There’s a fictional prison set in Spain that’s unlike Rikers or Fulsom. On each of its 300+ floors, there’s a rectangular cell occupied by two prisoners. In the middle of each cell, there’s a gaping hole. Once a day, a large titanium platform descends from the top floor to the cells—the platform locks into each opening for just a few minutes. On the platform, one table is prepared for all the floors. The table’s buffet includes, but isn’t limited to, Michelin star escargots à la bourguignonne, lobster, aged and cured meats, and panna cotta. Of course, the table is decked with “Versailles-worthy tableware with a markedly decadent halo,” said Spanish director Galder Gaztelu-Urrutia. And there are bottles of wine (maybe Bordeaux) to boot. The prisoners at the top eat as much as they want, the next set of prisoners eat the leftovers, and so on. This is breakfast, lunch, and dinner all in one. Buen provecho.
If prisoners keep food (even an apple, à la the biblical fruit of knowledge) after the platform departs, they’re punished with extremely hot or cold temperatures. The pickings become slim as the platform descends—scraps, piss, and shit remains for the bottom feeders. Those at the very bottom of the prison will get nothing, not even crumbs. What happens then: cannibalism and death.
The cells are bare, but a bit more spacious than that of a typical prison. There are two beds, a sink, and a toilet. This prison needn’t be set in Spain—it could be located anywhere. The prison (or Vertical Self-Management Centre, as it’s known) sets the scene for director Galder Gaztelu-Urrutia’s film “The Platform” (El Hoyo in Spanish), which was released on Netflix in March. Goreng, our shaggy-haired main character, (played by Iván Massagué, who starred in the popular Spanish TV series El barco) didn’t decide what floor he would start his journey on. He wakes up on the 48th floor and he doesn’t know why until his cellmate explains the rules. With ingenuity and luck, Goreng can move to a more privileged floor. Mobility exists for prisoners, though the odds are stacked against them.
The Platform’s governing body is called the Administration. Its presence, though, is largely absent. It sanctions the “adventures in human cooperation” by interviewing prospective prisoners (unlike our prisons, this one takes applications), overseeing the moving of prisoners, and managing the kitchen staff. We don’t know why Goreng is eager to be admitted into the prison, but he volunteers himself for the job. His Faustian pact is this: six months in prison in exchange for “an accredited diploma.” It’s unclear how or why this arrangement is worked out. Trimagasi, Goreng’s first cellmate, didn’t volunteer for The Platform. He chose prison over the local psych ward. In many ways, Trimagasi (Zorion Eguileor, the Spanish singer-songwriter, and broadcaster) is the opposite of Goreng—he’s old, knows how the prison works, and is imprisoned for involuntary manslaughter.
Early on, Trimagasi listens to Goreng recite the opening lines of Cervantes’s classic, Don Quixote: “Somewhere in La Mancha, in a place whose name I do not care to remember, a gentleman lived not long ago, one of those who has a lance and ancient shield on a shelf and keeps a skinny nag and a greyhound for racing.” One item is allowed inside the prison. Some picked guns, and others opted for flamethrowers. Goreng settles on Don Quixote— the “tale about an out-of-time hero unwilling to come to terms with what’s around him. Our protagonist, however, is not overpowered by modernity,” as a friend of mine said. Trimagasi isn’t a student of the Enlightenment (as Goreng proves to be). His chosen possession is an infomercial-knife, which he sharpens daily.
The prisoners’ race for survival continues and so does the brutality. Then something big happens. Through Goreng’s attempt to set up a prison-wide rationing system (his labor), the prison conditions change. With his comrade, Baharat, the two succeed in feeding prisoners, who previously had nothing to eat. They’re able to traverse the prison’s endless number of floors, a seemingly impossible feat. And in the end, the pair maneuvers the platform to send the Administration a defiant “message.”
