NEAR the end of Bong Joon-ho’s SNOWPIERCER (2013), Curtis (Chris Evans) sits in a train carriage decorated with luxurious mahogany wood and crystal wine glasses. His clothing, dirtied, colourless and stained with the blood of his friends and comrades, contrasts his environment. The difference in wealth and social standing is evident and the envy he may feel is understandable. As he stares down at the extravagant meal laid out before him by Wilford (Ed Harris), he finds himself talking to someone he considered to be the face of injustice and inequality, justifying his actions that led to such loss of life on both sides. If the rising up of the poor to seek equality is so righteous, is a justification even needed? As the conversation between the two unfolds, Curtis begins to doubt his cause, questioning whether or not it was simply another cog in society’s grand machine. And he too begins to doubt himself as he submits to the temptation of running the train, taking his place at the pinnacle of the class system that his entire life on the train had been structured by. Is his oppression at the hands of this class system caused by the system itself? Is it humanity’s power-hungry, greed-orientated and conflict-prone nature that has caused events within SNOWPIERCER to take place?
The train on which SNOWPIERCER is set exists as a brazen allegory and a worryingly accurate microcosm for modern society and humanity in general. The train operates on a tiered class system based on the original tickets bought by its passengers at the start of its 17-year-long journey. The richest live a life of luxury in first class carriages towards the nose of the train, in carriages akin to an extravagant hotel, albeit one crashing at high speeds through walls of ice and snow. Those who could be considered middle class reside in the economy section towards the centre of the train, living quite comfortably with access to anything that meets their basic needs as well as privileges such as education and dentistry. Towards the tail, the poor reside in crowded, cramped carriages too small for their numbers, living in the bunks of a dystopian slum, clothed in drab rags in browns, blacks and greys. The daily visit from Minister Mason (Tilda Swindon) does much to substantiate thoughts regarding the film’s commentary as she delivers a monologue on the necessity of passengers remaining in their “pre-ordained positions” lest anarchy take hold.
IS HIS OPPRESSION AT THE HANDS OF THIS CLASS SYSTEM CAUSED BY THE SYSTEM ITSELF?
Film academics Harry M Benshoff and Sean Griffin discuss in their 2011 study AMERICA ON FILM: REPRESENTING RACE, CLASS, GENDER, AND SEXUALITY AT THE MOVIES how the strength of a class system defines the ease at which the power structure is upheld through hegemonic pressure. While this remains true for the middle and upper classes that live comfortably, this social pressure has the opposite effect on the lower classes, aggravating resentment and volatility. Examples of this can be seen throughout history just as readily as it can be seen within SNOWPIERCER. Revolutions throughout history having attributed a share of the blame to rising tensions through tiered classes, demonstrated in Sergei Eistenstein’s BATTLESHIP POTEMKIN (1925) and STRIKE (1925).
CLASS NOW EXISTS AS A STRONG STITCH THAT BINDS SOCIETY TOGETHER.
When society and the class system crumble, Gustave Le Bon observed in his 1913 treatise THE PSYCHOLOGY OF REVOLUTION, men and women’s moralities crumble alongside their endeavour to tear down class structures: “The people may kill, burn, ravage, commit the most frightening cruelties, glorify their hero today and throw him into the gutter tomorrow, it is all the same”. Le Bon’s writings are strikingly similar to the thoughts portrayed by Minister Mason. Without structure, anarchy is free to reign. Although the appeal of revolution is an understandable one looking at the contrasting conditions and privileges between classes, revolution replaces one system with another and does not deal with the enduring factor of Man’s predisposition to ambition and greed.
While class now exists as a strong stitch that binds society together, its roots stem only from humanity’s need to categorise. Renowned crime writer and essayist Dorothy L Sayers wrote in the 1970s in ARE WOMEN HUMAN? ASTUTE AND WITTY ESSAYS ON THE ROLE OF WOMEN IN SOCIETY? “We are much too much inclined in these days to divide people into permanent categories, forgetting that a category only exists for its special purpose and must be forgotten as soon as that purpose is served”. The idea of class was created as a means of placing society into categories denoted by their income or wealth, as harmless of a categorisation as “boys and girls" or “children and adults”. Often society forgets that these categories do not make up the identity of a person and how they are destined to remain.
