Review by Ian Johnston
Posted on 02 July 2007
Source Second Run DVD
Passenger is a skeleton of a film, broken, fragmented, and incomplete. One thing we can be sure of is that the form the film is in can’t be the film that Andrzej Munk set out to make—he died, just short of his fortieth birthday, before the film was completed, and over the next two years a group of nine friends and colleagues worked at finalising the film as a tribute to Munk.
But this “final” form makes no attempt at hiding the fact that it is an incomplete work. Indeed, it foregrounds this fact with an opening montage of still shots of Munk at work and a voice-over narrator providing a documentary overview of the background to the film’s production. This narration asserts Munk’s sole and unique authorship of this film and hence the impossibility of anyone else being able to complete his work.
Normally, I’d be suspicious of this kind of claim. I am enough of an auteurist to believe that one director can’t simply be replaced by another, but at the same time cinema is not about one man or woman creating a work alone in a room. It’s a collaborative art, drawing on a range of artistic contributions in order to reach the finished result, and I’m sure that Munk’s collaborators could have produced a more conventional, finished work, had they wanted to. We can just be glad that they didn’t do this, because in the end – and I’m not sure that these collaborators even knew they were doing this – the formal structure of Passenger that we have now, with its gaps and hesitations, its dissonances and ambiguities, the way it repeatedly draws near and pulls away again, is in perfect accord with its subject matter: the Holocaust.
Adorno famously declared that after Auschwitz (and Auschwitz is the camp where Passenger is set) writing poetry is “barbaric,” but cinema has time and again ignored such a dictum and tried to come to grips with the reality of the Nazi death camps, to greater (Night and Fog, Shoah) or lesser (The Night Porter, Life Is Beautiful) success or effect. (Even on poetry Adorno was disproved by Paul Celan’s “Todesfuge”—not only a great post-Holocaust poem, but a great poem about the Holocaust.) Munk’s film approaches the camps from two angles: from a contemporary story set on a luxury passenger ship and from flashback scenes set in Auschwitz itself.
In the film’s present time, Liza, a former SS officer at Auschwitz, is travelling on a passenger ship with her husband when she gets a glimpse of another passenger, who she thinks is Marta, a Polish inmate of the concentration camp. These scenes on the ship are in the same still-image style of the opening documentary (apparently, Munk was dissatisfied with what he had shot and before his death had decided to reshoot this material—a decision respected by his collaborators).
These stills of scenes on the ship are interrupted by three sets of flashbacks. First, there’s a very brief series of filmed shots recreating scenes from Auschwitz. There’s no direct narrative in these shots, they’re there to set the scene and allude (in some cases, rather obliquely) to the horrors of the camp: naked women running a gauntlet of guards; a long tracking shot – influenced by Night and Fog perhaps – along the camp buildings to end with a tilt up to a smoking chimney; a track around a warehouse filled with inmates’ possessions, the loot of the Nazis’ crimes. There’s a telling juxtaposition made between Liza’s Auschwitz past and her comfortable and affluent present (symbolised by the still of her relaxing on the ship with a magazine whose cover reads, in German, “Enjoying home in peace”). We cut from the final Auschwitz shot of a number being tattooed into a prisoner’s arm to a still shot of the husband’s hand on his wife Liza’s own arm.
Now begins the first of Liza’s two voice-over flashbacks to her service in Auschwitz. This first one is, we soon realise, an act of bad faith on Liza’s part, an attempt to justify herself to her husband, the work of the ultimate unfaithful narrator. Munk makes this abundantly clear through the clear discrepancy between her words and the images we see. This occurs most obviously when Liza tells us how she selects Marta from a line-up of female prisoners to act as her assistant because “I saw something vulnerable and childlike in [her]”. But in fact there’s none of this in the face that Marta presents to us. Instead there’s a blankness to her expression and, in the way she refuses – unlike many of the other prisoners – to move her head to meet Lisa’s gaze, a stubborn resistance. In spite of what Liza may have to say, there’s an unknownness to Marta, a sense that Liza is unable to gain access to the core of her being. Munk show this symbolically with a glimpse he gives of Marta, standing outside in the greyish, uncertain light, framed between the half-open doors.
Liza’s “confession” here to her husband is a self-justifying one, with her claims that “I only did my duty,” that “if Marta is alive, it’s only because of me,” and that “I had nothing to do with the prisoners, only their things.” She’s referring to her responsibility for the warehouse of confiscated goods, but she isn’t even aware of how she’s condemning herself out of her own mouth, of how she reduces the human beings under her control to the level of objects. In this first flashback narrative, Liza is only ever seen in reflection, never directly seen with the objects or the prisoners under her control. There are two parallel sequences demonstrating this: first, the slow track around the warehouse that ends with a close-up on the reflection of Liza in a mirror; then, the scene where Liza intrudes on the intimacy of Marta and her lover Tadeusz working together in the warehouse office, with Liza less-than-physically appearing at the end of the scene reflected in window glass.
