Jerzy Kawalerowicz’s Night Train may not at first grip you tightly, but it is a film that blows cool, sad cigarette smoke, moving the hair on the back of your neck like a cold night wind through a corn field. It is, in this sense, the quintessential Polish film. Night Train is like jazz, but not beat jazz with its exuberance, uncensored vigour, and Hey-Ba-Ba-Re-Bop call to dance. Rather, it is the kind of film whose musical equivalent should be puffed like a cigarette by a cross-legged femme fatale amidst the loneliness and darkness of a smoke filled nightclub. Night Train is like being on a long distance train, drifting through places rather than being a part of them. The view from the window seems close but is ultimately unreachable, while the train itself becomes an unofficial nation. Its passengers and citizens are all suddenly one in their collective lack of identity.
On first sight, Kawalerowicz’s camera surveys the carriages of the night train from the platform, sizing them up as if unsure of the journey ahead, uncertain of the track’s motives. The sky above is white, a woman arrives in the whitest of dresses, the platform is then commandeered by passengers, their white faces glinting under the white sun. They look like ghosts. Looking like Marcello Mastroianni in his shades, suit, and with his sulky handsomeness, Jerzy (Leon Niemczyk) arrives, a man so hell bent on solitude that he insists on paying for both berths in his sleeper: leave me be, for the love of Christ, just leave me be. But he is not allowed to indulge in his loneliness, as upon entering his room he finds Marta (Lucyna Winnicka) lounged across the bottom bunk, her face behind a book, her black sweater immediately standing out from the whiteness on the platform. And, of course, she refuses to budge.
They both seem to be running, hiding: Marta from her love-dumb ex Staszek (Zbigniew Cybulski), who rides in a lower class compartment, and whose adoration of Marta causes him to swing from the train’s windows like Tarzan in pursuit of his Jane. Jerzy’s motives remain mysterious and murky: who is this man? Where is he going? Where has he been? There’s talk of a murder, and a murderer on the run: is this killer on board? In the train’s corridors, passengers gather around newspapers speculating and gossiping, reminiscent of supporting characters in a Hitchcock flick. They are both appalled and excited by the grim details of the murder. The crammed corridors are like narrow lanes of suppressed human sadness, sexuality, and boredom, where people have nothing to do and nowhere to do it. They’re in Purgatory.
In possibly the pivotal sequence of the film, the identity of the murderer is revealed and – as suspected – the murderer is aboard the train. The culprit slithers through the compartments before pulling the emergency brake, bringing the train to a halt, and escaping into the vast emptiness of the Polish countryside. Offering the film’s most wonderfully spectacular moments, streams of passengers pour out of the stationary train and haul their tired but furious legs across the fields in pursuit of the murderer in a dreamlike chase. Catching the killer in a scene reminiscent of the final judgment in Fritz Lang’s M (1931) in a haunting graveyard, they surround him. ‘So you want to murder us?’ one of them asks, as the camera cuts to an emotive of overhead shot that mirrors the film’s opening in technique at least: here the camera is a torch, not an eye.
Hailed by Andrej Wajda as the father of the Polish school of filmmaking, Jerzy Kawalerowicz’s cinema falls somewhere in between the social realism of Wajda’s Poland and the personal fantasies of Roman Polanksi’s Pol-an-ski-land. Comparisons can be made between Night Train and Polanski’s 1962 film The Knife in the Water (which also stars Niemczyk), where the claustrophobic limitations of space, time, and character, allow each film to create a new cinematic language. With glorious black and white cinematography by Jan Laskowski that renders reds, yellows, blues, and greens all but superfluous, the camera flows with little fuss, noise, or attention.
Kawalerowicz’s Night Train communicates in images the large, empty, negative space that can exist between two people in the tightest of tight spots. At one point, when alone with Marta, Jerzy tells her, ‘I’m human, not a machine.’ Night Train is not driven by mechanics, but by the human condition. When it’s all over and we disembark the train as new morning light strikes us, we can’t help but ask where our own journeys might deliver us. At the end of the film, a conductor scans the empty compartments for any last stragglers and awakens a young couple that has apparently slept through all the trouble that occurred in the train’s crammed corridors, the drama unknown to them. Train journeys can sometimes be life altering, but at other times, we can doze all the way to the end of the line – with nowhere left to go.
Night Train (1959 Poland 99 min)
Prod Co: Kadr. Dir: Jerzy Kawalerowicz Scr: Jerzy Kawalerowicz, Jerzy Lutowski Phot: Jan Laskowski Ed: Wieslawa Otocka Sound: Jozef Bartczak.
Cast: Lucyna Winnicka, Leon Niemczyk, Teresa Szmigielowna, Zbigniew Cybulski, Helena Dabrowska, Roland Glowacki.