Curved Platform Station

03/12/2018

Still From 'The Tower of Seven Hunchbacks'

Seeing Madrid From Below

In Edgar Neville’s The Tower of Seven Hunchbacks (1944), an adaptation of a 1920 novel by Emilio Carrere, the hero comes across an underground city – originally established by Spanish Jews escaping the inquisition – that now serves as hideout for a cabal of nefarious hunchbacks. The story, which blends comic phantasmagoria with a visual fealty to certain neighborhoods of Madrid, is set in the 19th Century, before construction of the city’s metro system began tunneling through the earth.

Anyone who descends the escalators into one of system’s more than 300 stations finds themselves in a place somehow analogous to that gothic lair below the streets, an alternate universe of different customs, in which time, to some degree, has stood still. Perhaps those who spend a good percentage of their existence underneath the city are not so much commuters, but denizens of this subterranean world. They know its paces and rhythms, its sounds and routines, intimately.

Estacion Chamberi

“Atención, estación en curva. Al salir, tengan cuidado de no introducir el pie entre coche y andén.”

Attention: curved platform station. Upon exiting, take care not to stick your foot between the car and the platform. (If one tries to transpose the precision and imagery of it into English, it inevitably becomes clumsy and jumbled, on top of losing its gruff politeness).

This announcement, with its Castillian scrupulousness and poetic timing, is heard by passengers at nearly every interval (at least, many of the underground ones). When you alight from the train, you step over a gap of time, a lacuna of memory in which each station exists.

Nowhere is this feeling more acute than in the decommissioned Chamberí station, which went out of use in 1966. It was subsequently converted into a museum, known as Platform Zero, where people can now go to see a replica of the station as it looked upon its 1919 opening. Period tilework shows advertisements for torrefacto coffee and Philips lamps, and the metro maps show a pleasingly uni-linear system (nothing like the ever-growing, 13-line leviathan that it is today).

Estacion Chamberi 1

Fernando León de Aranoa’s film Barrio (1998), made before the refurbishment of Chamberí, explores the mystery of the passageways. The three teenaged boys on a trip through the hidden parts of the city walk along the tracks, only to discover an entire community living in the abandoned station – Romany, immigrants and other people pushed to the extreme margins of the city.

Still From 'Barrio'

Riding the metro is seen as such a humdrum activity that it barely appears in cinema, except for a few brief instances. Even iconically Madrid filmmakers like Almodóvar don’t seem interested in it at all. In Ivan Zulueta’s Arrebato (1979), the protagonist mainly traverses the city in his car. And then, in Jim Jarmusch’s The Limits of Control (2009), Isaach De Bankolé’s character uses the cercanías, or commuter rail (consisting of 90 stations, some of which overlap with the metro), but not its municipal counterpart.

Because it’s so quotidian that films – either those showing the most privileged or the most impoverished – tend to avoid it, the metro’s status as the great leveler rarely gets a reference. A possible exception is the omnibus film Erotic Tales (1980), in which a number of different stations are passed through in the title sequence of each episode, as different characters intersect on their journeys.

Estacion Cuentos

Understandably if the metro is used at all, it’s as an interim, a linking of scenes, or to lend recognizability to the location. Fleeting as its appearances may be, they each have a vital function connecting narrative to place to theme.

The historically Jewish neighborhood of Lavapiés is the setting of the 1951 film Furrows. Lavapiés’ reputation, for most of its existence, as a slum where new immigrants from the countryside (and, nowadays, many nationalities, including Senegalese, Ecuadorian and Bangladeshi) come to make their way in the unforgiving city is an important aspect of the story. The film takes place in the bus depots and plazas of the city, the napkin-littered locales (bars) and employment lines. In this early scene we see the family of the story, newly-arrived in Madrid from their pueblo, coming up from the Lavapiés metro station to ask for directions. Which way is up?

Still From 'Furrows'

In José María Forqué’s My Uncle Hyacinth (1956), a different family of slum-dwellers crosses the city, but in style, starting from Tirso de Molina station…

Still From 'My Uncle Hyacinth'

… and emerging at – where else? – Ventas, the site of the city’s bullfighting ring.

Still From 'My Uncle Hyacinth'

In One Million in the Trash (1967), José Luis López Vázquez plays a public works employee who finds the titular stash of money in a garbage can while on the job one night. Here we see the character and his wife surface from the Sevilla metro stop, trying – at least starting – to do the honorable thing by turning in the money.

Still From 'One Million in the Trash'

One of the few instances when the metro is depicted as a definite, experiential and quite tactile place is in Belmar’s horror-comedy A Vampire for Two (1965), which devotes its title sequence to it. Shown in a delirious first-person take – complete with sweaty crowds of people pushing and arguing with each other while making their way through the turnstyles and onto the train – we experience Puerta del Sol, not only an entry to the city’s best-known plaza, but a hub of metro lines and cercanías. Again, the ubiquitous everyman José Luis López Vázquez appears, portraying a metro employee tired of the daily grind, and we see it through his eyes. (In a relatable turn, he can’t seem to escape the underground). Here he is after having been squeezed out of a train car just trying to get to work.

Still From 'A Vampire for Two'

Are there any surprises left on the metro? The millions who ride it each day can attest to the fact that, each day, it coughs up a surprise or two. But cinema has yet to discover it as a meaningful location in itself. It is – as in Furrows – a wormhole to a different reality, meeting disparate societies and environments. And perhaps its secrets haven’t all been demolished, passed over, museumized; the layers of the past are more present than anyone realizes, the city reflected in the sediment.

Still From 'Barrio'

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