Follow by Email

Thursday, 16 May 2013

Night Train. Jerzy Kawalerowicz. Second Run DVD release. First time in UK. 27 May 2013


Night Train (Pociag) 1959, Jerzy Kawalerowicz
Courtesy of Second Run

Close confinement and enforced intimacy, a constantly moving landscape background, a percussive, momentum of underlying sound and a pre-determined appointment, at speed, with destiny; trains and railways, especially of the photogenic steam age, were destined for preservation in the great museum of the cinema. Hitchcock's The Lady Vanishes was so successful that Caroll Reed almost duplicated it with Night Train to Munich and later in North by Northwest Cary Grant and Eve Marie-Saint were stealthily enchained on a brilliantly constructed train journey. My own favourite, along with Keaton's The General is Sternberg's Shanghai Express, a giddy, highly stylised confection in which the extravagantly evening-attired characters seem to be travelling for no real reason (Shanghai Lili- Marlene Dietrich's character says she is going to Shanghai to buy a new hat!) and where the characters not only speak according to the monotonous rhythm of the train but also seem to start and stop speaking in the quick-slow-quick manner of the train beginning to move. A deft, beautifully constructed but forgotten, entirely train-bound film from Poland from 1959 has just emerged from the vaults of Second Run dvd- the invaluable boutique label which specialises in eastern European masterworks of the 60s. Jerzy Kawalerowicz's Night Train (Pociag) has many Hitchcockian elements; an anxious middle aged man (Leon Niemczyck) who may or may not  be a murderer on the loose, sharing his cabin with a cool, romantically scarred blond (Lucyna Winnicka), her ex-lover confined to the cheaper carriages (played by the great Cybulski), a sexually frustrated woman frequently flirting with the Niemczyck character amongst others and several minor figures including a gentle insomniac pre-occupied with motivations for murder who was once imprisoned in Buchenwald. There is also a superbly atmospheric almost abstract chase scene in which nearly all the train's passengers are pursuing their quarry across a mist wreathed field ending with a near lynching in a cemetery. Here the painful experience of Polish near history looms large. The director hovering over this scene and much of the film though is not Hitchcock but Antonioni who had recently made Il Grido. Languid, silent compositions of the back of Winnicka's head gazing yearningly through the train window at the moving landscape seems to eerily anticipate similar shots of Monica Vitti in Antonioni's early 60s trilogy-(Winnicka, like Vitti was to become the lover of their director). Other scenes- a travelling shot back through the train corridor with all the characters choreographed to move one by one into the shot, each with some bit of business, recall a technical virtuosity which Antonioni was apt to deploy. What Kawalerowicz's film lacks though is an ability to sustain the mystery of the characters beyond the end of the film. Trite resolutions are to the fore and to dissipate this mystery after so much silent, subtle interplay between Niemczyck and Winnicka when they are forced to share the carriage, is a shame. Watching these scenes in isolation- her reading, him chain smoking and pacing- one might think that they are re-playing old games of a relationship they once shared many moons ago.
This film serves mainly to remind us in the end how good Antonioni's films are in comparison to his many imitators. Jean-Marie Straub said that "Films have no interest unless one finds something that burns somewhere within the shot". Note that he means every shot- not just once or twice in the film. That burning comes not from technical mastery but deep emotional empathy with the characters and the verities of the filmed space. In this film, good as it is, there are flickers of heat but no burning.
Allan Bairstow
Xtra info on NIGHT TRAIN = A film by Jerzy Kawalerowicz. Poland, 1959. SECOND RUN DVD 065. BBFC cert: 12. Feature:  94 minutes. Special Feature: 7 mins. Language: Polish. Subtitles: English. Venice Film Festival, 1959 / Best Actress - Lucyna Winnicka. DVD Special features: an extract from a documentary on Kawalerowicz. Booklet featuring a new essay by writer and film historian Michael Brooke. Presented from a new HD digital transfer with restored picture and sound.

1 comment:

  1. Artavazd Peleshyan’s The End came to my mind when watching Night Train as I recently saw that 8mns short as part of Death on Screen @ the Welcome Collection. Strangely enough, Peleshyan and Kawalerowicz share the same Jewish Armenian origins. Their trains are a fabric of improbable social meetings.
    In Kawalerowicz’s train, the holiday goers are on their way to the Baltic Sea. When the culprit is found and escapes the train, those previously passive passengers rush off the train, while a non-ending piercing barking dog fills the soundscape, chasing the killer and lynching him to unconsciousness. Perhaps a search of revenge from a painful experience of Polish past. When the camera turns over towards the immobile train, we witness an empty train, all doors and windows open: the dream escape from the Nazis echoes with horror. Arriving at the Baltic Sea, passengers get back to their “normal” life while the sound of a Paquebot fills the fresh air constantly as if resting time is not yet now…
    The strong contrasted photography is simply moving.