The Prince: “I haven’t yet had a report from your office. What’s your work like?”
The Warden: “Every night the same. Every night till the heart beats as if it were about to burst.”
– Franz Kafka, “The Warden of the Tomb”
* * *
No reader of Kafka’s “Metamorphosis” can help but be unnerved by its eerie, unforgettable opening image. Gregor Samsa awakens in his room to realize he has become a man-sized cockroach, lying prostrate on his back, his numerous legs helplessly waving at the ceiling. Much easier to miss, and dismiss, is the crucial second paragraph, which in effect reveals the reason for the transformation and with it the logic, such as it is, underpinning the rest of the story. Gregor, Kafka remarks, is a traveling salesman. The rootlessness and alienation inherent in his lifestyle are symbolized by his bedroom at home, a cramped, bare-walled box, decorated only with the framed picture of a woman he once tore off some magazine. Lonely, miserable, pointless work, Kafka tacitly declares, engenders lonely, miserable, pointless life, life worthy not of human beings but of insects.
Strange as it may seem from this mini synopsis, Kafka wrote “Metamorphosis” as comedy. He famously had trouble reading it aloud to friends because he couldn’t stop cracking himself up. Much of the humor, at least in the initial sections, stems from Gregor’s inability, even in his new and extraordinary condition, to stop worrying about his job:
What a fate, to be condemned to work for a firm where the smallest omission at once gave rise to the gravest suspicion! Were all employees in a body nothing but scoundrels, was there not among them one single loyal devoted man who, had he wasted only an hour or so of the firm’s time in a morning, was so tormented by conscience as to be driven out of his mind and actually incapable of leaving his bed?1
“Metamorphosis” is not a workplace comedy (except for the last scene, it takes place entirely inside the apartment Gregor shares with his family), but its notion of work as enslaving and brain numbing and soul sucking has been a common trope of workplace comedy films at least since the days of Chaplin. Gregor’s predicament is Kafkaesque, if you will, because the mental and physical tools that have so far allowed him to settle into the appearance of a normal life are no longer applicable. He must thereafter struggle endlessly, and futilely, against metaphysical forces beyond his control or understanding, not unlike Chaplin’s Factory Worker in Modern Times, caught inside the gear-encrusted bowels of the mechanical monster, or the impotent underlings tortured by demonic bosses in 9 to 5, Office Space, or The Devil Wears Prada.
The three latter films all combat the Kafkaesque nightmare of work, first with cynical resignation, then with wish-fulfillment fantasy, which for actual human beings is significantly less useful than cynical resignation. It’s a sad truth that for most people the only thing worse than having a job is not having a job. One must work to live in this world, “by the sweat of your brow” and so on. Ask the victims of downsizing in, say, Up in the Air. So, how to deal with the potential obliteration of the self through work that Kafka envisioned? Are we condemned to struggle and suffer until death, or at least retirement, loathsome bugs toiling away for nothing much, victims of helplessness like poor Gregor?
The 2015 Mexican feature Almacenados (Warehoused), directed by Jack Zagha Kababie from a script by Catalan playwright David Desola, is divided into five clearly demarcated sections, each standing for a day of the workweek. The first one, “Monday,” playfully insinuates that its protagonists are poised to fall into the Kafkaesque abyss. The introductory shots show young Nin (Hoze Meléndez, looking distractingly like a Mexican Millennial first cousin of Joseph Gordon Levitt) on a long train ride, his ears securely plugged by buds blaring death metal into his brain. He talks to no one, interacts with no one. Remind you of anyone? His destination, we discover, is a small warehouse on the industrial outskirts of an unnamed urban landscape. Inside awaits Señor Lino (José Carlos Ruiz, evincing a village-elder stoicism perennially contravened by the creases crosscutting his sagging face). Nin bangs on the door. “You’re the new guy?” Sr. Lino asks. Nin nods and walks inside.
