„Kwartalnik Filmowy” – Special Issue 2013: “Polish Film Scholars on Polish Cinema”
The Structures of Memory
The images of space-time in Andrzej Munk’s film Passenger
Translated by Katarzyna Krzyżagórska-Pisarek
The film Passenger, directed by Andrzej Munk, is not the first or the last artistic interpretation of Zofia Posmysz’s text written in 1959 for Polish Radio, where she worked at the time. The radio drama Pasażerka z kabiny 45 (Passenger from Cabin number 45), was broadcast that same year, and met with great critical acclaim. The writer was asked to make the text available to the newly established Polish Television theatre studio. It was Andrzej Munk who directed the play transmitted on the 10th October, 1960. It is now hard to tell if by then Munk had already planned to adapt Zofia Posmysz’s text for the cinema, or whether the idea came to him slightly later. What we know for sure is that in 1961 he asked the writer to prepare a film script based on earlier versions of the Passenger text. The screenplay was finally made in collaboration with Munk, and transformed into a shooting script by him
and his closest colleagues.
Filming began in 1961, with the contemporary story set on a luxury cruise liner “Batory”. Then the entire film crew moved to Auschwitz, the location of the retrospective part of the film, which was set in the camp. Only studio pictures were left out, since on the 20th September 1961 Andrzej Munk died in a car crash, whilst driving to Lodz to collect set designs for the indoor shooting. Exactly two years later, on the anniversary of death, the premiere of his last film took place. During those two years, Munk’s colleagues, friends, and the entire “Kamera” film crew, made great efforts to ensure the Passenger material was not left on the shelf. The last shots in Auschwitz, and those in the studio, were shot immediately after his death, with the help of his co-director, Andrzej Brzozowski, based on the shooting script, as well as conversations with Munk, which the team had fresh in mind. However,
the contemporary part of the story remained an open issue; Munk was for many reasons dissatisfied with the footage from “Batory”, and intended to redo it, starting with the script. After his death, the responsibility for making a decision about the final shape of the contemporary scenes, without which the film’s structure would be incoherent, fell on Witold Lesiewicz, who undertook to complete the film. Together with Wiktor Woroszylski, the author of the voice-over, they created the final formal conception of the Passenger, according to which the contemporary action taking place on the liner is only suggested by still photos selected from the material shot by Munk.
After the film’s premiere, doubts were voiced as to whether, in the shape in which it was shown to the public, it could still be considered as one with the author’s original work. My thoughts are based on the belief that the footage shot during Munk’s lifetime, and what the team did after his death, should not be considered separately. Instead, we ought to accept that these original pictures prompted his colleagues to such a reprocessing, and these artistic and emotional modifications are part of the immanent value of the film. Seen from this perspective, the problem of its “incompleteness”, so obstinately recurring in critical reviews of the Passenger, does not cease to exist, but instead takes on a positive meaning. It does not prevent further discussions about the movie; on the contrary, it helps to develop them simultaneously in different directions, and enriches seemingly empty parts of the film, in which we can find a wealth of meaning. Being aware of this “incompleteness” and accepting it ultimately leads to a more daring approach to this work. The boldness lies not in the “finishing off” of the film, but rather in understanding the “unfinishable”.
Essentially, the Passenger appears to have an extremely complicated film structure, which in short consists of an open plot, which can be traced back to the script, and includes the pictures shot during Munk’s lifetime, the pictures shot after his death, and based on the screenplay, the form his colleagues gave to the film at the editing stage, and what Woroszylski called “the value of destruction”. For me, it is precisely this “incompleteness” that becomes not only a fact, but a constructive element in the film, carrying a lot of meaning, and leading me to consider the Passenger as an open work. Accepting this assumption, we can analyse the film from a few different, yet nonexclusive perspectives. I would like above all to focus onthe search for the main structure, the compositional framework, which made it possible to display the totality of the narrative conflict, as well as a concrete vision of the camp at Auschwitz. I am therefore interested in the space-time structures, and how they are implemented in the film.
Unfortunately, there is not enough space here for an in-depth discussion of the complex changes between Zofia Posmysz’s novel, the script, the storyboard, and finally the film, which gradually made the word lose much of its sense-making value and its emotional energy, in favour of the image. Undoubtedly, the voiceover accompanying the pictures is an artificial creation, a journalistic transcript, and as such should not be equated with the pictures, which, either in the camp part, or in the fragmented contemporary scenes of the film, remain the proper cinematic text. The images are so full of meaning and content that they appear self-sufficient; there is no need to confront them with the text. For this reason, the role of the dialogues is greatly reduced in the storyboard, as compared to the script, and on location in Auschwitz it eventually transpired that the camp could not be described, only shown. Auschwitz’s space produces silence – no words are enough. The picture becomes self explanatory, and within the formal aspects of the film, it is the picture that is the basic unit of meaning, although its origin, one should not forget, is to be found in the word.
