Tuesday, July 1, 2014

Night Train (orig. Pociąg) [1959]

MPAA (UR would be PG-13)  Fr. Dennis (4 Stars)

IMDb listing
Filmweb.PL listing*

Culture.pl article
pl.wikipedia.org article*

Martin Scorsese Presents: Masterpieces of Polish Cinema: [MSP Website] [Culture.pl]

Night Train (orig.  Pociąg) [1959] [IMDb] [FW.pl]*[Culture.pl] [en.wikip] [pl.wikip]* (directed and cowritten by Jerzy Kawalerowicz [IMDb] [FW.pl]*[Culture.pl] [en.wikip] [pl.wikip]* along with Jerzy Lutowski [IMDb] [FW.pl]*) like many of the films that played recently as part of the series Martin Scorsese Presents: Masterpieces of Polish Cinema (in Chicago at the Gene Siskel Film Center) is both remarkably "simple" yet _very intelligent and elegant_.   Even if the film needed to conform to the (censorship) requirements of the then (Communist) "Powers that Be," it did nevertheless take-up universal issues and aspirations.  In this case, the film dealt with the themes of the Relentlessness of the Passage of Time (we all live our lives on a platform -- Earth -- which like a Train is passing relentlessly through Time) and then the Pursuit of Meaning/Happiness.  Inspired at least in part by Alfred Hitchcock's Strangers on a Train [1951], I thus find Kawalerowicz' film nevertheless more profound.

The film begins, presumably in Warsaw, with passengers hurriedly getting on a "night train" that will take them "to the Baltic coast" that is, "to the beach", "to a vacation spot", "to Paradise."  And as the various passengers board the train, there's inevitable commotion.  So there's the "good conductress" (played by Helena Dąbrowska [IMDb] [FW.pl]*) both smiling yet firm, representing Authority, checking the tickets to make sure that everyone gets on train correctly.

Yet, despite the best of Plans (the Communists were into Plans, the Five Year Plans) a number of the passengers, among the most unhappy coming to the train, did not fit easy predetermined categories.  Thus, Jerzy (played by Leon Niemczyk [IMDb] [FW.pl]*) a surgeon, who's had a very rough day, comes to the boarding platform WITHOUT A TICKET but wanting to buy one.  What to do?  The conductress tells him to just get on the train and since usually someone doesn't show-up, they'll work it out when the train starts moving.  There's also a young woman named Marta (played by Lucyna Winnicka [IMDb] [FW.pl]*) who had a regular ticket for the train but quickly exchanged her ticket with another passenger, when to her horror, her former boyfriend Staszek (played by Zbigniew Cybulski [IMDb] [FW.pl]*), who she was trying to run away from, showed up in same train car as she.  (Now why would someone want to exchange with his ticket with her, especially since he was giving her an "upgrade"?  Well that gets dealt-with in the story as time goes on).  In the midst of these two personal stories taking place, a whole train of course is being boarded with all kinds of people and groups getting on board, each with their own purposes and stories.

Wonderful, when the train leaves the station and starts moving, Jerzy, who's boarded a sleeping car, finds the conductress and asks if he could just purchase one of the compartments (two tickets, for both beds) because he's had an awful day, and he just needs to be alone.  Well this kinda offends the the conductress' collective (Communist, all for one/one for all) sensibility.  But she also sees a man looking like someone who's really had an awful day.  So seeing that one of the compartments was indeed vacant, she lets him buy "both tickets for both the beds."

That's when Marta comes in with the ticket that she's hurriedly exchanged with a man in the neighboring car, and the ticket's for one of the beds in the compartment that Jerzy's just bought.  What to do now?  Jerzy complains to the conductress that he's just bought two tickets for the compartment so that he could be alone.  The conductress tells him that the sale was only provisional based on the assumption that no one onboard had a ticket for the compartment.  Now that someone showed-up with a ticket for one of the beds, she'd be willing to give him the money back for one of the beds. But since Marta had a ticket for a bed in that compartment, her ticket had to be respected.  Jerzy didn't seem to care about the money.  He just wanted to be alone.  Now he, a married man, though traveling alone, was being forced to share a compartment with a young woman -- other passengers passing through the corridor only catching a bit of the confusion, looked at him with a mixture bemusement ("lucky guy") and judgement ("perv").  Well the good conductress eventually throws up her hands telling both Jerzy and Marta that they're going to have to work things out themselves.  She's done all that she can to help them.

Wonderful.  At least Jerzy was relieved to find that Marta initially wasn't particularly interested in talking much either.  He may have had a rough day, but so did she.  She was running away from what today we'd call a "stalker boyfriend" and the stalker was even on board the train.  It's Jerzy at some point who tells Marta why he wanted a compartment by himself that night -- A patient of his had died on the operating table that day, and he needed time and space to process what had happened.

Now while their stories were playing out on this train, the story of the others were playing out as well.  There were vacationers, there were people just returning home from having visiting Warsaw for whatever reason, there were even Pilgrims on board, again all kinds of people with all kinds of stories, motivations and needs.

Among them, of course, was the person who seemed quite willing to change tickets with Marta they got on board.  Why would he do that?  Well, he clearly had his reasons.  And not getting into too much, they weren't necessarily the best of reasons.  So at one point the train stops, the Authorities come on the train, and deal with that situation ... to the observation (and gossip) of the others onboard.

Finally, the train reaches its destination (the Baltic Coast) early the next day.  And it's clear here that again different people were on this train with different motivations.  The vacationers were happy, the Pilgrims were happy.  Even those returning home (returning from THEIR TRIP "to the city") were happy.  But then onboard were also both Jerzy and Marta who were both distraught (for different reasons) when they got on-board this the train the previous evening, and now arriving at their destination ... the Beach, a place that ought to make them happy ... and ... one wonders if either of them will find happiness (or at least peace) there either.

Fascinating movie ... I also honestly loved the symbolism of "the Train" passing, even careening forward through time.  Can we remember that it will at some point reach its destination?  And therefore can we be ready (and hopefully happy) when it arrives?

Note to Readers, this film can be rented-by-mail through Facets Multimedia and/or purchased in various formats at Amazon.com.

* Reasonably good (sense) translations of non-English webpages can be found by viewing them through Google's Chrome browser. 

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