Mole People

The Burrow (1931) and Dark Days (2000)



Kafka’s unfinished short story puts us into the first person document of a paranoid mole-man who has, against the odds, constructed a labyrinthine network of tunnels under the earth, mainly by using his ‘perfect instrument’ of a forehead. He exists in his tunnels in a heightened state of emergency, constantly driven my the need to re-shape or change his fortress to prolong the inevitable day when it falls into the hands of an intruder.

The tunnel system is not described accurately by Kafka, but we learn that it contains a variety of tunnel shapes, some wide and some extremely narrow, some slant upwards, some descend and others are vertical. There are numerous rooms which are rounded out, little pods, and they also vary in size but are often nothing more than a place to sleep. In the centre is the Castle Keep, a large room hammered out of sandy soil by thousands of blows from that impressive forehead.

Take a moment to try and visualise those tunnels. Kafka never describes a light source so he probably spends his days in complete darkness. He says at one point that he knows every room by the feel of its wall. He has a complete map in his head, and navigates by smell and touch. Imagine crawling through this lair, on your hands and knees, perhaps even squirming on your stomach. The rich smell of humid earth fills your nostrils. It is silent, but due to your heightened senses you hear a liminal background noise, the scurrying of the ‘small fry’ and the passage of air as it circulates. Imagine whole days spent like this, the hours stretching out unmarked.

The documentary Dark Days follows the inhabitants of train tunnels in New York City in the 1990s. One man describes how he came to live down below. He says no one hassles him down there, no one is after him. Another man talks about the free electricity: he can leave his TV on all night if he wants. Freedom. We see a number of hand-build shacks and re-purposed buildings: wooden walls, a balcony, chicken wire. Sofas and electrical appliances are salvaged and brought below. The director keeps cutting back to the ‘small fry’, the rats, as if to remind us that this is not a cosy children’s den with clothes heaped high and endless barbecues into the endless night.


The burrow isn’t quite self-sufficient. The mole-man must return to the surface for hunting raids, and possibly to acquire water (it is not clear where he gets his drinking water). These foraging missions are a source of great anxiety for he must risk being seen leaving or returning. For this reason, his hideaway has a number of defences. The entrance is hidden first by a wall of moss and then a cave, from which there is an opening, and then a maze that is intended to deter anyone away who gets this far. Occasionally he gets lost in his own maze and this encourages him, but only for a moment. His anxieties about flaws in his design always return, and he slides between a proud father and a realist who accepts the imperfections of his castle:

Now the truth of the matter — and one has no eye for that in times of great peril, and only by a great effort even in times when danger is threatening — is that in reality the burrow does provide a considerable degree of security, but by no means enough, for is one ever free from anxieties inside it? These anxieties are different from ordinary ones, prouder, richer in content, often long repressed, but in their destructive effects they are perhaps much the same as the anxieties that existence in the outer world gives rise to.

The mole people too are chased by their demons. Dee, a woman in her fifties, lost both her children when a fire ravaged her apartment. Ralph was serving a prison sentence when his five-year-old daughter was raped and mutilated. But while the sense of community and the friendships born in those tunnels may have lifted up the people there, the mole-man suffers under his own microscope. His great monument to freedom, the burrow, is also his prison. He tackles his anxieties with logic, but those buttressing-sentences collapse immediately as they divert, but do not diminish, his compulsive energy and this leads to either exhaustion, ritualised behaviour or a grand project intended to dissipate the fixation; but each plugged hole only leads to another appearing: the burrow becomes the stage for his demons.

In the last act of the story he hears a whistling sound which seems to come from everywhere at once. He tears up his burrow, digging here and there with abandon. His mind reels from one theory to the next until it settles on one narrative: another burrower, just like him, is encircling and closing in. It is the trope of the superior other, the double that seems to know each of your moves before you make it. Since the story is unfinished we never witness the end to the mole-man’s nightmare, and we are forced to stop and leave him in the tunnels, leave him to dig his labyrinth because, like the black swan, not seeing the beast doesn’t mean it can’t exist.


Reading the story alongside the film shows up some interesting counterpoints. We watch as a man sets up a trap outside his den, using a piece of string as a tripwire, with one end tied to a frying pan placed on a wall. Many take pride in their homes, painting the walls and clearing the rubbish away. They also return to the outside world for what they can’t get below. Some collect cans for the local authority, others trawl through bins and skips for anything they can use or sell. Tommy says that he thinks 80% of the mole people are addicted to crack. They live in their own piss and shit because they need to retreat even further: we say ‘spiral into addiction’ for a reason. Kafka never tells us where the mole-man shits and his highly over-wrought sentence structure, with maze-like clauses, might distract us from the true physical nature of this bestial man: a naked, pale, gaunt, dirt encrusted, piss-ridden, half-blind, stinking thing with claws and a long, flat forehead.

Dark Days has a conventional ending. A city scheme to provide housing allowed for all the mole people to be moved out and given cheap accommodation. We see them on their final day in the tunnels smashing up their homes with glee. They are destroying the physical memory of their past in order to destroy the past itself. Finally, there are some short clips showing them in their new spic-and-span environments. It is strange to see them in the light and not the dark. Imagine if the mole-man ended his days on the surface and our last view of him was standing in the sharp sunlight; a beast cowering before the sun.


Still to come:

A Solar Labyrinth (1983) vs Stalker (1979)

The Stanley Parable (2011) vs The Helmet of Horror (2007)

Here (2014) vs Millennium Actress (2001)

Takanori Aiba vs Pierre: The Maze Detective (2015)



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