Night Train, also known as Baltic Express, is the English title for Pociąg, a 1959 Polish language film directed by Jerzy Kawalerowicz.
The jazz leifmotif theme throughout the film is haunting. I want it as my phone’s ringtone!
Directed by Jerzy Kawalerowicz
Written by Jerzy Kawalerowicz and Jerzy Lutowski
Starring: Lucyna Winnicka, Leon Niemczyk
Music by: Andrzej Trzaskowski
Cinematography by Jan Laskowski
Edited by Wieslawa Otocka
Distributed by Telepix
Release dates: September 6, 1959 (Venice)
Running time: 93 minutes
Country of Origin: Poland
Overview of the plot: Two strangers, Jerzy (played by Leon Niemczyk) and Marta (played by Lucyna Winnicka), accidentally end up holding tickets for the same sleeping chamber on an overnight train to the Baltic Sea coast. People on the train representing various parts of society populate the train during the journey including priests, a writer, youths and people on a pilgrimage. Also on board is Marta’s spurned lover, who will not leave her alone. When the police enter the train in search of a murderer on the lam, rumours fly and everything seems to point toward one of the main characters as the culprit.
The cinematography in the cabin scenes sometimes uses the bunk bed to obscure parts of the screen, giving a point-of-view angle focused on the speaker’s mouth forcing the audience to not see Jerzy’s eyes as if he is in confessional as an untrustworthy figure and informing the audience to question what he is saying as after all ‘the eyes are the windows to the soul’. In mirroring this scene later we have Marta hiding the lower half of her face as she watches the men of the train who have given chase and caught the murderer who had hidden aboard the train earlier. The claustrophobic experience for the characters is reinforced, yet at the same time contrasted in tone, with the overly crowded scenes in the other passenger’s cabins and the corridor of the train where we follow the characters, face on, moving through the crowded corridors of the train as it is in motion and when the passengers are off the train at a stop.
Michael Brooke sums up the underlying sentiment of the film in his essay included with the booklet included with the Second Run DVD:
“Truly, all human life is here, and much turns out to be deeply disconsolate, involuntarily single, unhappily married, desperately lonely.”
Jerzy Kawalerowicz, best known for his film “Mother Joan of the Angels” (1961), is one of Polish cinema’s supreme craftsmen and secular moralists. Often he discusses the existence of a Post-World War 2 Poland where religion is no longer capable of guiding people towards individual happiness, and “Night Train” is no different. It presents us with a large set of characters, all traveling to the Polish seaside for a pilgrimage, and all lacking a sense of purpose. The main narrative focus is on Jerzy (Leon Niemczyk), who boards the train without a booked ticket, expecting to be able to buy from the conductor although this means he has to book an entire cabin to himself. By behaving aloofly, while wearing sunglasses to obscure his eyes/identity, it is almost as if the audience is being challenged not to immediately assume that the gossip we overhear from the other passenger’s at the beginning doesn’t in some way refer to him. The other central character is Marta (Lucyna Winnicka), who unintentionally invades Jerzy’s sleeping compartment and goes from being an unwanted presence to an indispensable, and ultimately almost healing, one though in the end this is cruelly subverted when Jerzy reveals his reasons for boarding the train and his destination which cannot include Marta who is searching for a place in the world for herself after jilting her lover.
Jerzy and Marta’s strange tryst aboard the train, both occasionally bold and yet furtive, is contrasted and compared with those of the other passengers around them. : With Staszek (Zbigniew Cybulski) who has chased Marta aboard the train in turns begging and demanding her affection; the overt flirtations of a wife (Teresa Szmigielówna) dissatisfied with her marriage who has a lover aboard the train while she flirts with Jerzy and another already existing younger lover; the non-verbal obsession of a young sailor and the girl he sits with and also to an almost folksy budding romantic sense the interactions between the pair of ticket controllers past their prime who patrol the train’s corridors (he’s balding and jovial, she’s plump and officious offering light relief to the more intense interactions between the leads).
Kawalerowicz’s way of presenting the emotional intensity is far from explicit but portrayed via moments as such as Marta’s hair being unexpectedly mussed by a breeze from another train passing, to repeatedly framing Jerzy’s mouth when he speaks to Marta in the cabin so we are forced to focus, as Marta no doubt is doing, on his lips when he speaks to her. The director may be interested in morality and its failings, but he’s by no means blind to his actors’ bodies and the power of body language portraying succinctly what dialogue cannot.
