Passenger is a black and white film shot in 1961 in Poland but not released until 1963. It’s set in Auschwitz during World War Two. The director Andrzej Munk died in a car accident before completing it so the missing parts were filled in - by Witold Lesiewicz and others - with still photos and an explanatory voice-over. This voice-over doesn’t just explain the plot, it explains the fate of the director and how it affected the construction of the narrative, how the people left behind dealt with the issue of what he might have intended for the finished product. This happens not just in the opening and closing sections of the film but at one point about a third of the way through, when the voice-over examines how the character, Liza, is telling her story. A meta-narrative like this should by rights distance us from the story but instead it just seems to add weight to it. The tragedy of the director’s death is interwoven with the tragedy of Auschwitz. He himself was Jewish and was actually driving back from filming at the site of the real concentration camp when the accident happened, so he in a way became another of its victims. And the struggle to make sense of the fragments that Munk left behind becomes intermingled with the film’s struggle to make sense of the Holocaust.
Chris Marker’s short film La Jetee, released in 1962, became famous for its revolutionary use of still images to tell a dramatic narrative. I can’t help wondering if it influenced the way Passenger was completed or was it something Lesiewicz et al had already decided was the best ad hoc response to their unusual set of circumstances. In any case, I think Passenger does a better job of achieving powerful dramatic effects with just stills. Look at the opening scenes, set on a cruise ship in the present day, when Liza (Aleksandra Slaska) a German guard in Auschwitz during the war, runs into Marta (Anna Ciepielewska), who was her Polish Jewish assistant. Before we even know anything about the relationship the expression of shock on Liza’s face, the way the series of stills shows her turning way and trying to hide, tells us that something awful once happened between them.
The whole film is the story of these two women and nearly all the minor characters are fellow female prisoners or fellow female guards. There is only one man of note in the story: Tadeusz, who is Marta’s ‘lover’, if one can use that word in these circumstances. He’s in the male camp nearby and occasionally they get to be together. He figures prominently in one of the stand-out scenes in the movie. As a small classical group give an outdoor concert for a Nazi big-wig the prisoners stand in rows and Marta and Tadeusz gradually come together by swapping places with other inmates, moving very carefully so that the guards don’t see them, until finally they’re close enough for him to throw her a keepsake. The way it’s filmed is just beautiful. Another great scene - just a few seconds long really but striking nevertheless - is at the start when Liza chooses an assistant from hundreds of female inmates lined up outside. The camerawork here is astonishingly expressive; the way it scans back and forth in an anything-but-smooth manner and zeroes in on faces is exactly the way the human eye works, and it’s the kind of scene most other movies do with far less grace.
There were a few scenes in the film that confused me because there seemed to be missing connections and I got the impression that the full arc of the relationship between Liza and Marta was never completed by Munk. But this is a minor grumble. Passenger is still an excellent film. Even if the over-arching theme is a bit obscured, it’s interesting in all kinds of other ways. It’s only 62 minutes long but feels much longer, and that sounds like a criticism but in fact it is not. What I mean is that I only found out the running-time after watching it and I was shocked that so much could have been packed into such a short space of time. It feels weightier than any 62-minute film has a right to be. In fact it’s the best film I’ve ever seen from the Polish New Wave of the 50’s and early 60’s: I prefer it to Wajda’s Ashes and Diamonds or Polanski’s Knife in the Water.
The acting in the two lead roles is excellent. Both Anna Ciepielewska and Aleksandra Slaska have interesting faces. Ciepielewska as the Polish assistant has a slightly mournful look to her and she’s easy to sympathise with. Slaska as the German guard always seems to have a scepticism around her eyes on top of any other emotions she’s expressing. And the background details of everyday camp life are very, very powerful. We see prisoners forced to run naked through a gauntlet of snarling dogs, children led unsuspecting and smiling into gas-chambers, the clothes and belongings of the dead spread messily around a warehouse, a cart with one tell-tale dead arm hanging over the rim. The whole atmosphere is chaotic and decrepit - we’re often shown floors strewn with debris - and this is something most other similar movies lack. They usually make concentration camps look chilly and muddy, but also somehow orderly and neat; that’s not the case here.
The look of the film is very different from something like Schindler’s List. Of course they were made nearly 40 years apart so that’s no surprise. But it’s also different from other black and white films made in 1961 like The Misfits, Yojimbo and Last Year at Marienbad. It seems to come from a far older world. Sometimes it looks grainy and almost like a silent film. It’s also deliberately over-exposed in some shots with the colours - the blacks, the greys, the whites - seeming almost to pulsate and fight each other for space on the screen. (It reminded me of the famous coffin dream sequence in Wild Strawberries).
Claude Lanzmann, the director of Shoah, in a kind of echo of Theodor Adorno's famous 'No poetry after Auschwitz' statement, said that you can’t even mention the word ‘beauty’ with regard to anything at all connected to the Holocaust. But I disagree. The pictorial beauty of many of the shots of the camp in Passenger - the contrasts in light, the use of mist etc - gives you a sense of the human spirit trying to find something good amidst the horror. It does not dilute or cheapen the horror. The horror is there in every scene; there’s no way we can forget about it. But sensing the warmth of the director behind the camera in the way he chooses and arranges his shots gives you a sense of a fellow decent human being in there with you. (In Shoah itself there was no such sense of a warm human being behind the camera).
The film is also a brilliant example of how to turn weaknesses into strengths because even its own incompleteness is used for advantage - with the meta-scenes, and the ending which is a non-ending. These last few minutes are again a voice-over and still photos of the two women on the ocean liner. ‘Liza won’t be challenged by truths buried in the mud of Auschwitz’ the voice-over says, and the very last words are ‘people, indifferent to yesterday’s crimes, who even today….’ There the film comes to a close, appropriately open-ended, and more powerfully concluding things by cutting us off than a thousand other films which wrap things up neatly for the audience.
For more on my dissenting view of the 1985 film Shoah, scroll down to the bottom of this post.