A Polish classic at last available with English subtitles
It is marvellous that this magnificent Polish classic has been made available in 2011 in a restored version on DVD with English subtitles. The film, in crisp black and white with extremely creative camera work, is a joy to watch. In many ways it resembles the Western noir films of the late forties and early fifties, but it has psychological depth and is not just a thriller. In many ways it reminds me of a high-quality noir such as Nicholas Ray's IN A LONELY PLACE (1950, see my review), where loneliness and tragic encounters are really the main theme. That film's theme was 'I loved you for a few weeks', but in this film the love lasts for but a day. NIGHT TRAIN (POCIAG in Polish, which merely means 'train', though in an earlier release for the cinema, the film was known in English as BALTIC EXPRESS) takes place mostly on a train, and train films are always such a great favourite, being a perfect metaphor of life. This aspect is intensively stressed by the director, with his shots of the many separate carriages and compartments, both full and later empty. The moving shots up and down the crowded corridors seem to be a miracle of planning, and give every appearance of having been shot on a real moving train. But some of it was done in a studio with removable walls, to enable this seemingly impossible camera movement to take place. The camera never stops, it roams restlessly like a wild beast through this moving Noah's ark of humanity, seething as it is with mystery, fear, an escaping murderer, a woman with murder in her heart, a despairing wife trapped in a hopeless marriage, and even a survivor of Buchenwald who cannot sleep in a bunk because it reminds him of the concentration camp, so that he spends all his time in the corridor reading, until he drops off. They are all supposed to be going off on holiday to the seaside, a town called Hel. The dramas meanwhile are swirling round everyone as they tensely smoke their cigarettes and fret about the dangers of a killer in their midst, and make furtive assignations. The train stops at night at a place where it has never stopped before, and three policemen get on, in search of the man who has just murdered his wife. Which of the mysterious men on the train is really the murderer? The astonishing scene where the murderer leaps from the moving train and all the men go after him in a mob scene and trap him in a ramshackle cemetery is meant to be a metaphor for the seamy side of Poland's recent history. The Polish government had banned jazz music until the reforms of 1956, so this film has a defiantly jazz soundtrack all the way throughout, though soft, dreamy, and haunting. The atmosphere of the film is electric but also mesmerizing. There are long periods of brooding and contemplation, and many characters barely speak, while others chatter uncontrollably. The focus of the film is on the mysterious blonde beauty, played by Lucyna Winnicka, who says little, and after this film was shot, married the director. She conveys so much by her eyes and expressions and moods that there is little need for dialogue. The film was directed by Jerzy Kawalerowicz (1922-2007), who made 17 films between 1952 and 2001, of which this, PHARAOH (1966), QUO VADIS? (2001), and MOTHER JOAN OF THE ANGELS (1961) are the most famous. In NIGHT TRAIN, he shows himself to be a master of the cinematic craft. The film is continuously absorbing, thoughtful but paced, and deeply intriguing. Like life, it does not answer all of its mysteries, and happiness remains elusive. One of the most frustrated and disappointed of the characters is played by the famous actor, Zybigniew Cybulski, as an eager young man who simply cannot comprehend his rejection by Winnicka, or even begin to understand her new and impenetrable air of gloom and inevitable fate. When fate takes an unexpected turn, the defeat of inevitability itself has the taste of exchanging one emptiness for another. Empty compartments, empty lives; a speeding train, life's hurtling express in which we all are carried. This is one of the finest of the many 'train films'.
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