In my view, in the Passenger the image is not always one with the frame, even less so with the onscreen space. A single image, depending on the complexity of meaning it carries, may overlap with the film frame, can be confined to a single element inside the frame, or go beyond the onscreen space. Depending on the contents of the image, which become the object of our curiosity, the visual unit of meaning will be interchangeable: a single frame, a shot, or a scene consisting of many shots. I would also consider the background sounds to be images, which in this film, have very specific references to the off-screen space. We are therefore dealing with overlapping pictures of different size and intensity, which have the purpose of multiplying and diversifying meanings. These overlapping picture layers are fused into one, albeit heterogeneous, structure by the space-time of the film. Using the concept of space-time, I begin with Bakhtin’s theory of the chronotope. Bakhtin describes the relationship between time and space in a literary work thus: In the literary artistic chronotope, spatial and temporal indicators are fused into one carefully thought-out, concrete whole. Time, as it were, thickens, takes on flesh, becomes artistically visible; likewise, space becomes charged and responsive to the movements of time, plot and history. This intersection of axes and fusion of indicators characterizes the artistic chronotope 1. These considerations can also be applied to the medium of film, in which pictures from different time and space dimensions intersect in a similar way. The main function of the so-conceived spacetime both in film and in literature is to create a basis for the materialisation of specific narrative events and the author’s thoughts and ideas.
In Munk’s film, we find many moments in time and places in space, which do not overlap, but remain dependent on each other. The images of the ship’s space in the present, and the space of the camp in Auschwitz, both in the past and at the time of filming, could be subject to a separate analysis. All these independent space and time perspectives can be found in the film, and may be captured on the visual level. But the main structure is the space-time of memory, because, as indicated by Bakhtin: Within the limits of a single work (…) we may notice a number of different chronotopes and complex interactions among them, specific to the given work (...); it is common moreover, to one of these chronotopes to envelop or dominate others 2. In the Passenger, the dominant feature is the space-time of memory, understood in its most multidimensional way, as memory of places and times, people and things, sounds and words. The first and foremost significance is not the memory in its positive sense, as an ability to remember events, but its negative reverse – forgetfulness. In Passenger, memory and forgetfulness produce tension, are in a state of dialectical confrontation. There are victories of memory, when images of the past are saved from oblivion; and gaps and understatements in the visual sphere, which testify to the supremacy of forgetfulness. Ultimately we too are required to remember rather than to forget.
It is appropriate, I think, to consider space-time in the context of memory, as the essence of remembering is the inseparability of space and time. The process of recollection involves introducing the past experience into the space of the present, which is perceived as a space-time whole. The centre of the space-time memory in Munk’s film consists of the complex structure of Lisa’s memories; in its sphere, pictures from the past overlap with those of the present. As a result, we can participate in the reconstruction of the conflict played out in Auschwitz. I would like, however, to deal only with the space-time relationships that create the framework, that build the context and the base for the narrative drama. In the literary archetype, that is Posmysz’s novel, and later the script and the shooting script, this base is formed from contemporary events taking place on the ship. In the thread of the film, we only have still shots interlaced with preserved retrospectives. Before I turn to the detailed analysis of the images on the ship in the present time, I would like to draw attention to the very important and often overlooked question of the photos showing Munk, which precede the stills from the ship.
The film begins with snaps from Andrzej Munk’s private album. Initially, theyshow him in his intimate spaces; in a few others we see the director on location in Nowe Miasto (the New Town), where he lived for years. The following pictures delve even deeper into his privacy, and we see Munk in his apartment, against the backdrop of one of the sculptures he collected. Later, we see some still shots from the film set on “Batory”, which portray the director at work. We thus enter his professional space; we observe Munk bent over the camera, talking to actors and the crew. These sequences end with a picture of the director lost deep in thought, which by a technical device transports us to the space of the ship; it also reminds us that we are not looking through a photo album, but watching filmed photographs. The cinematic quality is established by the palpable presence of the camera, emphasized by its action. Munk’s portrait, initially filling the entire screen, moves away from the viewer as the camera zooms out. His photograph remains in the centre of the frame outlined by a black background.
This casual assortment of stills, accompanied by Woroszylski’s off-screen voice introducing us to the circumstances of the making of the film, and explaining the motives of the director’s collaborators in completing his work, has a meaning much deeper than that suggested by word alone. Even before the beginning of the film, we get to meet the director, who thus enters the space-time of the film. Usually, the director’s person is removed from the reception of a feature film, hidden behind his work, even more so than in literature. In film, the relationship between the author and the narrator has no real importance, unlike in the literary text. When watching a film, the spectator only implicitly recognizes the existence of the filmmaker. Yet, in the case of the Passenger, the late director is revealed in the visual layer of the film, in its space-time of memory. Private pictures, unrelated in any way to the film’s storyline, become an integral part of its formal structure. This widens the field of dialogue between the filmmaker and the spectator, for the former no longer hides behind technical or artistic interventions but shows his face, his true face – even if cinematic.
The stills from the film’s set have one more important meaning. We not only see the director at work, but we see much more: the director at work with actors, in a specific film set. The fictional space of the ship, on board of which Lisa returns to Germany with her husband, is presented to the spectator as the real space of the film. Before they are shown as main characters in the space-time of the film, we get to know them as actors, during a short break or whilst filming.
Munk’s collaborators documented not only his presence, but also his style of work. For this reason, many critics note that Passenger becomes a film about a director, a film about making a film, a film work interrupted by death. These considerations, provoked by the sequence of pictures, become the frame of the entire message of the film, a metafilm. The discussed sequence introduces a note of mourning: the last portrait of Munk receding from the spectator into a black screen is a simple visual epitaph in memory of the late director. Thanks to this formal solution, not only Munk, or the memory of his life, but also Death enters the spacetime of the film. This structural intervention adopted by the film crew to complete the Passenger is in perfect harmony with the whole film, where death and remembrance are after all constantly present. It is not enough to say that his collaborators had no other choice and opted for the least invasive method of showing the footage shot by Munk; we need to take it further and recognize that their idea brilliantly recapitulates the meanings which repeatedly return throughout the film. The resulting visual construction becomes the first level at which we can talk about the memorial structuralisation of space-time in Passenger.
