Editor’s Notes: The following review is part of our coverage for Martin Scorsese Presents: Masterpieces of Polish Cinema which runs from February 5th to 16th. For more information on this film series visit filmlinc.com and follow The Film Society of Lincoln Center on Twitter @FilmLinc.
There’s something mysterious, somewhat regal, and distancing about trains. On one level, a train is simply a form of mass transportation of the sort we see a fair amount of these days. But trains were the first (never underestimate being the first), and they still capture our collective desire for exploration, for new horizons, for new beginnings. A train is a way out of the past toward a future that almost has to be brighter. There’s a reason we have the expression “a light at the end of the tunnel.”
Every shot seems to press closer and closer in on the characters, turning the uncomfortable intimacy of train travel increasingly claustrophobic as tensions run higher.
Trains also create an odd sort of distanced intimacy. People are cramped together physically, but often they are strangers otherwise. They share this small space, but little else about their lives or experiences. Everyone on a train is a mystery that you in some ways understand more intimately than most others. This mystery, and the twin emotions of dread and possibility that come with it, forms the center of Night Train, director Jerzy Kawalerowicz’s Hitchcock homage.
The film follows two strangers, Jerzy (Leon Niemczyk) and Marta (Lucyna Winnicka), who end up sharing a compartment on an overnight train to the Baltic Sea coast. Both cultivate an air of mystery, boarding the train under vaguely suspicious circumstances (he claims to have forgotten his ticket at home, she claims to have bought a ticket for a “males only” compartment from a man) and preferring that they be able to occupy a compartment alone. Both crave solitude, in part because they long to remain unknown—they don’t want their personal business aired, and they would prefer to hear no one else’s. Throughout the train, passengers buzz about a murder that has just occurred, an investigation that remains open. When the police enter the train, believing the murderer is onboard, paranoia builds, rumors fly, and people become increasingly convinced that either Jerzy or Marta must be the killer.
The film swims in ambiguity, from the opaque brooding of its lead characters to the ephemeral score that builds dread and a sense of the enigmatic. Every shot seems to press closer and closer in on the characters, turning the uncomfortable intimacy of train travel increasingly claustrophobic as tensions run higher. The train that forms the setting for the film slowly develops as its own little community, one that understands its traditions, thrives on its formulas, and considers itself pleasantly predictable. Into this atmosphere, it throws Jerzy and Marta, two secretive outcasts who don’t fit into this hermetic little world. The rest of the passengers are suspicious, and suspicion, as ever, breeds contempt.
Night Train is more focused on examining the ways we connect or fail to, the ways we open up or close ourselves off, than it is about resolving the mystery that serves more as a MacGuffin than a plot for long stretches.
Night Train cleanly divides itself into three acts, which build on each other and feel of a piece, but which individually focus on different aspects of its story. In its opening act, it is a quiet, mysterious and detached film about the boarding of the train. We watch the masses mull in the station, and out of them we see Jerzy step, calmer, colder, and more deliberate than the forced joviality of those around him. The film’s second act follows Jerzy and Marta in their shared compartment, as they try to avoid revealing anything of themselves, yet grow closer. Finally, the film takes on the feel of a Twilight Zone episode as the various other passengers on the train take on a fevered paranoia and grow increasingly focused on apprehending the killer they are convinced lies in their midst.
In many ways, Night Train, with its discordant score, dark undercurrent, and slowly building suspense, feels like an attempt to ape American film noir, but ultimately something different is going on here. Like it’s noir counterparts, the film is about alienation and loneliness in the post-war period, but Night Train is more focused on examining the ways we connect or fail to, the ways we open up or close ourselves off, than it is about resolving the mystery that serves more as a MacGuffin than a plot for long stretches. There is an inevitable distance between the characters here that cannot be bridged, even as they are forced into physical intimacy in close quarters. It is a distance they cannot bridge because they cannot fully understand it. Theirs is a malaise that lays beyond their full comprehension. It makes it sadder, more frustrating, and yes, more mysterious as a result. It also makes it resonate more truly.
[notification type=”star”]78/100 ~ GOOD. In many ways, Night Train, with its discordant score, dark undercurrent, and slowly building suspense, feels like an attempt to ape American film noir, but ultimately something different is going on here. [/notification]