While Goreng is a product of his circumstance, he nevertheless has agency and evolves. Gaztelu-Urrutia sets the scene for this dynamic tension; but I’m unsure if he realizes that this is a tension because he draws our attention to Goreng’s failings, instead of his effort. Such decisions are part and parcel of Gaztelu-Urrutia’s Lord of The Flies-esque experiment. Gaztelu-Urrutia isn’t optimistic about humans. In his mind, we have “immutable strands of selfishness coded into our DNA…if on our platform, instead of food, we had put toilet paper or face masks, we would be talking about the same thing, about the selfishness that lies deep in our hearts,” he told The Guardian. The human condition seems fixed.
It wouldn’t be an intellectual leap to see the prison as a vivid image of our economic system: capitalism. It’s a site of scarcity, hierarchy, and exploitation. That’s what The Los Angeles Times, National Post, Rolling Stone, and many others have said. They see it as an anti-capitalist slam dunk. For director Galder Gaztelu-Urrutia, the prison isn’t an allegory for capitalism, but for human nature. We’re selfish, conniving, and savage. In The Guardian, he went on to say: “When things take a turn for the worse and we get squeezed a bit, we become very, very selfish and start stockpiling everything we can. We don’t realize that that kind of greed means a lot of other people have to go without.” While zooming in on the prisoners, Gaztelu-Urrutia ends up taking shots at capitalism (oh, and socialism).
Rolling Stone writer Jessica Xalxo sees The Platform as “an all-out challenge to class and capitalism.” Prisoners are stratified—some have more access to food, and others do not. When unjust food distribution is coupled with the prison’s hierarchy, the result is a dog eat dog world. Xalxo’s four-star review of The Platform peppers the reader with anti-capitalist buzzwords, but we don’t get a real sense as to how it’s an “all-out challenge” to capitalism.
In this same vein, UCLA professors Susan Harmeling and Nico Voigtländer call The Platform “Netflix’s class warfare movie” in The Los Angeles Times. To explain that one-liner, Harmeling and Voigtländer cite ideas from neoclassical economics, such as “the tragedy of the commons” (coined in 1968 by Garrett Hardin, an ecologist) and John Rawls’s “theory of the veil of ignorance.” Hardin and Rawls analyzed capitalism through consumer behavior and choice—they focused on the circulation/distribution side of economic relations, as opposed to production. Gaztelu-Urrutia makes this same move in The Platform. Capitalism’s symptoms, inequalities, and contradictions are brought out in the movie, but the basis of this very system remains unexplored. Gaztelu-Urrutia indicts class warfare and economic inequalities, but these charges ring empty and display opportunism that capitalizes on this political moment. He highlights the prison’s distribution system, but hides its mode of production. We do not see the laboring hands of the prisoners, nor the laboring hands of the kitchen workers.
Gaztelu-Urrutia attempts to expose the role prisoners play in perpetuating the prison system. No different, in his mind, to how the middle-class perpetuates capitalism through consumerism. Goreng and the handful of characters in The Platform contribute to the conditions inside of the prison, but that’s awfully inevitable. What we need to identify is the prisoners’ stake in the prison (with their desire to be a part of this experiment, or their need to dominate others)—just as our stake in capitalism (with meritocracy, for example) must be revealed. To fault particular individuals for the existence of the entire structure is much too misguided in critiquing capitalism.
Unequal distribution does not reveal capitalism’s full structure, but Gaztelu-Urrutia implies that it does. And with that inaccurate stroke, he eternalizes the natural conditions o f capitalism, such as scarcity. Gaztelu-Urrutia’s above comparison (food = face masks = toilet paper) is intelligible in this light. To him, scarcity is natural because resources are scarce and finite. But these two things are what socialism overcomes. For Marx, we can and do live in a world of abundant resources. Our abundance is revealed by the might of technology and by the sheer amount of resources we waste. The U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) reports that: “in the United States, food waste is estimated at between 30-40 percent of the food supply.” There is more than enough food to feed everyone in the world. Gaztelu-Urrutia makes scarcity the issue inside the prison—but in reality, the issue is production. The kitchen staff produces a large buffet, but it’s too small to feed the entire prison population. Based on the kitchen’s talent and immense resources, more food could be prepared and more Bordeaux could be offered. So we must ask: why is the Administration unwilling to do so?
