Andrzej Munk's The Passenger

By David Balfour

passenger-andzrej-munk-1.jpgThe Passenger, 1963

A Journey through Memory: Andrzej Munk's The Passenger is re-released on DVD

In 1961, Polish director Andrzej Munk died in a car crash halfway through filming what would become his last work, The Passenger. After his death, the film was finished by his friends and crew members. It is remarkable not only as the last statement of visionary director, but as the result of an unexpected collaborative effort. The film is a combination of the live action material shot on location in Auschwitz prison camp, still photography taken whilst location scouting with actors, and a voice-over that guides the audience through the film. These three elements combine and interact over the course of film. The result is a film that investigates the way memory can act as protection against the past. It exists not only as whole, but also as series of multi-layer speculations into filmic form, that sheds light on the very essence of memory. It is the interplay between the film’s form and content which create a unique viewing experience, one that calls on the viewer to re-evaluate not just the memory of the characters in the film but their own memory of the film.

passenger-andzrej-munk-2.jpgThe Passenger, 1963

Andrzej Munk is a truly historic and oft forgotten figure of European cinema. He was a much lauded leading light of the Polish New Wave film in the 50’s, part of the first intake in the Polish Film School at Lodz, a contemporary and friend to Andrzej Wadja, and mentor to Roman Polanski. Indeed, Polanski credits Munk with giving him his first chance to direct a feature. Munk made films that explored how ordinary people tried to survive in extraordinary times. These films were pointed social critiques that played out as absurdist comedies.

The Passenger, while continuing some of the themes of his previous work, takes on a markedly different, more sombre, tone. The film is the story of a woman, Liza, returning to Europe for the first time since leaving after WW2. On the boat she sees the face of a woman, Marta, who was a prisoner in Liza’s charge at Auschwitz. The encounter triggers painful memories in Liza which cause a series of desperate attempts at self-justification for working as a guard in such a place. At first she succeeds in convincing herself that she did the best she could for Marta – that she too suffered by having to work in that horrible place. But slowly another history erupts from within; a history that she has suppressed in herself, and which now she finds unable to deny, a history which shows Liza’s actions were not as benign as she wants to remember.

The story is structured around a series of flashbacks, each one revealing a deeper and more complex view of the past. The present day material is comprised of still photographs that have a loose and impromptu feel- undoubtedly because they were taken very quickly. The past is presented in strikingly composed black and white sequences of the prison camp, where a depravity and callous inhumanity pervades. The flashbacks were shot in Auschwitz, with crew living in the grounds for the duration of the shoot. The horrors that took place were re-enacted, restaged, and re-envisioned to chilling effect.

passenger-andzrej-munk-3.jpgThe Passenger, 1963

The form the film takes out of necessity also becomes an effective tool, if accidental, to expound on the themes of memory and the inner life of the characters. The present day is frozen, literally, in still photos, and only the past is alive and moving. This re-enforces Liza’s emotional state – for her only what went on in the past is alive. This not just a simple act of remembering, but is in fact an endless act of re-arranging and reconstructing her memories to create new meanings – as she vainly tries to justify and redeem her past. Many of the shots which illustrated Liza’s idealised version of the past get re-used and given new meaning (either by extended length or by new context) in her more emotionally honest reconstruction of the past.

We are left, not knowing what to believe of what we have been told. Liza’s memory is filled with holes and inconsistencies, a strong echo of the way memory works. The act of remembering is the act of reconstructing. The film is made of fragments; it jumps between stills and moving images. The films makers constructed its meaning with what was available to them, but they also created it to a desired effect. Their will crafted the film as much as anything.

Another necessity the collaborators brought to the films is the voice-over; which here takes on three roles: a) explaining the history of the film, b) a fictional narration of the still images, and c) querying and commenting on the film itself. Munk did not leave a clear direction or resolution for the film. It does not presume to answer questions left unanswered by his death. Instead, it chooses to highlight them. The result is a work which is conscious of its own existence. Aware of its failings, it chooses to make a feature of them. It engages in open conjecture about what the director was striving for, and what he might have done with the material.

Further, as the "narrator" tries to understand the film, what it might have become, so do we as viewers attempt to assign meaning and order to what we have watched. The viewer constructs their own meanings from images. In this way The Passenger becomes more complex than initially envisioned by Munk. It is ironic that only through the trauma of his death could a more sublime form for his film emerge. This adds another layer of intrigue to the film which is as exhilarating as it is perplexing. The fragments of the film as envisioned by Munk tempt us to imagine how the work may have been if he had completed it. But The Passenger is more than just a tantalizing fragment – it has become a new work of its own, outside the life of the auteur.

Passenger (Pasazerka) is released by Second Run DVD.

David Balfour is a writer, producer and recent graduate of the NFTS.