TZAMETI 13

(NUMBER 13)

 

Tzameti 13 is a Georgian-French co-production directed by Gela Babluani. This film is a suspense thriller that has put Babluani on the map for me. His brother George Babluani stars in the film as its reluctant hero. It was shot in black and white and has a simple plot line that develops with a cryptic set of sequences. The unfolding plot takes the viewer from curiosity to entrancement. The black and white cinematography fits the dark and foreboding process that begins from the first sequence. Gela Babluani took time and consideration I am sure in bringing this story to the screen. I was a little put off by the B&W choice at the outset, but understood as the film went on.

 

When you find out what is in store for Sebastien (George Babluani), you can't help but want to see more. And once you've seen more, you can't wait to find out what will happen. A film that evokes this reaction in its audience is by definition suspenseful. But, the suspense is just the means to explaining the desires and fears of men that lust for a better life. That better life is to be had by winning a large of sum of money in a game that risks their lives in an odd form of Russian roulette. Here is the dark and somber theme of the film. As the contest nears the landscape is filled with cloudy gray scenery, and during the contest itself, we hear approaching thunder, and thus the weather conditions conjure an image of impending disaster. This use of color, or I should say lack thereof by Babluani forms the structure of the picture. The B&W footage, the overcast weather, and the drab houses we see all conspire to give us a sense that danger lurks within. 

 

Sebastien finds himself in a game in which he hadn't planned to play. Sebastien is the son of immigrant parents, whom are barely earning a living by him working as a roofing contractor to middle-class families in the French countryside. On his job at the home of a strange couple, he eavesdrops on the couple, an elderly man and an attractive but cold, dispassionate wife. It seems the husband, Jean-Francois Godon is soon to gain a substantial amount of money, but it takes his participation in a strange ritual. As Sebastien listens from a hole in the roof, he begins to realize this man will be summoned to a mysterious proceeding. He will be mailed a letter that lets him know where and when and provides the means to participate. Sebastien is not the only one that eavesdrops though. The police too are watching, unbeknownst to Sebastien. The husband dies from an overdose of morphine, and through a chance act, Sebastien gets a hold of the letter. He decides to replace him.

 

As Sebastien meticulously follows the instructions to get him to the place, we are taken from eyebrow knitting wonderment to real curiosity. The police are following him all the way. The people behind this summons are much too crafty for the cops. He manages to elude them through the machinations of his instructors.

 

After some surprises for both Sebastien and his procurers, he is admitted to a game in which some men bet on others that will point guns at the heads of each other with single bullets in the chambers. The backers stake large sums of money and the participants stand to win shares of the wagers, provided they live. The backers are wealthy men that put up sums as large as 1 million Francs ($202,900). Of course, Sebastien had not bargained for this and tries to escape but is caught and forced to play. We find that this game is well orchestrated, there is an MC so to speak, he instructs the players during each round of the game. There is an order and a process. Here is where real suspense is created. Sebastien becomes number 13 in this deadly game of gunplay. He survives round after round. Each time the number of bullets in each surviving man's gun is incremented by one. Number 13 develops a rival, number 6, played by Aurelien Recoing. He and his brother are a team. The brother places bets on number 6 until he wins. There is one extremely obese player that sickened me personally and I can't understand why he was cast in the role of a player at all. Well, every film has its directorial flaws, I guess this one is Tzameti 13's. Eventually, number 6 and 13 come down to a duel competition. Number 6 has taunted 13 throughout the preceding rounds. Now, they face off. To make matters worst, after the first round in which neither blows out the brains of the other, the bullet count is increased to 5 BULLETS! Now, we know somebody is bound to die. And yes one does: number 6.

 

This sequence, which is long and unbroken is not just nail biting and tense, but made all the more powerful by George Babluani's novice status and his great facial expressions. He does more to make us hold our breaths in the final duelist sequence by showing his fear in grimacing and wide horrified eyes than any dialogue could do. Recoing in counterpoint is without expression and almost serene. Babluani gives us through body language, the innocent against the experienced. Number 6 has won 3 previous duels. So, number 13 wins. He's drenched in sweat and weak as he collects his 850,000 Francs ($172,582) in cash. And as a final twist of fate, Sebastien leaves by sneaking out in the night and calls his father. He lets him know he's mailing a large sum of money to him and gives him the impression he may never return, and he doesn't. The grief-stricken brother of number 6, follows him onto a train and kills Sebastien, stealing what he thinks is the satchel full of winnings. Sebastien, stumbles to another seat and dies leaning against a window with a lifeless stare. An ironic ending for Sebastien. The game that he presumed would take his life didn't. It gave him the wealth he sought, while one he least expected to kill him, an investor in the game, kills him. An element Existentialism at this point that had me shouting at the screen its beauty.

 

So, there we have it that's the film in short. Of course, I left out many details, characters and situations, but that's to be understood. What is this film showing us? How are we to take Sebastien and his tragic, unasked for fate? Moreover, what do we make of this seemingly insane, game that men are willing to wager on, and play in?