The conclusion of Liza’s first voice-over flashback takes us back to another series of still shots on the passenger ship before we return to Auschwitz for Liza’s second version of events, which takes up the bulk of the rest of the film. Although Liza’s comments still point to her self-deception regarding her “relationship” with Marta and her self-denial in terms of her involvement in the death camp at Auschwitz, it is clear that this version is intended to pass as the objective “truth” of what occurred. Liza’s comments are often very explicit as to what was at stake here—a struggle on her part for control, mastery (a term she uses herself) over Marta.
To mark the sense that we are now being given the unvarnished truth of Liza’s experience, Munk now gives us our first direct, unmediated view of Liza in Auschwitz, as she enters the warehouse striding straight toward the viewer. And Munk replays the scene in the office between Marta and Tadeusz, this time including Liza within the scene and at the same time making clear the feelings of resentment, jealousy, and exclusion that lie at the base of her actions here.
Liza’s self-ennobling fiction is gone now. She reveals herself as petty, vindictive, and even vicious. This can occur in a minor key as when with a hardened face she strikes a piece of paper into her hand while we hear in voice-over her credo of power and control; or when she responds to Marta’s explanation of her birthday bouquet of flowers (a moment when Marta herself softens and opens herself to Liza) by taking them off her.
Far more sinister is Liza’s role in a night-time ritual that the prisoners are submitted to. This “game” where naked prisoners are made to run between a line of guards and dogs, with Liza picking out prisoners, presumably for execution, follows on from a lengthy sequence of prisoners and guards listening to an outdoor classical music concert. This alludes to the commonly raised question of how Germany could produce on the one hand some of the greatest literature and music and on the other the Nazi death camps, how the two were able to coexist—in the way, for example, that the camp at Buchenwald was built around the oak tree associated with Goethe.
In fact, the film’s reading of this is that the two do not coexist equally, but that one (culture) is drowned out by the other (the death camp), seen in the way that, symbolically, the musical performance is abandoned, the notes played by the musicians drowned out by the discordant sirens and mechanical noises from the operations of the camp. Bu this sequence is even more significant in how it reveals Marta and Tadeusz’s resistance to the controls imposed upon them. In this beautiful scene, the two lovers, in the blocks of standing prisoners that are segregated according to sex, slowly work themselves down their respective lines in order to stand as close together as possible. Liza herself recognises the affront that the action of the two represents—”behind my back they behaved as though the camp barely existed.”
This is the crux of the challenge that Marta poses to Liza. Each time that Liza seems about to attain total mastery of this relationship, Marta again slips away out of control. Sometimes, the cause can be a chance exterior action. So, when Marta seems about to submit to Liza’s will (Liza uses Tadeusz as a combined threat and promise) and act as assistant/collaborator in noting down the numbers of the prisoners standing at the fence, a vicious dog attack on a prisoner turns Marta away. More often, Liza never gets close enough, Marta always withdraws herself. Even Marta’s apparent acquiescence in translating the hidden note that Liza finds is in the end an act of resistance and rebellion—this text of numbers and German names is deliberately mistranslated as a romantic poem.
It’s right at this point of Liza’s greatest power and success – her promotion, her decision to take Marta with her, her conscious destruction of the incriminating note – that Marta commits the ultimate act of the denial of Liza’s control over her. Marta’s confession is an effective act of suicide (her execution is the inevitable outcome) but it’s her final demonstration of her freedom from Liza and from the controls of the camp.
It’s obviously possible to read a sexual dimension into Liza’s fascination with and desire for control over Marta, but this aspect doesn’t predominate. More significant is Liza’s absolute solipsism, the way she reduces the experience of the camp and her involvement in it to this struggle over the body and soul of one prisoner, and thereby underlining the monstrosity of the whole enterprise and Liza’s own moral blindness. The documentary narrator makes this explicit when he summarises:
In the vague, unreal background, people die, silently, casually, anonymously, as others perform their duty, victims trampled into the mud, over whom she walked, unseeing
This is a repeated visual motif of the film. As Liza fixates on the drama she has conjured up, the horrors go on, often softly out of focus, in the background: lines of prisoners are marched past, bodies hang from scaffolds, a prisoner slips over and rolls in the mud as Liza, lost in thought in the foreground, sucks on a sweet…
It’s to the film’s great advantage that we never have a filmed dramatisation of the events on the ship, that this filmed recreation of Auschwitz is blocked off by these alienating sequences of still shots and of sombre voice-over analysis. The film ends on a certain note of indeterminacy. We assume that the passenger is not Marta – logically, she can’t be – but this is never made explicit, and the story in effect dies away in mid-sentence. But this narrative indeterminacy is never a moral one. The final minutes of the film make absolutely clear Liza’s guilt and the psychological mechanism she is operating in order to justify herself. On top of that, rather like the final sentences of Night and Fog, the narrator then applies her situation to the wider issues of the continued complicity today in the Nazi crimes of the past:
Lisa won’t be challenged by truths buried in the mud of Auschwitz. Nothing can disturb Liza’s life among people indifferent to yesterday’s crimes, who even today…
Passenger allows no closure to this story.