In the beginning, as part of the passenger’s gossip we learn of a recent event: a man who has murdered his wife the previous day and has not been apprehended. This slowly builds into being the core driving motive behind this film’s central theme, echoing Hitchcock’s motif of an unjustly accused man who is forced to prove his innocence. Here we have Jerzy fulfilling this protagonist role. In the isolated yet heavily populated community of the commuters he endures the complete violation of his desire for peace and quiet – first by Marta’s unintentional intrusion and then later when he is exposed to everyone’s judgment, ranging from being called a killer, assumed because he wore sunglasses to hide his identity, to being hailed as the hero of the hour during the film’s denouement.
No sooner is the actual murderer identified than a makeshift posse forms and a chase begins, thus opening what I find the movie’s most stunning sequence. Starting in the train itself and guiding us through all its length (with an eye keen on class and social detail of varying compartments), Kawalerowicz suddenly yanks us outside the vehicle, and the shock is comparable to this experienced by the passengers after one of them pulls the emergency break. The murderer runs through an open field – still covered in early-morning fog – in a hopeless attempt to escape justice. It’s impossible not to perceive him as a victim: when the posse finally gets to him, the confrontation is fierce and Kawalerowicz once again uses the microscopic-overhead camera set-up from the beginning of the film. We see the human dots unified in a centripetal race towards the lying man, and as they cover him with a multitude of blows, the message of the film emerges. Administering someone else’s comeuppance has provided these people with a momentary moral focus, so acutely lacking from their everyday life. For a couple of breathless minutes, good was clearly discernible and evil easy to point out and destroy. But as soon as the moment is over the assembly listlessly return to the confines and structured progress of the train journey.
the seemingly mysterious and evasive passengers, each hoping to find privacy for the duration of their trip, cannot escape the claustrophobia of the environment around them, as Marta’s obsessed, rejected lover, Straszek (Zbigniew Cybulski) follows her aboard the train, and Jerzy’s enigmatic behavior draws the flirtatious attention of a lawyer’s neglected wife (Teresa Szmigielówna) along with the scrutiny of other passengers who begin to who begin to speculate on the identity of the elusive murderer profiled in the late edition newspaper.
Throughout the film, Marta finds herself torn between varying loyalties both to herself and others. The most prominent and undesired one is by her abandoned lover the train-hopping Staszek. Her confusion of her feelings towards him goes hand in hand with her readiness, if not subconscious willingness, to hurt him. She also finds herself drawn towards Jerzy and yet it is only a tentative and ultimately ephemeral infatuation wherein she is discarded as she had once discarded leading her to have an epiphany. She is now in the position she had placed Staszek previously. At the end, she nails it by saying: “Everyone wants to be loved, yet no one’s ready to love.” In realising this she has two choices: either she does as Staszek did and pursue something that doesn’t exist or she lets go and continues her search for something which she has been unable to identify previously and indeed may never realise afterwards.
Ultimately things have happened and people have acted on their beliefs but nothing has changed in the reality of the people’s lives after they leave the train. They return to the rails of their own lives, those of routine, of following order and not finding their own personal morality but conforming to that they find endorsed by the society around them whether it be police boarding the train or a mob chasing a lone man across fields.
The closing pan across the now vacated train as Martha walks towards the beach and many of the passengers either begin their pilgrimage or walk away to their destinations shows us that, even if now messy from its occupants, the train remains to be entered again and these people will eventually find themselves taking this same journey again stuck on the rails of a destiny they feel it is part of their part in society as the pilgrimage is to the religious travellers and the priests. A sense of fatalistic futility, even after capturing the murderer, is all pervasive and nothing has changed outside the enclosed intensified moment in their lives.
