Night Train, 1959

Night Train opens to the eerie sound of a soulful and atmospheric vocal melody against an acute overhead shot of a busy train station. On an overnight train bound for a seaside resort, an agitated man named Jerzy (Leon Niemczyk), oddly obscured behind a pair of sunglasses, approaches the conductor (Helena Dàbrowska) to explain that he has neglected to bring his ticket for a first class accommodation on the departing train, but is willing to re-purchase tickets for the two remaining shared cabin berths in a gentlemen-only sleeper car in order to be able to board the already crowded holiday train and have a private compartment all to himself. Dispensing with the transactional formality of obtaining physical tickets after paying his fare, Jerzy quickly retreats to the cabin only to find a lady’s purse on the bed. The owner, an attractive young woman named Marta (Lucyna Winnicka), claims to have purchased her ticket for the upper berth of the sleeper compartment from a travel agent and had not been advised of the restriction, nor did she check in with the conductor in order to validate her ticket. Marta refuses to vacate the cabin despite the conductor’s stern order, but rather than perpetuate the disturbance, Jerzy acquiesces to her intransigence and convinces the conductor not to pursue the matter further. Nevertheless, the seemingly mysterious and evasive passengers, each hoping to find privacy for the duration of their trip, cannot escape the claustrophobia of the environment around them, as Marta’s obsessed, rejected lover, Straszek (Zbigniew Cybulski) follows her aboard the train, and Jerzy’s enigmatic behavior draws the flirtatious attention of a lawyer’s neglected wife (Teresa Szmigielówna) along with the scrutiny of other passengers who begin to who begin to speculate on the identity of the elusive murderer profiled in the late edition newspaper.

Night Train is a taut, compelling, and insightful psychological portrait of emotional need, hysteria, and mob behavior. Using acute angle shots, high contrast lighting, and narrow, claustrophobic framing, Jerzy Kawalerowicz creates an unnaturally heightened sense of environment and perceptional acuity that reflect the passengers’ subconscious duress and sublimated emotions: the visually occluded, odd angle shot as Jerzy enters the compartment; the birds eye view of the opening sequence that is repeated in the image of the passengers encircling a suspect by an open field graveyard; the consecutive episodes of mirrored reflections cast against the train window, first of the lawyer’s wife, then of Marta, that figuratively reveal their innate loneliness, confusion, and feelings of abandonment; Straszek’s desperate and reckless attempt to gain Marta’s attention and sympathy. By modulating the innocuous and lighthearted tone of the holiday-bound train excursion to present a sinister manifestation of base human instincts and the darkness of the soul, Kawalerowicz further illustrates the often destructive myopia, persecution, and skewed perspective that results from a collective mentality. In the film’s haunting and metaphoric denouement, a priest replaces a fallen graveyard cross that had been used as a weapon of violence: a solemn reminder of the human need for compassion and atonement in an environment of fear and vengeance.

© Acquarello 2003. All rights reserved.

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