Mother Joan

A short excerpt from the booklet essay by Micheal Brooke.

Night Train, also known in English as Baltic Express (though the Polish title 'Pociąg' translates more prosaically as 'Train' or 'The Train') was Jerzy Kawalerowicz's sixth feature, and the first to make a significant international impact – probably because of the instant recognisability of its setting, a far cry from the specifically Polish historical and political situations encountered in his earlier work. Aside from three station stops and an unscheduled interlude, the entire film is set on board a train making a 200 mile journey between Łódź and the Baltic resort of Hel. Kawalerowicz came up with the idea when courting the actress Lucyna Winnicka (who would become both the film's female lead and his wife), a process that involved frequent overnight commutes between his day job in Warsaw and the Baltic city of Szczecin, where she was appearing in a play.

Kawalerowicz was keenly aware of the suspense-thriller potential of the setting, and the script that he devised with Jerzy Lutowski threaded a subplot of a killer on the loose and the ensuing paranoia and suspicion throughout the narrative, culminating in an atmospheric confrontation in a graveyard, its crosses symbolically silhouetted against the early dawn light. But many critics made the mistake of viewing Night Train exclusively as a thriller, which was never Kawalerowicz's intention. Indeed, there are several moments where he and Lutowski seem to be openly mocking genre conventions: the supposedly pivotal murder happens before the film begins, and at one point an innocent man is almost chided for failing to be the one to catch the actual criminal, as this would apparently have constituted some kind of conveniently symbolic rehabilitation.

Instead, inspired by Michelangelo Antonioni's then-recent Il grido (1957), the writers set out to explore the psychology of a number of unrelated but similarly disaffected characters when brought together in a confined setting – something which, as the critic Seweryn Kuśmierczyk observed, was already characteristic of his earlier film The Real End of the Great War (Prawdziwy koniec wielkiej wojny, 1957) and would also be true of later ones, notably Mother Joan of the Angels (Matka Joanna od Aniołów, 1961) and Austeria (1982). The bulk of the film takes place within the confines of the first-class Orbis sleeping car, presided over by a splendidly no-nonsense conductor (Helena Dąbrowska), who nonetheless often belies her stern countenance by pulling favours for passengers and turning a blind eye to unauthorised but non-disruptive situations such as a last-minute ticket transfer resulting in a man and a woman sharing a notionally single-sex compartment.

As Hitchcock did in Rear Window, Kawalerowicz often treats us to brief, voyeuristic glimpses of other compartments, most notably when the murderer is being hunted down in earnest: a group sings and claps along to a Spanish guitar, a group of pilgrims guards the sanctity of their holy icon, and the young couple depicted in some detail at the beginning turns out to spend the entire journey in presumably blissful seclusion, only emerging right at the end when woken up by the conductress.

Truly, all human life is here, and much of it turns out to be deeply disconsolate, involuntarily single, unhappily married, desperately lonely. As Marta observes towards the end "Nobody wants to love. Everybody wants to be loved"; and Kawalerowicz himself acknowledged that the film's main theme is that of emotional hunger and desire.

Michael Brooke's complete essay, from which this excerpt is taken, appears in the booklet which accompanies the DVD release.

Disc Info

Larks Boxshot

Poland, 1959
Length / Night Train: 94 minutes
Length / Special feature:
7 minutes
Sound: Original mono
Black and white
Original aspect ratio:
1.33:1 full frame
Language: Polish
Subtitles: English (On/Off)
Region 0
RRP: £12.99
Release Date:27th May 2013 Second Run DVD 065


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