The next level is the space-time of the fictional present, that is the contemporary scenes shot on “Batory”. Both in the radio play and the TV performance, the problematic weight of the whole plot focused precisely on the present. Lisa’s memories were only revealed in word, as successive monologues. Even before the start of filming, Munk realized that the introduction of flashback images would break up the uniformity of the narrative and introduce a new dimension of space-time. Yet the script and the storyboard leave no doubts as to the original meaningful role of the contemporary conflict taking place on the ship.
The shots on “Batory” were taken first, before the crew went to Auschwitz. On board the liner, it became clear to everyone, especially to Munk, that technical and organizational problems aesthetically disqualified the filmed material. Later, when footage from the concentration camp began to largely outnumber the scenes in the script, there were doubts as to whether the contemporary part, as originally planned and executed, was sufficiently justified in the structure of the film. The huge emotional and problematic weight of the Auschwitz images representing the past made it harder to coherently assemble it with the material filmed on the ship. Munk was trying to find a solution at all costs, planning to re-shoot the entire contemporary part, based on a revised screenplay, but unfortunately death interrupted his artistic plans. His colleagues faced an extremely difficult task, having to complete the film without knowing the director’s latest conception. The “Kamera” film crew, with whom Munk was shooting the Passenger, worked for two years on the material left by the late director. Munk’s colleagues and friends finally decided that the contemporary part was not going to be re-shot from scratch, nor assembled from pictures taken on the “Batory”. Instead, they decided to merely hint at the contemporary action, by showing just a few frames selected from the material filmed on the ship. Shortly after the film’s premiere, critics raised doubts as to whether the proposed solution was the best possible. I do not attempt to find a single answer to this question, but I am convinced that this solution was almost obvious, and arose directly from the existing material, the memories of conversations with Munk, and the storyboard.
Considering a lack of any retrospection would be a great loss to the structure of the film, and in principle would prevent understanding its main conflicts, the complex issues in the contemporary part of the film are sufficiently clearly and comprehensively outlined by the existing albeit fragmentary pictures. The way in which Lisa constructs her memories, and how they are presented to the spectator on screen, says just about everything about the past and present emotions of the protagonist, her dilemmas, and the issues which now belong to the present. Both the form in which images of the past are recalled, and Lisa’s attitude towards her past, exhaust what Munk considered the main theme of this film, which is the liability of conscience and the limitations of human endurance 3. The missing present time scenes do not endanger in the slightest the uniformity or the fullness of the film, as they are more than compensated for by the emotional richness and the clarity of the flashback images. In the radio play and the TV show, the drama was played in the present time, because flashbacks, even if technically possible, would only double up the meaning; in the film the situation is reversed. Undoubtedly, one of the reasons why Munk was dissatisfied with the present time scenes, was that they did not seem to add anything new to the film; in an overly symbolic way, they showed what was already powerfully expressed in the flashbacks. The only reason for having the on-board scenes would be to create a background, the space-time situation of the film, in which the heroine’s personal drama was being played out. Thus the first reason why the team’s editing of the modern part seems as the director would have intended it, is that the selected shots fittingly describe the framework of the conflict, and do not repeat what Lisa tells us through her memories. I also think that these pictures and their layout have a much deeper meaning, closely related to how the Passenger depicts the problem of time and memory. This issue is also present in the structural basis of Andrzej Munk’s other films, which I would like to recall here.
Man on the Tracks (Człowiek na torze), the director’s feature film debut, was sometimes compared to Citizen Kane by Orson Welles, because of its specific narrative structure 4. Both films use a similar narrative method, which seems more literary than cinematic. In these films, a man’s death becomes a pretext to reconstruct the story of his life, seen from several different points of view. The present time in both cases is only necessary to briefly introduce the narrator, but the main material is made of three stories which in various ways reconstruct the past. The eponymous heroes in Citizen Kane and Man on the Tracks never appear on screen within the structure of the objective present; we only see them in subjective memories recalled by supporting characters. Each new narrative on the one hand shows us the same story in a different light, and on the other brings in completely new elements, and enriches the characterisation of the hero, without ever closing its interpretation. Both directors suggest that only the multiplication of subjective narratives gets us closer to the truth about another person, and this truth is never exhausted, regardless of the number of narrators 5. Likewise in Passenger we are dealing with three separate streams of memories of the same events, but there is only one narrator who tells his own story in different ways. It transpires that not only does each person perceive and reconstruct specific experiences in their own way, but even one person in the same moment of time seemingly recalls memories which are inconsistent or even contradictory.
In Bad Luck (Zezowate szczęście), his penultimate film, just as in Passenger, Munk introduces only one narrator, who is also the main hero of the story. Likewise, the present time is only a frame, a reference point, which determines the hero’s past in relation to his future. In the Passenger, images of the present time feature more frequently than in Bad Luck, and separate the different versions of Lisa’s memories. Piszczyk, on the other hand, tells his story uninterrupted, so it is easy to forget about the space-time from which his voice comes. Such a memory structure makes the spectator treat the hero’s story as objective truth, a scheme brilliantly destroyed by Munk in his Passenger.
