February 24, 2012

Pociąg (1959)

After World War II ended, the reconstruction of Poland began, and it was during this period of reformation when the occupying Soviet authorities instituted a communist government in the country. This movement found great resistance, but in the end, the People's Republic of Poland was proclaimed in 1952. However, despite its problems, Poland was one of the least repressive states of the Soviet Bloc, and particularly in 1956, the regime was actually liberal. In this period a group of young Polish filmmakers took advantage of the liberal changes and began to tackle important topics regarding their own national character as Poles. This group was named the Polish Film School (Polska Szkoła Filmowa) and had Andrzej Wajda as its leading figure. However, Wajda wasn't the only important filmmaker of the group, another of these innovative directors was Jerzy Kawalerowicz, whom in 1956 released "Cién" ("Shadow"), which reflected entirely the style of the Polish Film School. Two years later, Kawalerowicz made the ambiguous thriller "Pociąg".

"Pociąg" (literally "Train", but titled "Night Train") begins at a crowded train station, where the passengers are getting ready to depart. A man, Jerzy (Leon Niemczyk), dressed in a suit and wearing sunglasses, rushes to the station and gets a first class ticket for the overnight train to the Baltic Sea cost. Jerzy is decided to spend a time alone, and so he becomes enraged when he finds a young blonde woman, Marta (Lucyna Winnicka) already occupying it. Jerzy wants to throw her out and calls the inspector, but the girl refuses to leave, as she seems to be on the run from something, Before the police is called, Jerzy prefers to forget everything and lets her stay. A young man, Staszek (Zbigniew Cybulski) is desperate to talk to Marta, but she ignores him constantly; however, the young suitor doesn't seem to be what truly worries the mysterious woman. Soon the train departs, and rumour arises that a fugitive, a man who has killed his wife, is on the same train. And everything points to Jerzy as the main suspect.

Written by director Jerzy Kawalerowicz and Jerzy Lutowski, "Pociąg" is at its core, a thriller in a very Hitchcocknian vein, complete with a striking blonde surrounded by mystery. However, what the writers actually do is to employ this formula to construct a microcosm inside the passenger car, a microcosm that extends beyond Jerzy and Marta, and includes the relationships between everyone in the cart, from the two priests on a pilgrimage, to the lawyer and his wife, so eager to escape from her marriage with anyone who cares to listen to her. Even the lives of the train workers are explored briefly. Certainly, the search for the murderer is only the MacGuffin for the real drama, the psychological turmoil that consumes the two melancholic souls that share the same compartment. Two different, yet strikingly similar beings on their way to the sea. On their way to meet their fate. The notion of individuality is explored in the story, as both Jerzy and Marta feel like outcasts in their car, seemingly uninterested in belonging to society anymore.

This feeling of alienation is perfectly represented in the stylish visual design that director Jerzy Kawalerowicz employs in "Pociąg", which involves a claustrophobic atmosphere of dread beautifully captured by the black and white photography of Jan Laskowski. Working within the small space that the train car allowed him, Kawalerowicz employs tight shots to enhance the overwhelming sensation of claustrophobia that the story has. The black and white photography is used to enhance this, with Laskowski using light and shadows to draw the world in which Kawalerowicz' characters unfold. Andrzej Trzaskowski's music is another element that enhance the desolation in which these group of characters live, as the jazzy score has a powerfully melancholic sound. It's remarkable the way that director Jerzy Kawalerowicz keeps things moving in order to avoid tedium; from the dynamic camera-work that seems to flow through the car, to the smooth rhythm in which the plot unfolds, Kawalerowicz shows in "Pociąg" a great understanding of visual narrative.

As mentioned above, it's not really the plot but the characters what make "Pociąg" a different kind of thriller, and so the performances of the cast become instrumental for the film's success. Fortunately, the cast is of great quality, and with a couple of exceptions, it can be said that it rises up to the challenge. Leading the cast is Leon Niemczyk as the mysterious Jerzy, whom despite his initial desire of being left alone, gradually becomes to open up and show his true self. Niemczyk may not look like a good choice for the role, but as this change takes place in his character, he truly improves his performance. However, the real wonder is without a doubt Lucyna Winnicka, who plays the equally secretive Marta. In a truly complex and ambiguous character, Lucyna displays a wide range of emotions and delivers a masterful performance as the young woman lost in the world. It's also worth to point out the great job that Teresa Szmigielówa does as the Lawyer's wife, never losing any chance to seduce Jerzy.

An apparently atypical film from the Polish Film School, "Pociąg" may seem to lack the political consciousness that became so related to the group's style, however, the fact that "Pociąg" works like an American thriller doesn't mean it avoids the themes that the group explored. In a way, Kawalerowicz uses the night train to represent the Polish society as a while. An allegory of its times, the group of passengers doesn't really accept neither Marta nor Jerzy, to the point that they eagerly jump to the conclusion that Jerzy is the murderer. The individuality of these two characters, expressed in their rejection of society, only makes them suspects of foul play, to the point that their scorned lovers, Staszek and the Lawyer's wife, arrive to the conclusion that there is an illicit affair between them. Ambiguity is a key element in "Pociąg", and one that director Kawalerowicz plays masterfully. Certainly, at times it can get tiresome, particularly as it slows down by the middle part, but all in all, it's a very rewarding film.

Complex, ambiguous, and yet so beautifully crafted, "Pociąg" may be considered a it too Hollywoodish amongst the Polish films of its time, however, director Kawalerowicz certainly exploits the limits and conventions of the genre in a quite interesting and clever way. After the years of the Polish Film School, director Jerzy Kawalerowicz would become worldwide famous thanks to his work in "Matka Joanna od aniolów" (1961) and the superproduction of "Faraon" (1966), however, his early work already shows the great skill and knowledge of cinema language that Kawalerowicz would later display. As a thriller, "Pociąg" results an enormously entertaining film, as a political allegory, a remarkable achievement.


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