Sr. Lino, we quickly learn, has more than a little Gregor Samsa in him. Inside the empty warehouse there is only a chair and desk, on which sit three large logbooks and a rotary phone one might see in a Barnaby Jones episode from 1977, and a punch card machine hanging from the unadorned wall, keeping time with dry, merciless thwacks. An empty, featureless room. Remind you of someplace? Sr. Lino explains the rules of the place to Nin in measured tones. Workers must wear the company jacket, and wash it themselves. The phone is not to be used for personal business. They must punch in and out at precise times. Just in case the Kafkaesque tone has not yet been fully established, the card machine is exactly seven minutes fast. Thus, Sr. Lino instructs, one must clock in exactly seven minutes before work actually begins. When Nin complains at this ridiculousness, Sr. Lino waves him off: “What matters is what’s written on the card!” At the end of each declarative statement he requests acknowledgment from Nin. “Estamos?” he asks, again and again. Are we present? Are we clear?
In short order, order being the operative word, Sr. Lino describes the circumstances of their employment. Sr. Lino has managed Warehouse B of Salvaleón Aluminum Flagpoles and Masts Company Inc. for twenty-eight years. “Warehouse A holds the flagpoles,” he explains, “Warehouse B holds the masts. Poles are for flags, masts are for boats. We do not handle the flagpoles. Estamos?” Sr. Lino worked under the previous manager for eleven years before taking over the top position, for a total of thirty-nine years on the job. Now he is being sent to early retirement due to arthritis, and has only five days, one single workweek, to train Nin. This, as it turns out, isn’t too challenging. It takes him only a few moments to outline every last detail of the work. “Now what do we do?” Nin wanders. “We wait for the trucks to come.” “How often do they come?” “They come when they come,” replies the old man with finality, and then sits on his chair, his hands placed protectively over the logbooks (“Number One is for merchandise received, Number Two is for merchandise shipped,” and so on, “Estamos?”), to wait.
Nin catches on quickly to the situation. The warehouse is empty. There is no merchandise. Trucks never come. Sr. Lino sits all day long, rarely moving, following an exact and unbreakable routine. At lunchtime he eats lunch. At 3 pm he punches out and leaves, as he has done every workday for thirty-nine years. For the time being, he declares, Nin must stand next to the desk – “There is only one chair” – waiting for the trucks to arrive. “You’re lucky,” he notes, “I had to stand for eleven years.”
The card clock thwacks away. Nin glimpses a spiderweb up in a corner of the ceiling. Will he, like Sr. Lino, become entrapped like a fly in this empty, silent, useless space? He wants to listen to music, but Sr. Lino won’t let him. He wants to go get something to eat. “A truck might come while you’re gone,” scolds Sr. Lino, savoring the opportunity to at last tell another person what to do. “Should we sweep the warehouse?” Nin asks, only a short time into the job and already desperate for something to do. “We sweep fifteen minutes before closing,” Sr. Lino informs him. “Sweeping now, when a truck may arrive at any moment, would be absurd.”
He’s right too. It would be absurd. But isn’t absurdity the only possible response to the condition diagnosed by Kafka? Many critics, no doubt due to the unusual qualities of the film – two lone characters, a single physical location, a clearly demarcated chronological structure – have typecast Almacenados as absurdist parable. “A barren space,” says one (of the original play on which the script is based), “repeated dialogues, sitting in wait, it all points us to the absurd and, especially, to Waiting for Godot by Samuel Beckett.”2 “Essentially,” says another (of the film), “this is Waiting for Godot with (or rather without) merchandise.”3
This is a gross misreading. It’s true that the script lends itself to multiple interpretations. Desola has said that it alludes to “the emptiness of many jobs,” “the fear of being laid off,” “the uncertainty of young people entering the job market,” “the submission of veteran workers,” and more.4 The author also makes use of the five segments of the script to lead Sr. Lino through the five stages of grief at the prospect of losing his job. But there is nothing absurd about Almacenados. Indeed, it stands squarely against absurdity.
Nin and Sr. Lino are nothing like Vladimir and Estragon, the pathetic protagonists of Beckett’s classic. While the dialogue in Waiting for Godot is cryptic and ambiguous, the two men in Almacenados speak with the earnest sincerity of Judd Apatow characters. They lash out, or lie to each other, on occasion, but when caught they not only admit to the trespass but go on to explain why they trespassed and how they felt about it. While the bare sets of Godot induce claustrophobia, Nin and Sr. Lino come and go as they please. They show up late or leave early, they go to the toilet, they open the metal garage door on one hopeful occasion. While Vladimir and Estragon have no defined existence outside of the action and the dialogue, Sr. Lino and Nin are given lives of their own. Each likes his own kind of music, his own kind of food. They have families. “I have a son a little older than you,” Sr. Lino tells Nin. “He’s married. Maybe he’ll give me a grandchild.” Godot speaks in fuzzy abstractions, it appeals to the subconscious, it offers no conclusive answers. Almacenados speaks in figures and facts and arguments, it appeals to conscious reason, it answers every question it poses. Godot despairs at the meaninglessness of it all. Almacenados exults in the self’s capacity to shape and create meaning. Both claim existentialist clarity, except that Godot is the depressing kind of existentialist and Almacenados is the happy kind.