The director uses acute angle shots, high contrast lighting (to the point I recalled the introduction of Morticia in ‘The Addams Family’ due to the lighting across Marta’s eyes to accentuate them in contrast to the dark framing Jerzy’s mouth gets in contrasting scenes), and narrow, claustrophobic framing within the train carriages. Jerzy Kawalerowicz produces an unnaturally heightened sense of environment and perceptional acuity that reflect the passengers’ subconscious duress and sublimated emotions: the visually occluded, odd angle shot as Jerzy enters the compartment; the birds-eye view of the opening sequence is mirrored by that of the passengers encircling a suspect by an open field graveyard. Here rather than the faceless dots being people choosing to ignore each other as individuals in the transitions they take during their daily lives now find themselves all to willing to wordlessly enter into collusion and act as both judge and executioner of the murderer who tired to escape the consequences of his actions. the successive repeating imagery of mirrored reflections cast against the train carriage’s window, first of the lawyer’s flirtatious wife, then of Marta, which reveal their innate loneliness, confusion, and feelings of abandonment; Straszek’s anxious and rash attempts to gain Marta’s attention and sympathy as though confusion compassion for love. By modulating the innocuous and lighthearted tone of the holiday-bound train trip to show a dark portrayal of base human instincts and the undesirable, selfish, dark aspects of humanity which many choose to ignore. Kawalerowicz further illustrates the often disparaging moral myopia of people, their discrimination, and skewed viewpoints all occurring due to adhering to a collective mentality without question. In the film’s haunting and visually metaphorical denouement, a priest replaces a fallen graveyard cross that had been used as a weapon of violence: a solemn reminder of the human need for compassion and atonement in an environment of fear and vengeance.
So now I will recount the events of the film as i have done before because… who knows what i have noticed but wouldnt have included in a more structured review. As I have to watch it with subtitles on the Second Run DVD it is inevitable the audience is at the whim of the translator’s decisions and if they feel it’s obvious what the character’s names are you don’t get told them when first mentioned but only much later in dramatic moments. That is how it feels watching some foreign films sometimes. In fact I have seen films where the translator gives a nickname to characters instead of their actual name which is just weird and I wish I was joking. I assumed the characters don’t say their names until later in keeping with how secretive they are about their personal lives and reasons for being on the train. It is meant to be a major moment in the film when they share their names with strangers… or I fear the translator think you will have looked through the supplemental material and already be familiar with who is who. I hope not as that has annoyed me with other films as it leads the subtitle viewing audience to assume certain things that don’t exist. Hence during this account everyone is addressed as ‘main guy’, ‘young priest’ and so on.
Of course this is just going to read like rambling but whatever… it gives you my first impression of the film before I watched it again to clarify things.
Conclusions about the film at the bottom.
Opening scene: A crowded train station shot from bird’s eye view. The haunting jazz theme song. The first part is repeated during the film. I want it as a ringtone. This or the whistling tune from the film ‘Twisted Nerve’ (as also heard in Quentin Tarantino’s Kill Bill). The imagery is cold and impersonal but with the jazz theme it becomes sad, the passing of so many lives and yet none of them mean anything more than ants in a colony struggling to survive.
Train sequence 1
Intro of characters
Separate cars for men and women but the main girl is allowed to stay due to a jobs-worth conductor. He lets the main girl stay due to main guys very abrupt asking to drop it.
Train one a young priest and an older one who uses the phrase ‘pro salute animae’ – discuss immorality and punishment. A bit heavy handed a way to introduce the themes of the film so early on…
Young man has history with girl and is chasing her.
Train sequence two – mixed company sailor and a young girl.
Main girl cut her wrists in the past the main guy sees due to her scars. This doesn’t become a point ever again…
The flirting woman. Bullet bra. Very 1950s. Poke someone’s eyes out with those…
Main girl has the haunting theme play when she is alone. Seems to be a one woman wail with no lyrics.
Young guy is hanging off the outside of the train! Keeps threating to derail train/bangs her wrist/threatened to throw himself off the train… (Ironic tragically as the actor would one day die going between moving trains I later found out)
Multiple slaps to the main guy’s face. That is such an old staple of movies. Women slapping men and men standing there stoically allow them to because they are the fairer sex.
Light in main girls face… older films do this but not nowadays. I remember them doing it with Morticia Addams in The Addams Family to emphasise ‘this woman is sexy and had an alluring look’…
Flirt reflects face on night time window. Flirt has a guy so main isn’t her only objective!
Main also reflects face on window.
Young guy has no ticket. Young guy gets to stay on and consider getting a ticket.
A male conductor appears. Again gives a character time to ‘think’ when they are clearly not meant to be on the train. The female conductor returns. They flirt and comment on main and flirt girl being the sort who always holiday in the right season while he has to wait until august (when is the film set during the year? The last scene suggests Summer but this is more of a Spring or an Autumnal scene to me…)
Mirroring seems to be a theme in the film. Main girl/flirt girl. Main/young guy chasing main girl.