Comparing Passenger with earlier films by Munk shows how important the problem of an authentic narrative was in his entire body of work. Undoubtedly, his long-standing practice of documentary filmmaking greatly contributed to the formation of the director’s field of interest. It was the documentary film, which for Munk often meant staging a story using authentic means and authentic locations, which raised his awareness of the issue of realism in constructing a character. Munk always sought to accurately illustrate what the character he was interested in had to say. This either led to a multiplication of voices, or to the monologue-based narrative, which completely hid the personality of the director. Munk was less interested in what a man did, than in how he commented on or looked back on his actions. For this reason his films are dominated by the past, while the present time becomes of secondary importance.
During the filming of the Passenger, Munk wanted to focus more on the contemporary plot, but yet again, it transpired that man is best described by his past, or rather the way in which he or she reconstructs his/her past. The present time plot, so lively in the script and storyboard, withered on the film set, to be finally shown only in its vestigial form. Lesiewicz’s montage of images, in addition to its
basic function, which was to explain the plot and introduce the spectator to the space-time of the film, also referred to Munk’s previous works. It clearly recalled his attempts to construct a narrative from the hero’s perspective, and his analysis of the possibilities of entering the core of the character, by revealing not only his/her emotions, but also their way of thinking, and relation to surrounding reality. Finally, when watching Passenger, as in the two previous films, I feel that the protagonist is placed in a specific, yet somewhat undetermined, time and place, and the entire time-space depends on him and his story; the viewer is stuck with the hero, and cannot rely on directions or suggestions by an all-knowing narrator.
This is why among other things, the voice-over added by Wiktor Woroszylski appears so controversial; if the pictures simply introduce the plot, direct our attention to the main character, and allow us both to penetrate her emotions and to prepare for her story, it is the words that impose themselves with a too ready interpretation, and suggest meanings which do not result directly from these images. No doubt, he had the best intentions, but we cannot resist the impression that Woroszylski got too carried away by his literary passion, which in effect led to excessive moralizing and passing of far-fetched judgments on the behaviour of the protagonist. I feel that we ought simply to accept the voice-over as it is, bearing in mind that it was not even remotely authored by Munk. There is no question that the film crew deserves credit for the contemporary part of the film, if not the voiceover. Even if the film is treated as an integrated audio-visual unit, where each image is accompanied by sound, it is difficult to avoid the impression that the sound which would best harmonize with images of the faded present would be the dead silence.
As I previously mentioned, many critics referred to the problem of fragmentation in the contemporary part of the Passenger. In their comments we can detect a significant evolution in relation to what we discuss here. Immediately after the film’s premiere, when the director’s death was still fresh in people’s minds, reviews were mostly dominated by opinions that the still shots from the ship should not be considered in artistic, but documentary terms. Gradually, however, there were more voices suggesting that these images have their own distinctive value and are not exclusively testimony to the fact that the film was unfinished by Munk. I would agree that the space-time layer in the film opens a wide field of interpretations, although I am aware that further analysis might go beyond Munk’s intentions. The present time in the film, as it is shown to us, provokes two basic questions: what kind of space-time was created by these images? And how important is the fact that they are static pictures? 6 Certainly it is clear, even at the level of the screenplay, that the contemporary plot on the liner provides a pretext to set off the drama; a specific place in reality, and a moment in time will force the heroine to confront her own past, and enable her to reconstruct her memories. But why had Munk chosen this particular place and time for his protagonist? Why had he placed her at this point in space-time with all her emotions, thoughts, memories and her oblivion?
The sequence of the contemporary pictures discussed here opens up with four shots of the vessel ranging from the full shot, through two medium shots, to the half close-up. In the first picture the transatlantic liner, photographed from the bird’s-eye view on the background of a vast sheet of water, looks like a tiny island. In the next two, it fills the entire screen space and explicitly becomes the centre of the filmed reality. In addition, the position of the liner within the frame on the diagonal leading from upper left to lower right, suggests that the vessel is in motion, even though we see it in a static photo. This setting also creates an illusory impression that the liner is approaching the spectator, sailing into the film’s space-time. In the last picture the ship, seen from the side, seems to glide in all its vastness in front of our eyes; the stern remains outside the frame, which further reinforces the impression of movement. Not without significance is the direction of the movement, from left to right, giving rise to the illusion of a purposefulness of this move, as if leading to a set point, while the opposite direction would suggest the reversing of the ship.
Another easy to isolate group of pictures takes us on board the transatlantic liner, with its carefree and peaceful atmosphere. We see pictures variable in terms of the set’s size, where among the many passengers from time to time we notice Walter and Lisa. The ship’s space is primarily shown as a place of entertainment and leisure, and this time no impression of movement is created; on the contrary, everything appears perfectly still in the sunny bliss. The camera seems to wander amongst indolent passengers, in search of someone more interesting, someone to whom it may pay some attention. Finally Lisa is chosen and presented in two consecutive views: the American shot and the half close-up. From then onwards we have no doubt who the main character of the film is, and we will soon learn that she is to be the narrator. We do not know why her, but with her we are waiting for
Another group of photos depict this waiting; the first one shows an unknown passenger, the second the captain, and both are looking through binoculars at something situated far away from the ship’s deck, out of the film’s frame. These suggested looks into the distance once again make us aware of the purpose of this journey, and restore our faith in the ship being in motion. The following shots finally reveal the long awaited destination, the fast approaching port, shown in gradually shorter shots, at which the liner eventually calls. Immediately, we sense a change of tempo and dynamics; the next pictures show a crowded harbour bustling with life. It transpires that all this confusion is watched with curiosity from the deck by Lisa: she is amused by an elegant couple who are trying to force their bored little boy to once again wave goodbye to his grandma left on the shore. Lisa’s eyes also fall on the gangway, where presumably a late passenger is running, turning back to look at someone she has left in the port.
