Before the Film Society of Lincoln Center’s “Transitions: Recent Polish Cinema” series concludes tomorrow night, with Jan Jakub Kolski’s Venice, it continues tonight with a restored print of Jerzy Kawalerowicz’s 1959 drama Night Train.
Night Train begins like a morose Polish Hitchcock homage, probably more Strangers on a Train than The Lady Vanishes. While cool xylophone jazz plays, a mysterious man with sunglasses and a Pepe le Pew white streak in his hair boards a passenger train. He strikes up a tentative conversation with the preoccupied girl who’s snuck into his cabin (at the time, women weren’t allowed to be in the same compartment as men) to avoid her crazed ex-boyfriend, played by Ashes and Diamonds star Zbigniew Cybulski (“If you don’t come to me immediately, I’ll make the train derail. I love you”).
Meanwhile, all the other passengers are abuzz at the thought that a murderer is on the loose. But they don’t gossip in the way you might expect. Yes, they ponder if the killer is on the train. But they also pontificate about how harshly a murderer will be judged by God. Or, as one chatty traveler puts it: “God weighs humanity’s sins. Spilling blood is the heaviest crime. It’s a sin against the highest of God’s laws so it should [only] be expiated with the heaviest penance.” How ‘bout that small talk!
Once the murderer is discovered and hunted down by the train’s passengers, the film really takes off. A mob spontaneously forms, lobbing bricks and giving chase —the haunting sequence has all the primal force of a Griffith chase scene, and the moral imperative, too (crucifixes, ironically, abound suggesting a contrast between Christ-like charity and pre-Christian justice). The train’s passengers become a microcosm of the world’s potential for evil: the idly curious turn into a hateful group of barbaric, self-interested animals at the drop of a hat. I wonder if Lars von Trier has seen this one…