The film begins to signal its true intentions in a brilliantly understated fashion. As the two men sweep the floor before closing up on Monday, Nin wonders how much money he can expect to make from being assistant manager to Warehouse B. “Less than the manager,” Sr. Lino demurs. “And how much does the manager make?” To this Sr. Lino retorts with his favorite saying: “Aquí vamos a lo que vamos.” Around here we go where we go. We take care of business. “You ask too many questions,” he grumbles. Were this Waiting for Godot, the conversation would curl into itself like tissue paper in water, the interlocutors would jab and parry at each other, and the question would never be answered. But this is not what happens in Almacenados. Nin doesn’t let it happen. “So, how much do you make?” Sr. Lino resists. “Are you embarrassed?” Nin jabs, and this, miraculously, works. “3,880 pesos a month,” Sr. Lino says. And there it is. An actual, specific, definite number. No tricks, no codes, no evasions. 3,880 pesos a month. Not a lot of money, given Nin’s disappointed reaction. But not nothing either, for if it were nothing Nin would just up and leave. Still, “That’s what you get after forty years on the job?” “Thirty-nine,” corrects Sr. Lino. “It’s a fixed salary. Estamos?” A flash of something, we don’t know what yet, but we’ll learn soon enough, flashes across Nin’s face. “Estamos.”
On Tuesday the revolution begins. Nin walks in carrying an object wrapped in plastic. Sr. Lino, still under the illusion that he’s in charge, berates Nin for punching in before putting on his work uniform. He’s a firm, though not cruel, taskmaster. “Should I do it again?” asks Nin. “It’s not necessary. Just remember for next time.” Then Nin does the unthinkable. From the plastic wrapping he extracts a folding chair. As Sr. Lino stares in utter disbelief, Nin places it next to the desk, and with no further ado sits himself down. “It’s strange,” Sr. Lino mumbles. Nin wants to know why. “You, sitting next to me.” Nin, still solicitous, wants to know if Sr. Lino has a problem. Sr. Lino doesn’t. Instead, he chuckles. “I was thinking of all those years I spent standing next to this desk.” Nin seems distraught. “Do you resent me for sitting?” Sr. Lino says no. “It’s just … it would never have occurred to me.”
The conversation ends with a misleading and perfunctory exchange about how kids today are different. “We cared about different things,” muses Sr. Lino. But he doesn’t really mean it. If anything, the platitude is an admission of defeat. From this moment on, Almacenados unfolds under newly defined metaphysical stakes. Sr. Lino and Nin are not, after all, powerless bugs trapped in a nightmarish job by invincible powers. Sr. Lino’s absurdly regimented existence is not working life stealing his humanity. It’s how he asserts his humanity. It’s true that he has become servile and utterly dependent on his invisible superiors for his sense of self. He has accepted that his salary should never change, that he should clock in seven minutes early every day while already wearing the uniform. Nin wants to know why Sr. Lino doesn’t call and complain about the punch cards. Sr. Lino assures him that company managements has better things to do. But inside the warehouse he sets the rules. He doesn’t change because he doesn’t want to, even as he must continue to do the job, the stupid, pointless job. Into his hermetic life he has welcomed one type of insect: ants. “You only need to look at them,” he says brightly, “to see that the world functions. That it doesn’t stop.”