The next shots, although static, brilliantly suggest the growing tension that accompanies Lisa. We notice that she cannot take her eyes off the young woman; she focuses all her attention on her, as if trying to find something which would explain this suddenly increased interest. The new passenger walks straight at Lisa, and rapidly, the still view of her whole figure in middle shot gets closer, and we see her face in full close-up. In this shot, if we refer to the concepts of Barthes, the punctum, the thing that focuses all the attention, which pierces and wounds, is the eyes, the gaze that Lisa cannot escape. The following shots, alternately show that riveting look and a tense, silent horror on Lisa’s face, for the blow is so strong that under its impact she steps back. It is this step backward that becomes a step from the present into the past.
Before I take the reconstruction of images further, I would like to reflect on what basis this step into the abyss of memories is made possible, and on the real meaning of the boat journey. The inspiration for the first version of the Passenger, the text for the radio play, was Zofia Posmysz’s chance meeting with a group of German tourists at one of the squares in the centre of Paris. In the crowd, the author heard a female voice, which strongly reminded her of the voice of an SS guard, the supervisor in Auschwitz. But right from the start, she explained she had decided to place the film’s action on board of a luxury liner, because it is a space one cannot escape 7. The vessel, which seemed a peaceful space, turns out to be a trap. Lisa has nowhere to hide from the passenger, nor can she in any way hasten the moment of separation. She is doomed to her tormenting presence, and the feeling of her
own powerlessness is unbearable and adds to the mental tension. Thus the first meaning of the immobility which envelops the ship’s space-time by way of still shots is that it becomes a prison for the main heroine; a place where nothing can change as long as Lisa does not free herself from the spectre of the past.
Another explanation relates directly to a popular perception of the ship’s space, which Woroszylski’s voice-over calls an island in time, a place where there is no yesterday and no tomorrow, where time has stopped. It is easy to imagine that the long, monotonous transatlantic journey may arouse in passengers the illusion of total stillness; time runs on in parallel, whereas the ship stands still. These days or weeks are removed from the normal course of time, and the passenger is suspended 8. The still pictures of the ship, especially those showing Lisa and Walter among other passengers, even before the appearance of the alleged Marta, are images of a reigning atmosphere of isolation, laziness and stagnation, undisturbed even by the next port of call.
Definitely more interesting, however, are interpretations directly relating the stillness of the shots of the contemporary part with the main protagonist. The script contains the suggestion that Lisa’s journey is really a voyage from the past to the future. This formulation, it seems, can be understood in two different ways: in the first, Lisa’s past was her stay in America, which has now ended, and the future is related to her travel destination, which in this extended time on the ship is not yet clear to her. Yet, in the context of the whole film, we should accept that Lisa’s past was rather her stay in Auschwitz, and the entire journey from that past into an anxious future takes place during this voyage, and is triggered by the appearance of the silent passenger. Regardless of what explanation we adopt, the present time becomes most important, imprisoning Lisa, forcing her both to return to her past and to look forward to the future, with the hope of a final release, an escape.
Andreas Wadensjö presented three interesting ways of understanding the present in Passenger. Firstly, the present moment, the “now”, in which Lisa is caught, has frozen for her under the influence of a strong shock, that is meeting a ghost from her past. Lisa freezes upon sight of the boarding passenger; her sense of reality is so fundamentally shocked, that her it is brought to a standstill 9. Such an approach, however, does not explain why even before the appearance of “Marta”, the time course is arrested in the film. According to the second explanation, static images become a reflection of Lisa’s moral and psychological condition; she has more or less forgotten the cruel events of the war, and the immobility ought to be seen as a state of “oblivion” for Lisa, her denial of memory. When later, she reminds herself of this past, the images begin to move (...) 10. The last explanation suggested by the author, is associated with the functioning of memory, which interests me here. Still pictures show a normal reality, as we perceive it, while memory has a completely different character: our visual memories are not static, but mobile; the memory (or imagination) can create worlds of a different nature than the so-called “sense of reality” 11. For this reason, it was necessary to introduce in the film a clear distinction, a contrast between the space-time of the present and the space-time of memory. Munk was also aware of this, and even before starting filming, he decided together with the operator, that the camp part will be shot in wide format, and the ship part in the traditional one. The successive retrospections were also conceived in different styles, so their visual mood was relevant to the function they fulfilled in relation to the contemporary part. Thus from the beginning it was important to clearly distinguish between the concrete layers of space-time, as well as the emotions and the dramatic successive waves of memories.
In the film, in the shape we see it today, the contrast between the present and the past is definitely sharper than planned, but also more surprising and of richer meaning. In my understanding, this contrast is also closely associated with the functioning of memory, specifically with the mechanism of memory formation at a certain point in time. There is no question that living in time is not a succession of moments which might be called present moments, and which can be captured in their separateness. Despite the illusion that leads us to perceive time as forward looking and forward moving, it rather seems that time goes in the opposite direction, and at any moment passes us by. When we run ahead of time, not only with our thoughts, but with our whole being, this same moment becomes the past. So in every elusive, mobile moment, our past grows, and somehow swells behind us.