It is the hierarchical design that produces scarcity. “There are only three types of people: Those at the top, those at the bottom, and those who fall,” Trimagasi remarks. In The Platform, the hierarchy isn’t fixed (like that of feudalism), where you’re born into a class and are unable to move to a different one. Scarcity persists in The Platform, first, because of production decisions, and second, because of a hierarchical distribution system. The Administration, similar to the capitalist class, controls the kitchen (means of production). In capitalism, decisions are made as to what’s profitable, instead of what’s sustainable. The Administration makes its decisions based on what’s cost-effective and uniquely dehumanizing.
For Gaztelu-Urrutia, Goreng’s attempt to redistribute food is his critique of socialism. Socialism is a lot of things, but it isn’t merely a move to better redistribute food and wealth. A successful redistribution of food and wealth cannot transform our economic system, nor can it transform the prison in The Platform. It doesn’t change the exploitation of the prisoners, nor does it change the exploitation of the “Administration” and the kitchen staff. Socialism inherits the wealth created by capitalism, but it also reinvents the capitalist mode of production so it directly benefits wage-laborers.
Redistribution, depending on how it’s done, can lead to egalitarian poverty (or what scholar Vijay Prashad calls “socializing poverty”). And that’s precisely what happens when Goreng sends rations to the floors below him—some don’t eat and others could have eaten more, if left to their own devices. The prison, when seen in this light, doesn’t have enough food to feed the entire prison population. If x society isn’t wealthy enough for socialism, the rights and needs of all its citizens won’t be met sufficiently. If this isn’t a situation of egalitarian poverty, it’s an example as to why redistribution cannot work under capitalism. We can better redistribute food, but prisoners will still go hungry because the kitchen may not produce enough (due to its profit model). Hence, the mode of production needs to evolve, not just the methods of distribution.
In The Platform, Goreng’s socialist project necessitates violence. This needn’t be true. Revolution and terror can necessitate violence, but socialism isn’t violent in itself. The prison is an exhilarating and exciting metaphor for capitalism, but it doesn’t make sense for socialism (as one of socialism’s major achievements is the purging of hierarchy).
Cynicism can be a bold and honest lens, but Gaztelu-Urrutia’s cynicism is not. He creates a misleading and dangerous picture of human nature and capitalism. As Rutger C. Bregman, the Dutch historian and author, remarks: “a cynical view of human nature has always been used by those in power because it legitimizes their power.” In Rolling Stone, Jessica Xalxo admires Gaztelu-Urrutia’s savage assessment of human beings—other critics also seem to. But their cynicism only works to make us feel as if the conditions of capitalism are the way things will always be. Hierarchy and scarcity are naturalized in capitalism, but this isn’t the case in all societies. Furthermore, Goreng and Baharat succeed in transcending the prison’s natural problems of scarcity and hierarchy.
Capitalism unleashes greed and selfishness, but those qualities aren’t inherent to us. We expect humans to be selfish and we set up our institutions around this expectation—what happens then: humans end up being selfish. But Goreng and Baharat aren’t merely selfish actors. Selfishness creates wealth, but it also creates a kind of scarcity, where we exploit our resources and consume whatever the hell we want. In capitalism, perhaps the first time in history, selfishness isn’t a vice, but a virtue—something necessary for the pursuit of profit. Considering that capitalism naturalizes selfishness counters Gaztelu-Urruti’s assumption that humans are fundamentally selfish.
We need to peer behind the curtain to see what Gaztelu-Urrutia’s prison experiment is all about. Unlike some mysteries, this isn’t a productive one left unknown. If there’s no reason for the prison to exist, then it falls flat: it becomes merely evil and irrational (which is what we experience in watching The Platform). If we see capitalism or socialism like this, we will never move from appearance to reality; and we will never gain any real theoretical insight. We know that capitalism is about the massive accumulation of wealth, but we cannot offer a similar insight into the prison. Gaztelu-Urrutia leaves unexplored the structural relationship between the prison system and the prisoners.
