Andrzej Munk's film from 1962.
It is said that Andrzej Munk's idea for The Passenger originated when he had heard a radio broadcast of Zofia Posmysz’s Passenger from Cabin 45 (1959). The author, a former Auschwitz inmate, wrote her debut novel after meeting a group of Germans, one of whom, a woman, spoke with a voice confusingly similar to the voice of a guard from the camp. Zofia Posmysz, who had never returned to her camp experiences before that day, revealed that this encounter triggered her decision to look at a concentration camp not from the perspective of a prisoner, which was the common approach in martyrological literature, but of the perpetrator. Such a writing method was a significant novelty in the literature centred around the Nazi death camps.
History of Making the Movie
Initially, Andrzej Munk transformed the screenplay into a televised drama (1960), which was rated very highly, but wasn't preserved. However, encouraged by its success, Munk persuaded Zofia Posmysz to co-write a film script, but eventually the author limited her contribution to the so-called short film story. Paulina Kwiatkowska noted significant differences, suggested by Munk, in the approach to the topic:
In the short story, the passenger and Lisa get on a ship in Germany together. The former gets off in Lisbon, leaving the heroine with hope for peace: Liza sails on without her persecuting memories. Meanwhile, in the film Liza sails from America, and only in London does the passenger get on the ship, thus becoming a symbol of all those who remained in Europe and have been waiting there for Liza. (Od Słowa do obrazu/ From Word to Image, Muzykalia, March 2008. Conference materials)
The amended short story also announces the resignation of the dominance in radio and television drama of inner monologues in favour of extended flashbacks. However, little can be known about the development of some sequences of the film, because filming, which started in the summer of 1961, was abruptly interrupted by the death of the director in a car accident. Some of the footage - large parts of the camp flashbacks and a few shots on board the cruise liner Batory – were mothballed, because none of the director's friends and co-workers wanted to carry on with the project.
Nonetheless, The Passenger had already begun to live her own live. Posmysz’s short film story became the synopsis for the novel, and was translated into many European languages. Over time, the novel has been adapted into a theatre play, successfully performed in Eastern Europe, and was even transformed into an opera libretto.
A few months after the death of the director, Jerzy Bossak, the head of the Kamera Film Crew where the film was being made persuaded Witold Lesiewicz, a close associate and friend of Munk, if not to complete the film, then at least to create a film essay about the film. However, the question of whether the picture that was created responds to Munk's ideas is still relevant.
The Passanger - the Plot
The story seems to be the same. Lisa and Walter, a German couple, travel from America to Europe on a transatlantic liner. He is an employee of an international organization, and she hides - even from him - her past as a guard of the Auschwitz concentration camp. In London, a mysterious passenger who reminds Lisa (an outstanding performance by Aleksandra Śląska) of one of the camp prisoners, Marta (played by Anna Ciepielewska, whose performance was awarded at the International Film Festival in Los Alamos), boards the ship. Memories that had long been repressed slowly resurface. Several years prior, Lisa, a loyal SS servicewoman, tried to discipline Marta according to all of the SS's “pedagogical rules” - to no avail. Thus begun a complex psychological game between the victim and the perpetrator. The German supervisor failed to break the rebellious women, who probably died. Or perhaps, she survived the turmoil of the war? Perturbed by the meeting with the passenger, Lisa confesses to her husband the truth about her past, but it is not the full truth.
The Passenger - Interpretations
According to Mariola Jankun-Dopartowa, Andrzej Munk’s filmography, which includes such films as Eroica and Zezowate Szczęście (Bad Luck), manifested an ironic and antiheroic movement in the Polish Film School, directed his version of the Passenger more in the spirit of Gombrowicz’s Dzienniki (Diaries) rather than in a style of Tadeusz Borowski’s stories (with whom many critics have noted an affinity):
At the core of the creative process it seems to be a question that Gombrowicz posed in his Dziennik (Diary) from 1953, although we will never know whether Munk knew this fragment of the book. The question that referred to the Soviet Gulags and literature disclosing the truth about them was: 'would not it be more consistent with the history and with our knowledge of the world and man if one treated this world behind the curtain not as a new world, unheard of, but only as a disorder and distortion of the ordinary world ...? 'Gombrowicz consistently showed the dangers inherent in the acts of detaching totalitarianism from its original context, meaning, twentieth-century modernity, and in confusing it with primal barbarism and the regress of humanity. He warned that this kind of thinking distorts the truth about man in a totalitarian world, thus making him vulnerable to these 'disorders and the distortions' that pulls together modernity. ( 1961 Andrzej Munk dies in an accident in the History of Polish Cinema, Warsaw 2007, p 119)
This would be a step further in the perspective of Munk’s previous achievements, which even before his death had aroused much controversy involving the most prominent critics. Perhaps this is why no one dared to complete the film, which premiered on the second anniversary of the director's death. The version created by Witold Lesiewicz, was accompanied by politically correct commentary from Victor Woroszylski, who made no references to Gombrowicz's texts that were disliked by the PRL (Peoples Republic of Poland) authorities.
The film footage suggests – as claims Jankun-Dopartowa - that Munk was going to make a psychological film about people completely detached from ordinary life and the world, and who made decisions that they would never have made in the 'normal' reality. It introduces a moral ambiguity in the character of SS servicewoman Lisa, completely alien to the intentions of Munk. As a result, the overall sense of the film becomes somewhat shallow, as the the emphasis is put directly on the evil of Lisa, and not on the terrifying ordinariness of this character who performs her work as if it were a production line in a big factory. In this way, it completely blurs the fact that Liza gets a chance to understand her role at the camp and come to terms with it, but is unable to take advantage of this opportunity, and she carries on to mythologise the past.
Regardless of the interpretation, the Passenger was awarded the FIPRESCI Prize at Cannes, and has been enthusiastically received in Venice and other festivals. It remains Andrzej Munk's most famous film around the world.
- Pasażerka, (The Passenger) Poland 1962. Director: Andrzej Munk, Witold Lesiewicz (completion of the film). Screenplay: Zofia Posmysz, Andrzej Munk based on radio broadcast of Zofia Posmysz. Commentary: Wiktor Woroszylski. Cinematography: Krzysztof Winiewicz. Music: Tadeusz Baird, Set design: Tadeusz Wybult. Costumes: Wiesława Chojkowska. Editing: Zofia Dwornik. Sound: Jerzy Szawłowski. Cast: Aleksandra Śląska (Lisa), Anna Ciepielewska (Marta), Janusz Bylczyński (kapo), Anna Jaraczówna (kapo), Jan Kreczmar (Walter, Lisa's husband), Marek Walczewski(Tadeusz, Marta's fiancé ) and others. Production: Film Studio Kamera. Duration: 59 min.
Author: Konrad J. Zarębski, June2010, trans. GS, July2014