But the past is not identical with memory, nor is it the storehouse of memories, where we can always find every moment that has passed. Bergson argued that: In reality, the past is preserved by itself automatically. In its entirety, probably, it follows us at every instant, all that we have felt, thought and willed from our earliest infancy is there, leaning over the present, which is about to join it, pressing against the portals of consciousness that would fain leave it outside 12. The past is constantly and in all its vastness present at every moment, but only appears in our consciousness when it may be useful, when it can help to understand the present or predict the future. The present time, however, is never “that what is”, but “that what is happening”, and our perception of it is conditioned by the past, by the memory “of what has already happened”, even if we are not aware of it.
So how can the present be stopped in the ship’s space in Passenger? It seems that although we cannot stop the advancing past, which absorbs the future, we can experience a subjective feeling of suspension in a particular moment. It is precisely that moment when we completely concentrate on the past, trying to extract an image from it. In order to recall, build, and relive memories, it is necessary to rely on a stable present. Of course this moment must be free of any actual “happening”, must be completely dedicated to the exploration of one’s own memory in search of a past experience. So the moment in which we knowingly give up action in the present and consciously stop being interested in it, in favour of the past, we also stop the subjective passage of time and the “now” becomes “that which is”. We are dealing with just such a situation in the Passenger; Lisa, of course not from her own free will, yet consciously, delves into her past and that is why her “now” freezes. The past in the space-time of her memory becomes “that which is happening”.
In his third interpretation, Wadensjö claimed that the main fabric of the film is made of Lisa’s memories, in relation to which the present time is entirely external and as such should be contrasted with the powerful, predatory stream of flashbacks. To a certain extent, when it comes to the requirement of contrasting the images, I agree with this statement, but I think that which is happening (or rather “that which is”) on the ship is not a “normal”, objective reality, because as such it should precisely be flowing, it should be in constant motion. The arrested “now” of the contemporary part therefore also belongs to Lisa’s subjective time. In Passenger inner time operates at every level, because the dominant space-time of the film is a complicated memory structure of the main protagonist. In the film we see images of both the past and the present through Lisa’s eyes. It was for Lisa that time stopped, giving her the opportunity to penetrate into her own past, and that step back which she was finally forced to take, is what pushes her into the depths of her own memory.
This image is extremely expressive: Lisa steps back, feeling that the passenger is inevitably approaching, just as inevitably as the moment when she will join up the still image of the present with the image of the past, which is gaining momentum as it emerges from the dark. It should be noted that this association is not of an abrupt nature; the appearance of the passenger, her piercing gaze, is the impetus for starting the strenuous search in Lisa’s mind. The memory crystallizes very slowly, since this fragment of the heroine’s past was hidden in her deepest subconscious. It is difficult to clearly determine whether this denial was directly related to the guilt troubling Lisa, to her shame. It seems though that she just never needed these memories; after the war, she lived her life in a way that precluded the usefulness of the camp’s memories, while after many years they were naturally buried in the memory of past events. So now, with present time is already frozen, Lisa breaks away from it, to go back first to her past in general, and then to specific moments in time; it is like groping in the dark, reminiscent of setting a camera 13. Lisa does not search her own past with a prepared visual template; she does not yet exactly know what she is looking for, but begins to have an idea. The passenger’s gaze which so torments Lisa, does not necessarily have to refer directly to Marta’s image, but could be a place and time at which the heroine felt just as tormented. Memory, at the first stage of its exploration, seems more emotional than visual. Maybe the process of recollection triggered by an intense emotional stimulus first awakes feelings in us, which we then associate with pictures. Munk’s task was to give these first memories the form of an image of emotions, rather than an image which awakens emotions.
Bergson thus described the stirring of senses that the appearance of a memory in our consciousness arouses: it gradually appears in shape similar to a thickening nebula, passing from a state of virtuality into actuality, its contours shape up, the surface takes on colour, and it starts to imitate perception. (...) The past, by its very nature being something virtual, can be recognized by us as the past only if we assimilate the motion, by which it develops into the actual image, emerging from the darkness into daylight 14. Lisa discovers this motion – a motion of power, violence and slavery, a motion bogged down in the mud of the camp. From darkness to daylight, images of emotions appear, of the consistency of thickening nebula – the shot showing Lisa stepping back into the past is flooded by a beam of white light, which generates a sequence of images found in her memory under the influence of the passenger’s gaze. Andrzej Brzozowski told me that this white light had to have precisely such a visual impact, brutally separating Lisa’s present from her past 15. This flash of light means that the heroine has found the space-time she was searching for, hidden for so long in the dark.
Now, because at this point Lisa’s past becomes her present, the first image she sees is a circle formed by prisoner functionaries, holding hands during selection, and in the middle a staggering, naked female prisoner. The next shot shows two rows of soldiers with dogs and female kapos, naked prisoners running in between them. A naked corpse dragged through the mud by another prisoner. German shepherd dogs sitting in even rows, panting. Prisoners pulling a huge cylinder with great effort. More rows of panting dogs. The dead body of a prisoner, electrocuted by the barbed wire. A circle of kapos with a few naked prisoners. A nude prisoner in close-up, caught on the neck by a cane during selection. More prisoners pulling a cylinder. Soldiers marching near the wires, with dogs on leashes. Again the circle during selection, in the middle more women trying to cover their nakedness. Prisoners pulling prams in the mud. A prisoner’s hair brutally cropped. Tattooing a prison number on the forearm.