 

Babluani in an interview with a French film critic on the DVD extras section, gives what I think is the best response to these questions. He says this is a story about human nature. That he was trying to show how men behave in this world. Oh so I paraphrase him to have said. I agree. The dialogue line of one gambler struck me during the film, in which he mentions to his player (a German player) that he's a descendant of Schopenhauer. First, I've never seen a film in which Schopenhauer has ever been mentioned. But, beyond that, I remember reading Schopenhauer's little philosophical tract, The World as Will and Desire, and then made the connection. Schopenhauer argued completely against what these men were doing in the film. But, his backer was asking to him remember that to survive the ordeal, he had to do what this little tract argued. Turn away from desire and exercise the will. You see, Schopenhauer said, we are full of desire. We want this and that, once a desire is fulfilled, we want another and another and another, endlessly. But to achieve true intellect we had to exercise our will against desire.We had to force ourselves to not want, but give only to our needs. The men involved in this deadly affair had to suspend their desire for the money to be gained, and concentrate on their will to survive the event. This contest uses Schopenhauer's philosophy to an ironic end. He espoused turning away from the material world and all its insatiable wants, and seek only what is needed. He argues we could do this through the exercise of the Will. These men are exercising their Wills to achieve what their insatiable Desires want: Money. In that sense they turn Schopenhauer upside-down so to speak.

 

Probabilistic Implications of Tzameti 13

I began to consider the probability aspect of this game, and found it even more stimulating.

 

If we take into account the probability of having a bullet aligned with the barrel, as odd as it seems, the spin of the cylinder does not affect the probability. If we have 3 bullets out of 6 chambers in the gun cylinder, the probability is 3/6th=1/2 of any of the 3 bullets landing in alignment with the gun barrel. If we spin the cylinder several times that probability remains the same EVEN IF we align a bullet with the gun barrel. The requirement of spinning the cylinder only added to the perceived fear of the player, not the probability of aligning a killing bullet. Spinning the barrel never affected probability. If we had a game in which we are asked to choose one white or black ball out of a hat, then probabilities would change after each round. Say we had 3 black balls and 2 white out of 5. You choose one white the probabilities become 3/4th for black and 1/4th for white. In this game the probability of a bullet aligning with the firing cylinder increases as more bullets are added. This probability must remain the same for all players. When a player was eliminated by being shot in the head, and a new round began, the guns were all reloaded with the same number of bullets, thus the players that did not kill another player would not gain a distinct advantage: having more bullets in their guns than the ones that killed someone. If the number of bullets each player had in his gun didn't stay the same after each round, this would become an unfair game in the game theory sense of that phrase. Let's look at the game theory side of Tzameti 13.

 

Game Theory Implications of Tzameti 13

This game is a positive sum contest with unbiased conditions. That's what it would be called in game theory. Its positive because when we added up the losses (minuses, the dead ones) and gains (pluses, the remaining living), somebody eventually wins. Unbiased, because nobody ever has an advantage. Normally, advantage translates to knowledge in game theory. Here it would be one guy having more bullets than anyone else. It might seem weird that this game would be classified a positive sum game. To see why it's classified as a positive-sum game, see the analysis here: Why Tzameti 13 is a positive-sum game.

 

Some game theoretic features of this game might surprise viewers. Is this a categorical game? Categorical games allow no draws. Games that allow no draws are in game theory unfair. Unfair meaning if a certain player follows a precise strategy he will always win. So, as I indicated above, if players that killed another player were not allowed to replace their spent bullet, the players that added bullets after not firing one, would gain a distinct advantage, and following this strategy would assure one of those players would win. This game is clearly not unfair, it's brutal as hell, but not unfair. Thus it can't be classified as a categorical game. But, we must have a contradiction. We know this game ended in a winner (number 13 that is), so it must be categorical. But, there is the mistake. This game does allow a draw, though it's so rare no one would ever think it would occur. It is possible that the two final players could both shoot each other in the head and die, thus no one would win. I can't imagine how anybody would declare a winner, if they both shot each in the head and died. As illustrative of its brutality however, by the rules of the duelist portion of the game, at least one player must die to obtain a win, and two would have to die to obtain a draw.

Postscriptum


A real categorical game existed at the end of World War II between the US and Japan. The US was assured it could crush Japan after dropping a nuclear weapon on them, no matter how hard the Japanese fought back. As you know, the Japanese realized this and surrendered. The US could have followed a strategy that made it certain they would win, regardless of the bravery of the Japanese military machine. Thus, the US military had a distinct advantage in this case, and an unfair game would have been played. It should be obvious why nobody wants to play a categorical game. Tell me who wants to be assured that they will lose in a game? Unfortunately categorical games are played on the international economic stage. There are many international trading situations where categorical games are being played today. For instance, the US and European nations subside their agricultural producers and thus make it virtually impossible for 3rd world farmers to compete with them on worldwide export markets like coffee trading corn and wheat trade, etc. Can you think of any other categorical games that are played today? I am thinking of money transactions....Pawnbrokerage? Payday loans?

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Ken Robleh Wais 4/7/08

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