In many cases a person may move up or down through classes within their lifetime. In a 2016 New York Times article “The Psychology of Genre”, Tom Vanderbilt states “Perception is not an innocent process: What we think we’re looking at can alter what we actually see. More broadly, when we put things into a category, research has found, they actually become more alike in our minds”. Perception is everything when it comes to categorisation and when things are placed into categories we attach connotations to everything that falls within this category. The rich may look down on the poor, seeing them as uneducated, lazy or in the case of SNOWPIERCER “freeloaders”. Likewise, the poor may look down on the rich seeing them as greedy, apathetic and perhaps even malicious, attaching a figurative label denoting evil based simply on how much money they possess.
While having numerous similarities to modern society, the class structure within SNOWPIERCER lacks a key feature: social mobility. Within the class system of the train there is no structure in place through which “citizens” may move upwards or downwards in class, with the exception of Curtis. Wilford tells Curtis “everyone has their preordained position, and everyone is in their place except you”. Through Curtis’s fervour towards his cause he manages to force himself out of his class, in a way that exemplifies Wilford’s beliefs towards the train’s ecosystem. Wilford believes in a meshing of Marxism and Darwinian economic and political determinism. In 1859, naturalist Charles Darwin considered balance in THE ORIGIN OF SPECIES, commenting on the treacherous tightrope a species exists upon as it attempts to survive: “A grain in the balance will determine which individual shall live and which shall die - which variety or species shall increase in number, and which shall decrease, or finally become extinct”. This can be seen in SNOWPIERCER as readily and directly as it can be seen in nature, for an exponentially growing population could not be sustained by a finite area of food and water production, or a finite area of living space, an administrative issue that humanity is already beginning to face as populations skyrocket. Due to these population problems Wilford required “more radical solutions”.
IS THIS ENDING BITTERSWEET OR RESOUNDINGLY BITTER?
It is through these radical solutions that we see an oddly-direct sense of Marxism employed by Wilford, which requires the lower classes to be pitted against the upper classes in constant conflict. These faux-revolutions must be staged on a regular basis to ensure population control within the ecosystem. Without the existence of an impoverished, unequal class, without the mass hysteria of direct government mandated killings, or without the starvation of many, the population could never be controlled. Without a wealthy class living a life of luxury, occasionally venturing to the tail of the train to provide a scathing opinion on people’s places in the world, the lower class would have nobody to pit themselves against, nor hope towards toppling the regime that they find themselves existing in. Class is the structural backbone that allows balance to be maintained. It is only Man (in this case, Wilford, John Hurt’s Gilliam and, unknowingly, Curtis) that twist class into a means of systematically culling an entire population. An evil, but a necessary evil.
“Escape as part of a class is impossible; only as individuals can men achieve their salvation”, film academic John Hill wrote in his 1986 study SEX, CLASS AND REALISM. His observation that the ability to escape class being an individualist struggle rather than one an entire collective can undertake is demonstrated by SNOWPIERCER. Although aided by his peers, Curtis manages to escape the lower class, if only for the tiniest of moments. In doing so, he must accept the existence of the system if he is to remain on the train, or if the train is to continue to exist. It is only through the actions of Namgoong Minsoo (Song Kang-ho) that the class structure and ecosystem of the train is torn down, in turn killing every passenger aboard but two.
While these last two survive, is this ending bittersweet or resoundingly bitter? Out in the open world for the first time, it may seem like these two are finally allowed to experience life beyond the train and they sight a polar bear, symbolising the resurgence of life on Earth. But two children born on the train and forced out into the barren wilderness of a frozen world may well find themselves wishing for the familiar comfort of the train as they starve and freeze. Although noble, the prospect of ridding the notion of class from society, the total destruction of structure, would similarly leave society in the cold.
It is evident that class itself exists as an innocent idea, a tool for categorisation that alone is not the cause of inequality or conflict. It is through the notion of a natural hierarchy that inequality exists, some being smarter than others, stronger than others, or even luckier than others. It is through humanity’s historic and repetitive pre-disposition towards conflict that we can see these classes pitting themselves against each other again and again as each battle is used to protect their own interests. Class may be one of the more current reasons for individuals to hate and commit violence against each other, but it will not be the last.