Passenger: Reflections on the Unfinished Film of Andrzej Munk

By Dai Vaughan

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

Works left unfinished at their authors’ deaths may sometimes, provided sufficient has been done, lead later admirers to attempt their completion. Music in particular offers examples where this, if only under the modest designation of ‘performing version’, has been judged sufficiently successful to secure them a place in the repertoire - the 10th symphonies of Schubert and Mahler, Mozart’s Requiem, the viola concerto of Béla Bartók. Such instances have a distinctive appeal in that their mongrel authorship militates against that facile accommodation of a work into a known corpus which, while it may in some ways enhance our appreciation of the individual piece, may in others confine it. Sometimes the person taking up the reins from an earlier artist has, rather than attempting a perfect stylistic match, a seamless integration of new with old, preferred to set the pre-existing material within a clearly distinct context. Into this category falls the film Passenger, on which Andrzej Munk was working when he died, aged nearly 40, in a car crash, and which was brought to its final form over the following two years by his friends and colleagues.

Passenger was begun in 1961 and premiered in 1963. It concerns a woman, Liza, once an SS Overseer in the women’s section of Auschwitz, who, while travelling on a cruise liner, catches sight of a younger woman whom she believes to be Marta, one of her former prisoners. The bulk of the film, as it now stands, takes place in Auschwitz and was mainly shot there under Munk’s direction. That ‘mainly’ already hints at the complications. Assistant director Andrzej Brzozowski directed in 2000 his own film about the making of Passenger under the title The Last Pictures; and in this he says that Munk’s fatal accident occurred on his return to Lodz after the completion of the location shooting. But he also implies that he and the crew went on to shoot at least one interior Auschwitz sequence in the studio - presumably the arrival of the international inspection team - on the basis of the script and a clear knowledge of what Munk had intended, and also that, in the course of assembling the material, they went back to pick up one or two more shots in the camp.

As for the ‘present-day’ material on the cruise liner, we are told that Munk had already shot it but was dissatisfied with the results and intended to do it all again; and we may assume that, in the course of re-shooting, he would have made subtle changes to dialogue or performance in the light of the way the retrospective scenes had worked out. The tactic employed by those entrusted with the film’s completion –

Witold Lesiewicz (not one of the original production team) along with writer Wiktor Woroszylski, editor Zofia Dwornik and others - was, rather than employ the material Munk had explicitly rejected, to bracket the central action with sequences of stills, in some cases production stills but for the most part obviously freeze-frames from the original shooting, and to use these as the platform for explanatory commentary and to launch Liza’s reminiscences in voice-over.

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

These reminiscences fall into two sections. The first, addressed to her husband as an explanation of why she is upset by the sight of Marta, is a straightforward attempt to show herself in a good light by claiming to have done her best for this prisoner. In the second, she confronts her own conscience, but with what degree of sincerity it is difficult to judge. Certainly she accuses herself of having tried to corrupt Marta; but there are strange lacunae and seeming non-sequiturs to which even the commentary at one point draws attention. Are these the consequence of the film’s incomplete state, inconsistencies which would have been ironed out in the final editing, or are they there expressly to make us doubt Liza’s testimony? And, if the latter, is she still trying to conceal even worse motivations or is she engaged in a self-laceration of guilt? There is no discernible stylistic difference between the two flashback episodes – except perhaps that the prisoners’ clothes are a little less shabby in the first – so that if the one is deemed mendacious, so equally may be the other. But again, it is entirely possible that, had Munk lived to complete the film and to shoot full and substantial episodes on the cruise liner, the Auschwitz material would have been split into shorter and more fragmentary sections.

In any event, the film as we have it runs for just under an hour. Assuming it was intended to be a feature of approximately 90 minutes, and the Auschwitz sections are more or less complete, that means that between 30 and 40 minutes of the final story would have taken place on the ship. The outcome could hardly have failed to be very different. And on top of this there is another complication. The Auschwitz material, while it does represent Liza’s self-accounting, her true or false memories, does not represent only her memories. It is also clearly intended, if only through the corner of the eye or in the background of her consciousness, to tell us what the camp was actually like. However, the doubts surrounding the status of Liza’s testimony serve to deflect, even to disarm, the accusation of presumption which any attempt to convey the reality of the death camps must inevitably invite. (One remembers Claude Lanzmann’s response to Spielberg’s Schindler’s List: ‘How does he dare..?’)