These first flashback images succeed each other at a very rapid pace. All are very much overexposed, clearly stylized to look like archive footage or chronicle photos. None return in the second and third retrospection; even the selection scene is later shown in quite a different way, and unlike the first one, takes place at night. So how should we understand these sequences of dramatic images, so unique in the space of the whole film, and so expressive? The first association that imposes itself almost automatically is Proust’s “madeleine”, or the short-term memory, very intense and full of emotion. Of course, in Proust, we are dealing with memories of a far less violent nature, whose emergence causes an ecstatic sensation, but the essence of the process remains the same. An external sensory stimulus tugs at a certain string of memory, and this vibration incites – or, as in the case of Lisa and the passenger, forces us to find – from the past the same quiver and the same sensory stimulus. Essentially, at first this is the repetition of a particular emotion. Depending on the complexity of the sought-out feeling, and its depth of immersion in the space of memory, finding the right track can be instant, or might require more time. Its most important aspect is a rapidly growing anxiety: firstly, can it be repeated; secondly, will it indeed be as emotional? What Lisa finds in her memory shocks her – having recognized the passenger’s gaze, and followed this trail, she rediscovered the essence of the camp at Auschwitz.
Yet this essence is not exactly what Lisa experienced in that space; it is a much more intense experience, and repetition is not the right definition for it. Just as in the case of the “madeleine”, which leads to the result that Combray rises up, not as it was experienced in contiguity with the past sensation, but in a splendour, with the “truth”, that never had an equivalent in reality 16, Auschwitz in the flashback gains the quality of truth, but not objective truth, which is most probably impossible to attain in the space-time of memory, but emotional truth. This is not about the events in which Lisa participated whilst in the camp; rather, this deals with the shock it is to her to recall it. It transpires that, after many years, she recalls the person she was then in quite a different way; her memories are in fact the memories of a prisoner, not a guard. What is important is not that Lisa was also a prisoner, but the evolution that her recollections underwent in the deepest layers of her memory. She was convinced that in the space that was probed by the arrival of the passenger, there was little left, yet those memories exploded, forming a frightening whole, even to Lisa herself. In the following flashbacks, guards and soldiers, especially of lower rank, are portrayed on the same level as Lisa; meanwhile in this quivering sequence of images, returns the sense of the expanse of power that dominates and controls all. Marching SS soldiers are filmed slightly from below, in a way that is not only frightening, but likely caused by fear. Their powerful erect figures against the barbed wire fence create an atmosphere of threat and domination. Sitting in rows, German shepherd dogs form a battle array, ready at any moment to jump. But the prisoners shown in the close up, in their daily sufferings, their moments of greatest humiliation, or death, are not the same prisoners whom Lisa recalls with such disdain and arrogance in the next two waves of already controlled memories.
The first sequence of flashback pictures form the visual essence of fascism, as a specifically hyperemotional approach to power and oppression. The next two waves of memories recall fascism that is largely consistent with popular beliefs, formed from the testimonies of SS soldiers during public trials. The system of fascist power was seen primarily in terms of a well-functioning machine, where each element was assigned a place and a task, and thoughtlessly executed. Yet the discussed sequence of images shows that fascism for a fascist was also chaos, an abyss of criminal instincts, primal instincts, and this machine, transforming millions into ash, is in fact the negation of rationalism; when judged from the perspective of one’s own emotional memory, it seems surreal. It is not that after many years, and under the effect of a shock, Lisa finally understands and realizes a fact to which she was previously blind and deaf, namely, the criminality of the system in which she worked. This way of evoking memories excludes the functioning of intellect, and prevents awareness of the complex problems of fascism. However, it allows the introduction of certain long suppressed emotions into one’s consciousness. Feelings plucked from the past, from the depths of one’s memory, are more intense than those felt at the time; they are the essence of those sensations, and in the film they are realised by sequences of images of emotions.
It is significant that these individual images are not placed in chronological order; they do not form a logical sequence, they do not illustrate linearly ordered events. The first flashback shows the memories in an “atomized” form, still unorganized as a narrative. This also demonstrates that this layer of the past, which has never been absorbed by Lisa in the form of a story, constitutes an element of the “never told” 17. Munk has shown a memory in its pure state, which only later, after it has moved from the realm of the subconscious, will be subjected to reconstruction by the conscious narrative.
The first retrospection is therefore a result of the shock that was meeting the passenger, or rather her gaze. The look of the woman alleged to be Marta illuminated the whole of Lisa’s past, and forced her to take on the agony of recollection. Lisa’s emotions, whose images we see on the screen, designate a very specific moment in Passenger’s memory space-time. It is a moment, in which the past grows
larger than the present, and absorbs the heroine, without taking her out of reality entirely. Lisa is still standing motionless on the deck; what happened a moment ago, and what is happening now has a huge influence on her memories. As she still remains in touch with the present, she can return to it, breaking away from the revived past, seemingly unstoppable in its rush.