The young and the old priest. 83 year old on his last pilgrimage in his own opinion. End of the old ways.
Flirt girl has wordy nerdy guy reciting his speech for the legal court. Is he her husband? Seems so.
Meteorologist/clairvoyant she claims. Men are logical while women enjoy frivolous things. Common theme during this period of history. In fact you could see such a clear gender based contrast present in Mozart’s The Magic Flute. Men of logic versus the Queen of the Night and her magics.
Train Stop: An inspection by authorities. They go straight to the main characters’ one. Why? What made it so obviously them? He is taken into custody. Conductor comes along saying he is a murderer. Young guy calls on a sleeping guy called Marek… has no one said names yet? Lead main guy away. Is he murderer or was it just malicious gossip (deadly in this period with paranoid state interests). Passengers chat. Flirt girl says he was odd for not making eye contact. Flighty sort of person the society frowns on. Main guy has no papers. Who is the woman?
Solider, also named, corporal Rosolowski, didn’t check her papers as he wasn’t ordered to. Sailor staring, point blank, at the traveling girl who looks away from him. Is this flirtation or is her intimidating her? They never exchange any words as far as I know.
Main girl goes to young man didn’t want cigarette earlier when offered. Asks for one now and is denied. She goes to holding ca and speaks in his defence. Traveling girl looks at sailor and he smiles. But always main girl passes by distracting him. They go to find the man who sold her the ticket. Everyone crowds the corridors oddly as if aware an even is about to occur. In reality they would have been told to stay in their cabins. Then cars off various people, normal, mixed, young music players and old women on a pilgrimage with a sculpture. Young men all seem to be drifting forward.
The man running away covers a woman’s mouth and smothers her as he climbs to the outside of the train. Her name was Hania we are told. Train is stopped. He runs off the train. The young men give chase. All the men give chase. Flirt comes out of the train in negligee. Suddenly dogs are barking in the distance as if they knew he was going to elope at this point. Swings a branch around and hits a cross when cornered. Young guy tackles his to the ground, then overhead shot of all piling on, then finally drawing back from him remembering he has killed before and even with numbers they’re still individuals who happen to be on the same journey but are not united together. Bald guy kicks him but young guy stops him. Then bald man tears up and walks away. The running away man is dead? Main guy breaks ranks and walks to the corpse. He’s fainted not dead. Police cuff him as he comes back around. Sees cross in the distance. Young guy walks over to it. The main girl is there looking over it as the camera focuses on her fear filled eyes. Flirt insists on drawing closer. Looks at him. He is pitifully looking up and we cut to the main girl’s upper face obscured by the cross before she runs away. Mirroring and contrasting of the main guy earlier where we could only see him mouth. Police lead him away. Everyone goes back. Flirt keeps on at main guy then shifts to another. Last to go is the young priest placing the cross upright again.
Men walk back across the hay bale filled field. Conductor woman didn’t see blonde enter train nor leave it. Let’s blonde on but not young guy as compartments are not locked… so why let her? MARTA he calls. So she finally is named on the subtitles. Were the names of the characters not meant to be known up until now? It would make sense considering the themes and such of the film but I wonder… Flirt’s husband complains and she snaps back. Young priest returns her other shoe. Baldy returns with the bruise to his face and female conductor says nearly left him behind. Young guy is almost left behind as sailor and girl leans out window, writer says would have been good story if the main guy innocent caught the murderer. Flirt flirts.
Then a guy comes out of his cabin making weird sounds shouting ‘you won’t get me’ waving his arms then goes back and bald one enters his too. Random moment in the film making no sense…
Back to cabin 15/16: main is a doctor whose 18 year old suicide girl died on operating table. Had 3 operations and that last one was a failure. Washing his face and hands. Main girl draws close and embraces him with a towel in her hands.
Flirt and her boy toy arrange to meet 5pm tomorrow. Writer sits in the corridor reading again. Female conductor is dozing off. Baldy leaves his cabin. Wont show on wedding day. Will remain batchelor. Flirty flirty flirty. Song plays again as the scenery outside the window blows by. Conductor goes to cabin of white haired guy waking him. And then the others. The writer is slumped over sat in the corridor. Writer can’t believe he fell asleep. The scenery outside the window.
