Netflix’s class warfare movie ‘The Platform’ has struck a chord. Two economists explain why
Economics professors Susan Harmeling and Nico Voigtländer break down Netflix’s social allegory “The Platform,” exploring how the Spanish thriller is even more resonant in wake of the coronavirus pandemic.
Warning: The following contains spoilers for “The Platform,” now streaming on Netflix.
In the Netflix film “The Platform,” director Galder Gaztelu-Urrutia’s allegory about class warfare and the increasing fragility of our social pyramid, university student Goreng (Iván Massagué) willingly surrenders himself into a concrete tower-like prison for six months.
Referred to by staff as the Vertical Self-Management Center, the bizarre monolith houses its residents in hundreds of stacked cells — which are randomly reassigned each month — while the titular platform descends once a day bearing food. The platform stops on each level for a fixed period of time and those on the lower levels must pick over whatever is left from those above. By the time the platform descends past a certain level, those “leftovers” are nonexistent.
“There’s an Orwellian thing going on there,” said Susan Harmeling, an associate professor of entrepreneurship and an expert in business ethics at the Marshall School of Business at USC. “Instead of calling it hell on earth, which it actually is, they call it the vertical self-management center or the VSMC, which makes it seem a lot more sterile.”
Each floor of the VSMC has two cellmates who remain constant (at least as long as they’re alive), and each is permitted one personal item inside; Goreng chooses a copy of “Don Quixote,” while his cellmate Trimagasi selects a self-sharpening knife.
The Spanish-language “Platform” quickly became ensconced in Netflix’s top 10 most sampled titles in the U.S. upon its release March 20 (a rare feat for a foreign language film; ) and shot to the top of IMDb’s most searched titles. One reason to explain the unexpectedly popularity could be the movie’s exploration of the dark side of capitalism, the effects of which are even more glaring today as a result of the coronavirus pandemic and the burgeoning rise of the socialist movement.
The Times caught up with two economists — Harmeling and Nico Voigtländer, an associate professor at UCLA’s Anderson School of Management — to discuss how “The Platform” reflects our global economy, its resonance in wake of the COVID-19 pandemic and what each of them would choose as their one item in the pit.
What kinds of themes and philosophical theories did you recognize at play in “The Platform”?
Voigtländer: I immediately thought of the tragedy of the commons, which refers to the problem where, if anyone has access to common land, you’re going to have overuse in the end. It’s related to the prisoner’s dilemma where individually every person’s incentive is [self-serving in nature], which is of course bad for society. It would be much better to come to an agreement where you say, “We’re all using the land [or food] somewhat less so that there’s a benefit for everyone.” But you would always go back to that situation of overuse, unless you have enforcement or some code of conduct among these individuals that is very strong.
Harmeling: There’s a theory called the veil of ignorance from John Rawls, and it’s about designing a society where we are all behind this veil and don’t know whether we’re going to be rich or poor or what our natural abilities are. Certainly, you wouldn’t want to take a chance on not knowing, that’s not the kind of society I think anybody would want to live in. There’s also populism versus Marxism versus capitalism, and nihilism versus idealism, and also Maslow’s hierarchy of needs.
[In the film] everyone loses human empathy because they’re in a fight for their lives for survival and can’t afford to be self-actualized and have empathy because they don’t even have anything to eat. That vicious nihilism and lack of empathy, the empty populism, really, reflects the zeitgeist right now.
Along with recent films like “Knives Out,” “Parasite,” and “Joker,” class warfare and wealth disparity have been explored in contemporary media to both critical and commercial acclaim. Did you notice a through line between “The Platform” and those other movies?
Harmeling: One thing that I thought of that is also true of “Parasite” is this idea of the global elite. In “The Platform,” [Goreng] exhibits the cluelessness and sort of gullibility and naive idealism of the global elites by bringing a book into the pit instead of a knife or a gun. Like he’s going down there to do an intellectual study and to earn a degree. Then he realizes, "... here I am, I’m stuck in it.”
That naive idealism comes through in “Parasite” too with the son saying, “Rich people are so gullible.” That idea of not knowing what you don’t know was another theme that I thought came through really clearly. The nihilism of “Joker” also comes through here too. Sort of the clown leading the clowns, the emptiness of populism.
Why do you think movies and television series about these themes are achieving popularity now? It’s not as if wealth or income disparity is a new thing.
Harmeling: I think there’s a reckoning coming. The millennial generation has fewer assets than the couple of generations that preceded them. So I think that there’s this fascination with somebody like Bernie Sanders by young people, because people are scared and don’t see a path to the wealth of their parents, to homeownership, to having enough stability to start a family. There’s climate change, there’s so many issues that people of this generation are facing. People are saying, “You know what, this isn’t fair that these corporations aren’t paying taxes or that the top 1% to 2% has such a share of the wealth of this country.”
Everybody’s terrified of the word “socialist,” and God forbid “communist” or “Marxist,” but it seems to me that the pendulum is probably going to start swinging back towards competent government and some regulation and reining in of some of this literal feeding at the trough.
The film takes on a new resonance in wake of the coronavirus pandemic. Did you draw any parallels between what was happening in the film and what is going on in the world now while you were watching it?
Harmeling: Those who were feasting at the great banquet in “The Platform” are probably the same people who can buy a ventilator or are already in better health because they have healthcare in the first place. Rich people or people with good jobs have healthcare, so they have a better chance of surviving this pandemic. It’s disproportionately affecting communities of color, which is shocking but not surprising.
It’s this idea of the haves and the have-nots and the fallacy of trickle-down Reaganomics. There was a literal trickle down going on in “The Platform” where the people at the top eat the best, and by the time you get to the bottom, there’s nothing to eat. And we’re seeing with this coronavirus crisis that being played out to the nth degree.
Voigtländer: I actually had a different thought. I was thinking of this platform as how we hand down our planet from generation to generation and how it’s just getting more and more depleted as time goes by. Ultimately, what we should aim for as humanity is to hand [the Earth] over to our children in a way that it’s still usable for them. For me, that was the allegory of the movie.
How did you feel about the ending?
Harmeling: There seems to be some debate about what it was supposed to mean. That you’ve somehow saved the next generation or that the next generation needs to save itself? I wasn’t sure what the message was. In a way, it was a good ending, in the fact that it wasn’t completely definitive or a closed book. It left you reflecting on various things, and that is maybe frustrating but pretty effective.
Voigtländer: I think it was effective. My interpretation was that on the way down to do something for the common good, [Goreng] got blood on his hands and lost his purity. Sometimes to do things for the common good you have to break with your own ideals.
Which of the characters in “The Platform” do you feel had the approach that would lead to the most favorable outcome for all?
Harmeling: In the end, maybe it is [Goreng] who has the best approach. We come to believe he doesn’t get out [of the pit], but he’s helped to propel... the child who we assume ended up getting out. Even through his naïveté, to bring a book to what’s essentially a Darwinistic knife fight, maybe in the end love and altruism is really what will win out. I’d like to think so anyway.
What one item would you choose to bring?
Voigtländer: I would have to think about what I would bring but the incentives are clear. You just want to have the most powerful weapon in there.
Harmeling: [Laughs] You know, I’d probably do the same thing [as Goreng]. I’d probably bring a book of poetry or something like that. As much as I am almost embarrassed to admit that, it would allow me to at least at some moments think other thoughts or remember and reflect on beauty and offer perhaps some motivation and inspiration to try to get through it. Even though I say how naive he was, I wouldn’t bring a knife or a gun to that fight either.
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