A man in sunglasses boards a train and insists on a sleeping compartment all to himself. A woman has already moved into his compartment and refuses to leave. Fellow passengers look on with curiosity, but this is just the beginning of their eventful overnight journey. Newspaper reports mention a wife killer on the lam: could one of the passengers in the sleeping carriage be the murderer?
Part of the Polish Cinema Classics box-set, the new Second Run DVD release of Night Train (1959) includes just one special feature, which doubles as a sneaky promotional clip for another upcoming release: My Seventeen Lives, a documentary about the director, Jerzy Kawalerowicz. While instructive, at just six and a half minutes this clip can only provide a minimum of information about Kawalerowicz, his film and its place in the Polish School of the 1950s.
Still, it’s hard to be disappointed in this DVD given the outstanding quality of the feature itself. Shot in lush black and white, striking compositions frame the actors’ expressive faces. Leon Niemczyk (who later starred in Roman Polanski’s Knife in the Water) plays the solitary passenger, Jerzy. In the documentary, Niemczyk explains that Kawalerowicz didn’t like his actors to memorise their lines: he wanted to capture thought and hesitation on their faces. This helps to create an air of reticence and mystery, while a languorous jazzy soundtrack enhances the film’s charged atmosphere. When Jerzy enters the sleeping carriage, the viewer is immersed alongside him in a microcosm where it is difficult to keep track of all the individuals and their personal stories: the film begs to be re-watched in order to understand them, but will always retain some ambiguity.
Kawalerowicz says in the documentary that he wanted viewers to feel as though they were actually travelling on a train. A real train was too unstable a location for filming, so a sleeper carriage was set up in the studio, where a complex series of rear projections provided the scenery rushing past the windows. Skilful camerawork also contributes to the film’s lifelike impression, juxtaposing two spatial axes: up and down the train’s crowded corridors, and in and out of the cramped compartments. These two axes also represent the tenuous division between the public space of the corridor and the supposedly private space of the compartment.
There is a small-town feeling to passenger relationships on the train: the travellers just can’t resist invading each other’s privacy, offering unsolicited advice and flirting shamelessly. The film is understanding of human flaws, though, pointing to the traumas and disappointments that make individuals act the way they do. It is harder to excuse the characters for instantly turning on a fellow passenger who is suspected of murder: all previous companionship with the suspect counts for nothing, as they gossip about tell-tale signs of criminality. Similarly, rather than letting the police do their job when the murderer flees, the passengers join in the chase, forming a small but increasingly aggressive mob. Other people’s misfortunes become a spectator sport.