And Nin? Nin is certainly no insect. He is a metaphysical force to rival the eater of souls. He is the one in control. He is the one who knocks. The blaring music that plays in his ears as he walks to work on Wednesday morning is now marching music for this formidable warrior. His power is reason: mathematics, logic, critical thinking. He is curious and observant. His speaking and thinking are precise. He doesn’t let questions go unanswered, nor problems go unsolved. He isn’t a master of the universe, he’s just an assistant manager at a desolate warehouse, but he’s master of himself. He will not let his job define who he is. A truck comes, just once. But it isn’t, Sr. Lino is crushed to see, one of Salvaleón’s trucks but one of his competitor’s. Nin is happy. “I thought of unloading a truck,” he confesses to Sr. Lino, “and all I felt was laziness.”
Instead of working, at some point, possibly on Tuesday, perhaps even before, Nin has decided to solve the problem that is Sr. Lino. Nin sees the human in Sr. Lino where the old man only sees an ant. He must show Sr. Lino the path to himself, though first he must defeat the enemy holding him captive. He gets the perfect chance to pounce on Wednesday. Sr. Lino is set to go to company headquarters to sign his pension papers. He dreams of meeting the company boss, Sr. Salvaleón, the man he has served faithfully his entire adult life. Nin knows what will happen: Sr. Lino will be greeted by some humorless HR rep, handed papers to sign, and sent promptly on his way. So, the moment Sr. Lino leaves the warehouse, Nin takes command. On a whim, he performs a swift and shocking act of cruelty on Sr. Lino’s beloved ants. Nin is not an angel after all. He’s a metaphysical force. As Sr. Lino slowly makes his way to the corporate headquarters, Nin picks up the forbidden phone and in a few minutes more or less makes all of Sr. Lino’s dreams come true. While on the line with the CEO of the company of which he is the lowliest employee, Nin unveils his superpowers: his cunning, his understanding of human psychology, his sharp and clear-sighted spirit. While running verbal laps around the big boss man he calculates on a piece of paper the exact amount of money the company owns Sr. Lino for punching in seven minutes early every working day for thirty-nine years. Can you imagine any character of Waiting for Godot doing math? The conversation goes on and on. Nin becomes increasingly chummy with Salvaleón, he mocks him, he persuades him to humiliate himself in front of Sr. Lino. He owns him.
Almacenados is not Nin’s story. As much as he thinks and learns, Nin doesn’t grow or change any more than Mary Poppins changes while saving Mr. Banks. Everything is available to him, everything is easy. This is Sr. Lino’s story. But before the old man can be saved he must see himself. Thursday is the day of confrontation, the day when truth comes to light and the battle for supremacy is fought. Sr. Lino loses, as he must. On Friday we see him walking to work, as Nin has taken possession of the chair and the desk and the rest of the kingdom. For good measure, Nin has arranged a final gift for the old man. Sr. Lino gratefully submits to the greater power.
The final moments of the film, on Friday of course, unfortunately abandon the heightened anti-absurdity of the story and descend into didacticism. “Why would you continue working here?” Sr. Lino asks this clearly brilliant and resourceful young man. “I’ve been looking for full-time work for two years,” Nin confesses, “I can’t lose this one.” “But this job doesn’t exist!” “This job is like all other jobs. One must make a living.” Nin will continue to show up for work next week, and the week after that. “This job is a mistake. It’s meaningless. But I don’t care. It’s a contract and a salary.” He will build his own world in the empty warehouse, most likely one very different from the one Sr. Lino inhabited for so long. But not right away. “If you don’t mind, Nin, I could come next Monday for a couple of hours, to help out with what’s needed.” Like Gregor Samsa, Sr. Lino and Lin can’t help being imprisoned, but they do get to choose the manner of their imprisonment. And, even more importantly, they have each other for company, if only for a little while.
* * *
Unless otherwise indicated, all images are screenshots from the film.
- The Complete Stories by Franz Kafka, trans. by Nahum Glatzer. Shocken Books, New York, 1988, p. 120. [↩]
- Adriana Santa Cruz “‘Almacenados’, David Desola” http://leedor.com/2018/07/19/almacenados-david-desola/ accessed on September 22, 2018. [↩]
- Boyd Van Hoeij “‘Warehoused’ (‘Almacenados’): The Morelia Review” https://www.hollywoodreporter.com/review/warehoused-almacenados-morelia-review-840406 accessed on September 22, 2018. [↩]
- David Desola interview in Sala Verdi http://salaverdi.montevideo.gub.uy/teatro/almacenados-de-david-desola accessed on September 24, 2018. [↩]