The Curmudgeon


Saturday, April 14, 2007


Andrzej Munk et al 1961-1963

On a holiday cruise, some years after the Second World War, Liza (Aleksandra Slaska), an expatriate German, accidentally encounters a woman she recognizes as Marta (Anna Ciepielewska), who was an inmate at Auschwitz when Liza was a guard. The bulk of the film consists of the story of the two women's relationship in the camp, in two versions. In the first, Liza tells her husband that, while other guards were "drunk with power", she just did her duty, was in many ways just as much a prisoner as the inmates, and indeed did all she could to help Marta survive; in the second she gives a more detailed, and presumably more truthful, account of events.

Liza's reasons for giving this second statement are left obscure; indeed, it is not even certain whether she actually speaks it to another character or whether the sequence is some sort of interior monologue. After completing most of the Auschwitz scenes, the forty-year-old director Andrzej Munk was killed in a car accident in September 1961; the film was brought to its present form by a number of his friends and collaborators, using still photographs and a commentary for the shipboard scenes, and aspiring less to "complete" Munk's work than to pose the questions he was trying to ask. Accordingly, the commentary makes no attempt to fill in the gaps in the story, merely noting them where they occur.

At the start of the Auschwitz flashbacks, grainy monochrome shots show the railhead littered with clothes, panning to a pile of suitcases topped with frost; then the short stubby tubes through which a bored soldier will later be seen feeding the Zyklon-B crystals, and an upward pan to the chimney belching black smoke. In another sequence, as people wait in an orderly queue for their showers, a young guard permits a little girl to pet his Alsatian. The guards are fond of their dogs; one of Liza's colleagues, who has no compassion at all for the prisoners, suffers genuine grief when her own dog is killed. The bleak, muddy landscape of the camp, fenced in with barbed wire and machine-gun posts, parallels precisely the bleak, muddy, fenced-in emotional landscape of those trapped inside.

The area where Liza and Marta work is a grimy warehouse, in which the first things shown are a battered cardboard box filled to overflowing with hairbrushes, and a silent pram. Liza provides the voice-over, telling her husband how she selected Marta, a Polish political prisoner, to assist her as a clerk in picking over the belongings of the camp inmates: the work was less arduous in Liza's command, and the treatment more humane. In her first statement, Liza recounts her pleasure in seeing Marta return to some semblance of health and femininity; in her second statement, she expresses the envy and resentment underlying her charitable do-goodery. Catching Marta with a bunch of roses which she claims are a birthday present, Liza angrily confiscates the flowers, jealous and furious because no-one remembers her birthday. It seems clear that Liza's self-serving idea of herself as a prisoner does have some truth to it, though not necessarily in the way Liza would have her husband believe.

In the camp, as befits a slave, Marta gets to say very little, and nobody knows what Munk intended her to do on the boat; but her courage and resilience shine out of Ciepielewska's performance. As the prisoners are marched into the camp at the end of the day, they pass a woman who is being humiliated, apparently for some sexual misdemeanour: she is forced to stand naked, with a scrawled sign announcing her crime, while the other inmates march by. As the woman hangs her head, Marta calls her by name from the ranks and gestures encouragingly: "stand straight!"

There are altogether too few films like Passenger. Much has been made of the peculiar circumstances of its release, with critics drawing parallels between its fractured, indeterminate storyline and the supposed impossibility of encompassing the catastrophe of the Holocaust in a more formally complete work of art. I don't find this a particularly fruitful line of analysis; it seems to me that the importance of Passenger lies in its focus on the mentality of Liza, and in its lack of caricature. In our present interesting times, in the wake of Guantánamo, Belmarsh, Abu Ghraib, Falluja, the dawn raids and deportations and the rest, identification with the Schindlers, the Stauffenbergs, the people who sheltered Jews and the brave camp survivors, is no longer possible; at least, not if one is honest about the society in which one is living. It is the guards and other dutiful citizens, the ordinary decent folk who piped gas and wrote denunciations, at whom we should be looking, since theirs is the perspective that is closest to our own.


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