It would be preposterous, for all manner of reasons, to assert that the Passenger we know is a better film than it would have been had Munk been able to finish it. But what we can say with confidence is that the film as it stands gains much of its power and its authority from its uncertainties: not simply our uncertainty as to what truth-value to attribute to Liza’s stories, but the superimposed uncertainty as to how much of the film’s ambiguity was itself planned and how much derives from the film-makers’ ignorance of what was intended. Even Munk seems to have been beset by an abnormal level of self-questioning, which has entered the mythology surrounding this last production. I have seen it stated that he abandoned the film at one point, feeling that the Auschwitz material had spun out of control. Yet this is difficult to believe. It is hardly possible to cancel a shoot when all the production machinery is in place; and in any case, the story conflicts with Brzozowski’s account of their all working hard to complete the location filming on schedule, partly because of the international instabilities created by the erection of the Berlin wall but also, one senses, from a simple desire to get away from the place. But still, the decision to scrap all the material shot on the cruise liner is extraordinary enough. Whatever the truth, it is clear that Munk left no indications of how he wanted the film to be put together. The fact that the completion took two years is perhaps a measure of the difficulties it presented.

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

What I am suggesting is that the resulting film has a quality which Munk himself could never have given it: an uncertainty as to whether its strange obliqueness lies in the narrative or in its narration. This is not simply a matter of our being vaguely aware of alternatives to the structure with which we are presented. The ‘obliqueness’ touches upon the detail of how life in the camp is shown. One of the most affecting aspects of the handling of these sequences is the way sounds – the wet scrunch of footsteps, for example, or the screech of wind in the wires – are isolated so as to retain their identities rather than being bedded into a naturalistic ambience. We hear the conversation of the principals while others talk mutely in the same shot. At the close of a key sequence, where Marta has attempted to hide a bunch of flowers given to her by her boyfriend, a solitary pot rolls down from a pile in the background; and that is the only thing we hear. This selective treatment of sound is not only dramatically effective; it also helps us to perceive the portrayal of the camp as somehow tentative, not laying claim to absolute knowledge. But Brzozowski quotes a letter from Munk to his wife describing how he has been at work in the cutting room adding sound effects to the shots, and remarking, ‘But there are still many holes to be filled.’ Would he, given time, have moved in the direction of greater naturalism? We cannot know. And this fact intensifies our sense of a scene as living its own life rather than being accommodated within our assumptions concerning authorial intent.

Visually, too, some of the most unnerving shots are the most odd or seemingly arbitrary. A number of Alsatian dogs sit neatly in rank and file. Are they undergoing some sort of disciplinary training? A car passes spewing out visible exhaust fumes, and we are sickeningly reminded of the pre-death-camp method of killing people in sealed vans into which the exhaust gases could be diverted: a shot the more powerful for being unexplained. During the above-mentioned scene with the bunch of flowers, someone scuttles out of view in the background carrying a bundle. Is this the Jewish baby the women will be accused of having tried to save? Liza remarks that she has become enmeshed in such a plot, yet there is nothing in the on-screen action to suggest that she has even noticed. And are we meant to find it credible that a baby, prone to cry, could have been concealed in such a situation? Again, we do not know. But might we have known in some other cut?

Had Passenger been the product of one ‘authorial voice’ – within the familiar limits to which a film can ever be said to have one author – we should, by convention, and for aesthetic comfort, have superimposed this putative voice upon narrative and narration alike, seeing Liza’s character, for example, either as ultimately consistent or as meant to be inconsistent in accordance with some chosen strategy. That is to say, we would have seen ourselves as compelled at all costs, at some level or another, to read a unity into this work in spite of its evident fragmentation. It is worth pointing out, again in relation to Liza’s behaviour, that the setting – a concentration camp – makes this more than usually problematical. What might otherwise seem ‘ordinary’ elements of human feeling, albeit mildly disreputable, must re-form, re-make, rediscover themselves in the context of extremity. Even reputable ones, for that matter, take on new complexion, latch on to new possibilities. On the face of it, there are three questions to be asked: How might this character have fitted together? How was this character meant by the film-makers to fit together? How would Munk have allowed her to fit together, if at all? Our problem is that these three questions have become indistinguishable; you could not slide a scalpel between them. And therein lies the extraordinariness of the film.

Dai Vaughan is a poet, novelist and critic. His fiction is published by Seren.