Midnight Train to Nowhere in Particular
Trains are great cinematic devices. From La Bete Humaine to Café Lumiere, they’ve provided some of the most lyrical images in film. They suggest the fusion of humanity and technology, and they provide a neat visual metaphor for the way that alienation and belonging can co-exist.
In Jerzy Kawalerowicz’s Pociag (The Night Train), from 1959, the passengers on a midnight express to the Baltic Coast are pressed in tight together in the cabins and passageways of the narrow train; they practically have to feel each other up in order to get around. The cramped, shadowy confines are contrasted with the vast, barren landscape surrounding the train (this is one of the few times that obvious rear projection actually helps). Some of the passengers take advantage of this unique intimacy: an unhappy wife giddily flirts with her neighbor; a couple plans a furtive assignation; people come together in conversations about the still-recent war and their experiences in concentration camps.
Others prefer their own company. The film centers on two loners: Jerzy (Leon Niemczyk), a tight-lipped man in dark glasses, and Marta (Lucyna Winnicka), a morose blonde who seems to be fleeing one romantic trauma and heading towards another. Through happenstance, they end up having to share a cabin. Each had preferred to be alone, but they agree to stay out of each other’s way. As the night journey continues, Jerzy and Marta tentatively bond over their mutual melancholy, while Marta’s ex-lover, Staszek (Zbigniew Cybulski), stows away on the train and tries to make contact with her.
For a while, the film dawdles between this storyline and the overall flow of the train. Passengers discuss the sensational newspaper story of a man who fled after killing his wife. The police stop the train; the killer may be on board. The possibility that the cryptic Jerzy is the killer provides the slim thread of suspense on which the entire film hangs.
Night Train is jazzy, discordant, minor-key Euro noir in the manner of Louis Malle’s Elevator to the Gallows. Like Malle’s film, it tries to emulate the moods and visual styles of an American film noir, but misses the energy and political anger that gave those films their juice. The black and white cinematography by Jan Laskowski is frequently gorgeous. When empty, the train corridors are shot with a deep focus lens worthy of Gregg Toland. When crowded with passengers, the camera is pressed up close against faces, at slightly oblique angles, capturing sensual images of fear, suspicion and estrangement
There are also plenty of scenes that are just plain dark (part of the reason for the visual murkiness may simply be a poor digital transfer of a very obscure film). And the imagery is almost wholly disconnected from anything in the plot beyond a free-floating sense of loneliness and alienation, making the movie seem more like a perfume commercial than a full-scale film.
We’re meant to root, I suppose, for Jerzy and Marta to connect meaningfully during the long night journey, but they’re both so groggy with despair they can barely summon the energy to communicate. “You look at me as if you wanted to kill me”, Marta intones shortly after they first meet. Later, after seeing some scars on her wrist, Jerzy muses, “Ah, so you have loved that much.” The whole movie is rather damp, as if it had been soaked in ennui and not wrung out.
Almost before it has begun, the “mystery” is solved; the killer is identified. The incensed passengers band together in a train-long manhunt, and the camera tracks from cabin to cabin, taking in a whole panoply of contemporary Polish society. Finally, the killer jumps the train and, in an oppressively symbolic scene, the entire passenger body chases the killer through the early-dawn mist. They track him down to a makeshift forest cemetery and descend upon him amongst towering crosses and howling wolves. There is a stunningly composed overhead shot in which the sniveling killer is swamped by his pursuers en masse, as if in some deadly football huddle.
But what exactly is being expressed here? The story is so thin and remote, so padded out with moody imagery and gnomic dialogue, that it seems some larger metaphor is being implied. Is the train’s thoughtless manhunt meant to represent the mob mentality of post-War Communist Poland? But nothing we see of the accused man suggests that he’s innocent, nothing to suggest that the train’s treatment of him is anything but justified. “In the end, I’m not a machine,” one character observes towards the end, in yet another line that seems to point to some larger meaning, some nebulous epiphany just beyond the film’s grasp.
Cybulski, whose explosive performance two years earlier in Andrzej Wajda’s seminal Ashes and Diamonds led to him being dubbed “the Polish James Dean” gives the only lively performance in the film, but he barely has anything to do besides act aggrieved and agitated. He does have one good scene however, when Staszek, in an extreme bid to get Marta’s attention, climbs out a window and, clinging to the side of the speeding train, tells her that he will jump if she doesn’t come back to him. He doesn’t jump, of course, but for a minute or two the film is alive with the sensuality and danger it seems to strive for but so rarely achieves.