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Night train to nowhere

May Contain Spoilers

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This complete film is on YouTube in eight parts, Russian with English subtitles, starting here.

The opening shot of Jerzy Kawalerowicz's "Night Train" (1959) is an overhead one: we see the human swarm of the Polish city of Łódź, presented as an unruly collection of points moving up and down a vast staircase. They all seem pitted against one another by some unseen pinball player - and yet never quite collide. The perspective we are forced to assume is almost cruelly impersonal in its design: if one squints one's eyes, one could see it all as a whirring bacteria colony under a microscope. Had it been not for Wanda Warska's moody jazz hum (a variation on Artie Shaw's "Moon Ray"), the shot would seem unbearably cold and detached. As it is, with the wistful music trickled all over the image, it's just very, very sad.

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There's a good chance you never heard of "Night Train," which happens to be not only one of the best Polish movies of all time, but also one of the finest achievements of world cinema of the entire 1950s. Thanks to the good people at Second Run DVD, you don't need to take my word for it - the film is a part of a 4-DVD box-set entitled "Polish Cinema Classics," which was recently released in the UK and sports four stunning digital restorations, "Night Train" included. (Other titles in the collection are Andrzej Munk's 1957 "Eroica," Janusz Morgenstern's 1960 "Goodbye, See You Tomorrow" and Andrzej Wajda's 1960 "Innocent Sorcerers," to which I had the honor of contributing a booklet essay exclusive for this box-set).

Jerzy Kawalerowicz, whose best-known film is the 1961 "Mother Joan of the Angels" (based the same incident that later inspired Ken Russell's "The Devils," albeit re-told in a highly cerebral manner), is one of Polish cinema's supreme craftsmen and secular moralists. Many of his movies deal with a world in which 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 Polish seaside for their holidays, and all lacking a sense of purpose. The main narrative focus is on Jerzy (Leon Niemczyk), who enters the train wearing dark shades and behaving almost unbearably standoffish, and on Marta (Lucyna Winnicka), who invades Jerzy's sleeping compartment and goes from being an unwanted presence to an indispensable (and ultimately almost healing) one.

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Jerzy and Marta's strange courtship - by turns tentative and bold - is played against various brands of sexual pursuits that surround, and sometimes affect them: from an unabashedly romantic one by the brash Staszek (Zbigniew Cybulski), the desperate love-craving of a neglected wife (Teresa Szmigielówna), to an almost folksy budding romance between the pair of ticket controllers traversing the train (he's balding and jovial, she's plump and officious). Kawalerowicz's way of presenting all this simmering erotic business is far from steamy, and yet he's still capable of providing stunningly suggestive bits, such as Winnicka's gorgeous hair being unexpectedly mussed by a breeze from another train passing, to repeatedly revealed sweat stains under Jerzy's armpits. The director may be interested in morality and its failings, but he's by no means blind to his actors' bodies.

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What begins as a mere mention of a newspaper story - a man murdered his wife the day before and is still on the run - slowly grows to become the movie's central theme, complete with a Hitchockian motif of an unjustly accused man who is forced to prove his innocence. That man happens to be Jerzy, who thus has to endure the complete violation of his initial craving for peace in quiet - within minutes, he's exposed to everyone's judgment, ranging from being called a killer ("Those shades! I knew it!" cries out one of the gawkers) to being hailed as the hero of the hour.

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.

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Throughout the movie, Marta is torn between varying erotic loyalties, of which the most urgent and unwanted one is that to the train-hopping Staszek (it's a sad irony that the legendary actor playing the part died a couple of years later precisely while trying to jump on a moving train). Her craving for him goes hand in hand with her readiness to hurt him. At the end, she nails it by saying: "Everyone wants to be loved, yet no one's ready to love." Despite the transient moment of moral clarity that occured during the chase, by the time "Night Train" closes Kawalerowicz seems to suggest nothing really has changed in the lives of his characters and they're back on track of their usual, fleeting pursuits. As Michael Brooke has put it in his beautiful booklet essay included in the Second Run DVD set: "Truly, all human life is here, and much turns out to be deeply disconsolate, involuntarily single, unhappily married, desperately lonely."

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The final shots of the film are that of an empty train, still a bit messy from the multiple passengers it just held: a moving stage ripe for re-entering by a new set of love-hungry human dots that feel so natural for us to identify with.

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