the poor people are kept to provide an “us versus them” and suppress dissent amongst the elite. As evidence for this, in the school car scene, one hears elite children repeating stereotypes they’ve been taught about the poor.
IS REBELLION POSSIBLE?
The tipping point for the rebellion in Snowpiercer was children being taken and a very public and graphic punishment of one rebellious person. Although we are given the impression that this sort of punishment is not that unusual, it is unclear in the film. There is no sense of how often children are taken, but some people did seem to have strategies to hide their children during the roundup, so it may be frequent.
Another reason that the current rebellion took place is that someone realized that an important non-renewable resource – bullets – must be either gone or in very short supply. The threat of guns kept the poor people in line, but knowing that those guns were empty allowed the rebels to progress. Interestingly, the rebels’ assumption that the train had run out of bullets was erroneous – the guns closer to the front of the train did have bullets and this judgement error was fatal for many. Nonetheless, one can argue that,
on both sides
, the false consciousness about the renewable and non-renewable resources was a key tactical challenge. Just as the missing bullets were a false tool of the elites, the rebels’ creativeness and occasional surprise resources allowed them to move further up the train.
Later in the film we learn that the train’s leader is not threatened by the current and previous rebellion efforts. He explains that rebellions help the train ecosystem because they reduce the poor population, they teach the poor people a lesson about rebelling, and rebellions provide some excitement for the elites. Does an occasional protest help maintain balance?
Additionally, we discover that one of the rebel leaders was cooperating with the leader (which then requires one to think back through the film at many points that this betrayal was exhibited). Some would argue that these sort of secret cooperation agreements are not uncommon. Case in point, the main character of the film is the rebel leader Curtis, who is approached to become “one of them”. We learn, late in the film, that Curtis was not always the idealistic rebel that he is 18 years after the big freeze. He initially did some bad things and carries the guilt of his earlier actions. We come to discover that he has been asked to become the new leader of the entire train. He has overcame the class divisions – physically by walking the entire length of the train and intellectually by outsmarting and battling his way to the front. But he is conflicted about what to do and if his loyalties to the poor are truly important.
Certainly poorer Azerbaijanis aren’t being fed protein bars and to the best of our knowledge there is no forced child labor in Azerbaijan (Hi Uzbekistan!), but the vast inequality in Azerbaijan is not entirely dissimilar from what was in Snowpiercer. It is very noticeable in the film that the poor all carry scars from the system – whether from the elites or from battling with each other and that these scars motivate some to change the system and for others the scars are a reminder that they need to keep quiet. The poorer people in Snowpiercer were being pushed beyond the brink, leaving the viewer to wonder why they do not commit suicide.
Many of the elite in Snowpiercer seem to be perpetually intoxicated or indulging in excess. The other forms of elite that we see include those in military positions. There also seemed to be some entrepreneurial elites operating legal and illegal businesses on the train.
In the film and in Azerbaijan there was no middle class to speak of, with a few exceptions. The film did not discuss it, but one can speculate that some of the soldiers were children taken from the poor and trained to protect the elite like the primary military leader. Also there is a main character who had designed the locks on the train but for unknown reasons had been imprisoned. He isn’t one of the elite engaging in hedonistic behaviors but we learn that he was not at the back of the train at the beginning and in fact has never seen the conditions at the back. He felt middle class to me and seem conflicted about his loyalties throughout the rebellion and in fact only helps the rebels because he is being bribed.
Are these the same options for the poor in Azerbaijan? Keep quiet; become “one of them” by loyally climbing up the ladder or through bribes; death; or rebel?
And are the options for the Azerbaijani elite like those in Snowpiercer? To be perpetually intoxicated (drugs, alcohol, shopping, other hedonistic behaviors); to be a military person; or to operate a business based on exploiting the lower class? All of these options require one to perform loyalty to the leader of course.
But all of these options rely upon the false consciousness – the fact that neither the poor nor the elites know what the conditions of the other are. In Snowpiercer, the only interaction that the poor have with the elites is through the military guards and food delivery from the military as well as a distance sense of the cult of the leader. This is also likely the level of interaction that many of the poor of Azerbaijan have with political elites. Or perhaps poor Azerbaijanis know about the sushi eating and discotech nights of the elite. It is possible that poor Azerbaijanis know how much a designer dress or shoes or a luxury car cost.
In the film, we progressively see the elite life through the eyes of the rebels, and we, the viewers, become angry. And maybe this exposure to elite life does create anger in Azerbaijanis too. Last year’s events in Ismayilli are illustrative.
that the source of discontent was the excessive lifestyles of the family of the political elite and President Aliyev
a warning to political elites to behave better. “The children of high officials display obnoxious behavior. They are misbehaving and insulting people. Who gave them the right to do so? If I hear one more time about someone’s bad behavior, that person will be arrested and his father will be dismissed… Stop with these expensive weddings, birthday parties, and expensive gifts. Enough is enough. Those who do it know who I am talking about. It is about local and central executive officials.”
But perhaps these window openings to elite life do not cause anger and instead create, for some, a desire to become elite themselves. It seems to be the case in both the film and in Azerbaijan. But for the most part, keeping the classes separate is the most efficient strategy. Aliyev is right when he requests that elites be more modest and the
Belt of Happiness
does its job keeping the classes in their places.
In Snowpiercer, the leader says “We need to maintain the proper balance of anxiety and fear, chaos and horror in order to keep life going. And if we don’t have that, we need to invent it.” And this is exactly how things work in Azerbaijan – this “stability” mixed with instability. One cannot rely on anything in Azerbaijan. Will the water come on? Will hard work result in reward? How much will I have to pay in bribes in order to operate a business? Will my son be safe during his military service? Will I be arbitrarily targeted tomorrow? It is this instability that keeps the regime in power and the engine of Azerbaijan running.