(written for MovieMail in 2006)
Director Andrzej Munk died in a car accident during the filming of Passenger, his 1963 film about a chance postwar encounter on a liner between a former prisoner at Auschwitz and her female supervisor. Munk’s colleaugues then combined the existing film footage along with stills and narration to ‘present the questions he wished to pose’. Their preamble is worth quoting at length: ‘We have no intention of adding to what he did not say himself. We are not searching for solutions which might not have been his, nor seeking to conclude the plots which his death left unresolved. We merely wish to present what was filmed, with all the gaps and reticence, in an attempt to grasp whatever is alive and significant.’
The gaps and reticence are important, as the film’s real subject is the apparent void of memory, both personal and collective, that allows a man or woman to distance themselves from the past and re-present it as they would prefer. The gap between Munk’s intentions and the resulting film collage, reconstructed by others, is thus fitting for the processes that are the film’s subject. Completed films are too often reduced to the intentions of the director, or are written away in a phrase or a sentence; Passenger, an incomplete, fragmentary mix of fact and fiction, defies singular ownership and cannot be further reduced.
‘the life of the camp family’
The lengths to which Liza, an overseer at the Auschwitz stores, goes to justify her past to her husband, are incredible. ‘I had nothing to do with the prisoners, only their things,’ she says. She needs an assistant and chooses Marta from a courtyard inspection. ‘It was a pleasure to watch her change back to a normal girl,’ she says. Jealousy comes when Liza discovers Marta’s lover is also in the camp. ‘She had what I lacked,’ she says. When Tadeusz and Marta have the temerity to show their love for each other, Liza is uncertain of how to act. ‘I, an SS overseer, was as powerless as she was,’ she says. When Marta writes a note to her lover, Liza at first refuses to believe that she could have betrayed her trust. ‘She wanted to destroy me, I had to defend myself,’ she says.
We should thank her for being honest in her lies, and revealing the limitless contortions of self-deception.
Concentration camp scenes in Passenger were filmed during a month at Auschwitz. It is immediately established as a place of ending with its railway tracks leading into a building and its piles of emptied suitcases in the fog. Simplicity of presentation is paramount here and the camera follows the geometry of the place. A horizontal tracking shot takes in a long, low building and four vents; a pan upwards then shows a smoking, flaring chimney.
We return to this place later, as Liza watches through a barbed-wire fence as nurses lead children and babies into the camp, and an officer casually receives a delivery of poison, pulls on a gas mask and gloves and pours the contents of the canister down a vent, the children’s voices bubbling away in the background. Behind Liza the poplars lean in the wind; before her the smoke from the chimney casts cloud shadows on the ground. It is a sunny, blowy day. The scene recalls the mundane unreality of Auden’s ‘Musee des Beaux Arts’, and this theme is later referred to by the filmmakers in their narration: ‘in the vague, unreal background, people die, silently, casually, anonymously, as others perform their duty.’ Then Marta addresses Liza, and Liza, slightly discomposed for a short time, turns away from the scene and to her.
Passenger gives a valuable lesson in looks. In essence, people in Passenger regard each other in three ways. The first way is in a look that assumes power. It is the weasel-eyed look that Liza wears as she struts around the muddy camp in her boots. The countering look of the prisoners sometimes shows fear, it sometimes pleads, but more often it is defiant. (‘Anna, lift your head up!’ says Marta to a naked prisoner, an example past whom other prisoners are made to march.) Both are closed, tight looks that cannot risk giving anything away.
The second look is that of love. It occurs at the four moments that Marta and Tadeusz are shown together. It is a look that hides nothing from the other. When Marta first sees Tadeusz looking at her, she covers her shorn head with her scarf. Even this act reveals more than it hides, and we know that Tadeusz, though his face is half-hidden by a glare of light on the window pane, is gazing at her with the tenderness that is at the heart of love. In Marta’s note to Tadeusz, she writes, ‘It’s good that you exist.’ This is the unspoken message of all their looks between each other. At one point he sketches her and her eyes are alive with the joy of being seen.
The third look hardly features in the film, yet it is the most chilling, against which the look of power is banal. It is the look of polite dissimulation that we can imagine Liza wears for her husband and the other passengers on the cruise ship. It is a look of blankness that renders people unfathomable, and that can hide even atrocities. It is a look that will only break when it has to, to say such words as, ‘I wasn’t a prisoner, I was an overseer,’ to a husband. It is a look that you can encounter any day, and anywhere.