Main girl explains why she got the train. They are both adjusting their clothes. Marta is in focus taking up most of the screen in portrait while main guy is out of focus with his back to the screen in the background. Is it implied they had sex? Having a cigarette always seemed to be the code in black and white films for ‘there was sex but we can’t say that’. Young guy is searching for something. So he isn’t anonymous. ‘The disease of our times’. Used her emotions like a mirror. Searching for a reflection of himself, confirmation of his self esteem.
Marta declares to Jerzy:
‘Nobody wants to love. Everybody wants to be loved’.
People don’t want to expose themselves and risk being hurt but all they desire is to be accepted. So many conform while some take a risk for better or worse. She was happy to be chased by her ex but now finds herself as the one who loves and it pains her to admit this not only to Jerzy but moreso to herself.
The young guy is stood off the train with a backpack of his belongings on. Knows the window of her cabin somehow. Is surprised when the main guy answers. No words are exchanged as the train pulls away. She had moved on. The young girls has also disembarked along with the old women and the priests who lead them in a pilgrimage journey.
It doesn’t matter if ‘he’ will be at the station anymore. She no longer feels she needs to contrast or mirror herself with another in order to have a sense of self.
‘I’m quite alone now but really happy. Very happy’
Marta says this but with a sense of melancholy clear on her features.
Her hair though pinned back is down unlike the central part of the film. The open back of her top… visual language that she is hiding something but in past tense is open. The main guy says his wife is waiting for him on the platform as the train draws into the station.
Someone calls the name Barbara we then see Marta holding onto the top bunk from behind. On her left hand is a wedding ring. Is this intentional? So many revelations and yet no definitive answers. All we have a myriad truths and the final decision of what is true of these events to conclude for ourselves.
The conductor woman says goodbye doctor… they young guys disembark and then the older gentlemen including the bald on eand the writer and grey hair discuss if they had seen yesterday’s paper. They shake the conductor man’s hand. The female conductor looks pensive and goes along the carriage.
Marta is still there. Looking like she had been crying but says she lost her bracelet. Conductor helps her pack. Conductor says ‘what a night. Not one you will forget quickly. At this Marta leans in hugs her and kisses her then leaves. Conductor lets her out on the beach side though others got off the other side. ‘Have a good holiday’ she says but Marta doesn’t reply. She left something on the train. Conductor picks the parcel up and sees Marta walking across the shoreline as a fog horn blows. She walks off screen and we never see her again…
Cabin 18/19 – a young couple, the girl answering the door dishevelled as if only now having woken up. Answers. Janusz, her partner, she wakes up.
Then the camera pans across all the empty cabins. And we see a train pass by 16/17 as the song again repeats and the screen goes black.
Conclusion: You like Hitchcock and European cinema? This is for you. You like the French New Waves? Well apparently the Polish got there first. It’s a taut, compelling, and insightful psychological portrait of emotional need, hysteria, and mob mentality. It is a visually stunning film with great cinematography and really forces the audience to be absorbed into the claustrophobic close quarter environment of the train’s interior and the emotionally invasive intensity of the character’s interactions.
Extras: A short documentary about the film saying that the Polish proto-New Wave preceded the more renowned French New Wave and how it influenced Czech cinema. All the more impressive for being during the socialist realism period as the film never really addresses the reality of the time and so in many ways it quite escapist.
An interview with leading man Leon Niemczyktalk about the technical tricks that were used in the filming process e.g. a train car was purchased and the windows each had a back projected 7 inch screens so that there was the illusion of the windows showing passing scenery outside as the characters walked down the corridor.
It is only a few minute long and an excerpt from ‘my seventeen lives’ but very interesting compared to the sort of ‘trailer’ extras you usually get with older films.
The included essay booklet also helps you better understand the context of the film and its place in the history of European cinema.
I enjoyed it and certainly the theme is truly memorable. I would definitely recommend checking it out and could have easily done a more thorough analysis of the film but I think this is enough for now.
I also found this ’40 years later’ documentary but obviously haven’t a clue what they are saying…
Somehow I have both written far too much and yet not really addressed this film’s true philosophy at the same time…. On the weekend I will finally post the movie review of O slavnosti a hostech a.k.a The Party and The Guests. A 1966 Czech film which was permanantly banned in its country of origin for challenging the existing political system at the time. I may post some more light hearted stuff between now and then… but maybe not… we will see.
Comments, etc, are all welcome.
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