We do see some of the exploitation experienced by the kitchen staff—the line cooks are egregiously chewed out by the head chef and they’re likely working for poor wages. But in the end, we learn nothing about their lives or that of the head chef. The kitchen staff is practically the only set of workers we engage with on the screen—the exact workers, who are necessary in reproducing the prison system. “The taste of porridge does not tell us who grew the oats, and…does not reveal the conditions under which it takes place, whether it is happening under the slave owner’s brutal lash or the anxious eye of the capitalist,” Marx notes in Capital. To pull from Jensen Suther, a Yale University PhD, The Platform is “cinema from below.” It looks radical and analytical, but it’s not. In describing Parasite—Bong Joon-ho’s 2019 Best Picture (a very good movie, by the way)—Suther writes: “what Bong’s film is missing is any sense of the deeper structural dynamic driving capitalism, and the metaphor of surface/depth it employs is deeply distorting.”
Gaztelu-Urruti’s fellow screenwriters, David Desola and Pedro Rivero, originally wrote The Platform as a play. There were fights in the writers room between Desola/Rivero and Gaztelu-Urrutia over “core and anecdotal elements.” The seeds of a strong, anti-capitalist critique may be found in those initial writings. In envisioning what that may have looked like, special attention should be put on the role of food in the film. “Food was treated as another character in the story,” as Gaztelu-Urrutia said; and the kitchen’s labor affords value to each piece of food (commodities) included in the buffet. We cannot view food in the same way as toilet paper or face masks. The latter two satisfy different biological and social needs.
In The Platform, food isn’t illusory. Its quality and taste are real and the kitchen staff engages in cooking it as if it’s “an object of excessive, almost erotic, opulent desire,” Gaztelu-Urrutia reminds viewers. Food is an immediate entry point into the prison’s realm of production. These are top-notch chefs, with shiny kitchenware and tools at their disposal. Marx wrote in Grundrisse: “Hunger is hunger; but the hunger that is satisfied by cooked meat eaten with a knife and fork differs from hunger that devours raw meat with the help of hands, nails and teeth.” Hunger experienced on the 20th floor is different than on the 100th floor, but as the movie progresses, they become more alike. Unnecessary fights break out when there’s enough food to share. Cannibalism isn’t a last resort. And despite hierarchical standing, food is consumed with hands, nails, and teeth on the privileged floors and on the less privileged ones. I expected prisoners to relish in untouched delicacies—instead of treating them like mere leftovers. I expected prisoners to share if there was enough to go around. And I thought Goreng would feast when allowed to do so. My expectations weren’t correct because of how the prison (like capitalism) naturalizes these circumstances.
The status and context attached to Bordeaux, lobster, and escargots à la bourguignonne is absent in the prison, regardless of which floor. This isn’t a feast to be enjoyed with friends and family. Food and drink are “perfect to be desecrated, destroyed, to end, further down, in what’s abject, in complete aberration,” as Gaztelu-Urrutia says. The food’s meaning and taste are lost on the prisoners because of their living hell. Can we blame them? While food can taste really good when you’re hungry, this is different. Prison induced hunger cannot be satisfied with fine food, no matter the Michelin rating. The prisoners’ hunger is for freedom. Different social and biological needs are fulfilled with different things. The satisfaction of one doesn’t mean the satisfaction of the other. Gaztelu-Urrutia shouldn’t use Bordeaux and lobster as throwaway metaphors—they should serve as a genuine basis for an anti-capitalist critique. That would’ve been an uppercut.
Art needn’t be anti-capitalist, but The Platform breaches this territory. It aims at our brutal realities under capitalism, albeit without the necessary context and history. The Platform, like many films of our time, is more committed to “aesthetics,” as people like to say. There are bright colors, fast cuts, and piercing music. Its theatrical use of a single set is compelling. The Platform’s deep nihilism comes out as the film ends. Things start to feel like a tragedy, but not a Greek one. Unfortunately, meaning is thrown out the window. All we’re left with is the meaning of “man”—and our meaning sucks.