Friday 14 October 2022

On demand: "Passenger"

Passenger exists as an extraordinary fragment, representing what was surely one of the cinema's great unfinished films. In the early 1960s, with the Polish New Wave firmly on the charge, the writer-director Andrzej Munk filmed a sort-of love triangle of the concentration camps, shot at Auschwitz itself and involving a warden (Aleksandra Slaska), the prisoner she takes a special treatment in (Anna Ciepielewska), and the latter's fiancé (Marek Walczewski). An adaptation of a Zofia Posmysz novel, it might have collapsed into melodrama were it not for the casual everyday cruelties being described, and the warden's self-serving narration, insistent she was only ever a passenger carried along by century-defining historical forces. Munk, just 40, then died in a car crash before he could complete work on the novel's framing device, set in the post-War period aboard a cruise liner where the prisoner unexpectedly reappears before the warden and her oblivious new husband, as good an illustration as any of that old maxim about the past not being through with us, no matter that we might be through with the past. These scenes had to be reconstructed using La Jetée-like snapshots and a linking narration from one of the team of Munk's contemporaries who assembled the hour-long version that was eventually sent out into the world.

What's disarming about Passenger is how even this photo-roman stopgap works thematically, gesturing to how tentative reality must have felt after the Holocaust: in these stretches, conventional time stops, and basic causality looks to have been severed. The photographs are notable in their own right, sharing as they do Munk's keen compositional sense. The camp scenes are most notable for the vignettes (too delicate a word, maybe) caught in the background of the main action, the kind of atrocity you almost certainly have to overlook so as to function on any level in such a context. Prisoners are pursued by attack dogs; kindergartners are led by the hand into the gas chamber (played, remember, by an actual gas chamber); discarded belongings litter the muddy ground. Given the sacred status the camps assumed in the 20th century's final decades, you wonder how on earth they filmed it - even in this state, Passenger presents as a remarkable document of a period when the camps were still thought too radioactive with evil to be reclaimed as sites of tourism. It's not finished, which makes it hard to assess as a narrative: there are odd plot hikes, and certain subplots and characterisations appear diffuse in a way they might not have done over ninety or a hundred minutes. Yet it remains properly disturbing, not just for what it shows but what it suggests: a horror that, in 1963, was still too close to home, and which even before Munk's death was never going to be easily resolved or exorcised.

Passenger is currently available to stream via

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