Walter grabs Lisa’s forearm, which awakens in her the last image of Auschwitz – the tattooing of the number on the prisoner’s arm – and interrupts this sequence of memories. Lisa is again in the present, and the departure of the passenger, as well as the appearance of her husband, confirm that time stopped only for her. Walter has rescued Lisa from being submerged by emotions of the past, but the signs of these emotions, the terror and horror that he saw in her face, force him to ask questions. Lisa, still too shaken and stripped of her serene indifference, does not have the strength to pretend that nothing has happened. Initially, quite brutally, she tells her husband that she has lied about her wartime past, but she soon comes to her senses. She realises that in this situation, from which she can no longer escape, the only recourse is to stay calm and rationalize what undoubtedly needs to be said. The whole story, which Lisa apparently makes up as she goes along, forms the second retrospection in the film.
The second wave of memories is a confession, and Lisa finally agrees that Walter be her judge. The story is not synonymous with the usual free telling of memories. Lisa imposes on herself a certain rigour, adopts a strategy that enables her to control her own reactions, emotions and behaviour. Her attitude, her way of presenting the past in which she took part, directly recalls the testimonies of former SS officers submitted during their trials. It seems that although this meeting with the past at this point in time was a shock for Lisa, which temporarily led her to lose control of herself, she has long been internally preparing to confront – not so much her own memory – but rather her husband. The strategy which she adopts is based on preparing, and telling a story – to others and to oneself – about who we are 18. The primary task Lisa undertook, when creating her own story, was that of selecting memory material in such a way that it seemed fully credible, and more importantly entirely objective.
Lisa’s confession strongly resembles Rudolf Hoess’s memoirs, written in his Autobiography, during his trial. Hoess, for years first commandant of Auschwitz, does not try to deny the obvious. He does not deny who he was, and is proud of his position, and how well he carried out his responsibilities. Lisa is the same, for she does not dispute either the existence of the camp, nor the role it played in the system of the Third Reich. However, both Hoess and Lisa are trying in their memories to focus the audience’s attention not on themselves, but on the huge machines that were Auschwitz and Birkenau. Consequently, they only allocate themselves a negligible role in this machine, and attribute minimum impact of their actions on the functioning of the camp, which was controlled by top-down orders. Certainly Lisa has an easier task; she was indeed much lower down in the camp’s hierarchy than the prison’s first commandant, who at times was almost bursting with barely concealed pride at the enormous responsibility he had been charged with. Despite this, they both equally seek to emphasize that they had no direct impact on the pervasive violence prevailing in the camp; there were many others who were far crueller and degenerate than them. Lisa’s attitude is, therefore, typical of former functionaries of the Nazi system when coming to terms with their past, and the heroine relies precisely on the fact that her story is no different from that of hundreds of others.
In the second retrospective, Lisa makes a selection from her experiences in the camp. She chooses those elements of the past which are socially acceptable in the present, and combines them to form a natural chronological order. Only when we confront this story with the third narrative retrospection does it transpire that Lisa’s confession to her husband is full of gaps, ambiguities and apparent inversions of time, which do not permit the recreation of actual cause and effect relationships. This illusion of narrative coherence is possible thanks to, on the one hand, the constructive elements of the story taking on meaning according to their position in the configuration of the whole, on the other, that they have been selected for their relevance to the subject and their relation with autobiographical complexes 19. Once we are aware of the fragmentary and selective nature of her confidences, the search for the truth inevitably returns, regarding the extent to which the heroine is honest with herself and Walter.
During filming at Auschwitz, Munk said this about Lisa’s attitude: Her story is dispassionate, her conscience – clear 20. The primary objective of the protagonist is to keep her calm, so brutally violated by the first shocking sequence of memories. Reporting to her husband on her life in the camp, Lisa herself does not yet understand why she is so shaken by the meeting with the passenger, for she has had not enough time to explore her own feelings. She tells Walter a story she had elaborated much earlier, when Auschwitz’s deeply buried memories seemed to her completely understandable. There is no doubt that during all those years after Lisa had left the camp, her approach to these events did not change. The heroine was always first and foremost a strict disciplinarian, proud of praise from her superiors, and capable of minor and major abuses to earn these accolades. In her understanding up to the present time, her work in the camp was a form of fighting the enemy, and she felt like a soldier there. That is how she has evaluated her past, and on this basis she constructed her story. The meeting on the ship was a breakthrough in Lisa’s emotional life, but the remnants of her presence of mind have led her to ensure that, despite changes in her situation, she tells Walter the previously thought out and polished version of events.
So, if we want to assess her admission from the angle of truth, we have to accept that it is true from the standpoint of the old Lisa. It is useful, reliable and free of extraneous emotions, but for Lisa at that moment it also remains an empty structure, which incidentally she will shatter by herself in the next retrospection. In this most difficult, decisive moment of her life, it only matters that Walter accepts her story as true. Her husband is to become her judge, and on his verdict the whole of Lisa’s future will depend – is it not completely natural in such a situation that the truth of the past becomes of secondary importance?
Lisa is perfectly aware of the huge consequences that must result from her admission. Camp experiences have taught her that one of the most threatening methods, and the aim of those in power, is to force people to talk. The silence of Auschwitz prisoners was unbearable to Lisa; it was more than just a refusal to answer questions; it was primarily synonymous with the refusal to surrender to power. At the same time, the arrival of the passenger on the ship becomes an order for Lisa to talk, thus placing her not in the position of someone who has authority, but one subjected to it. In this situation, Lisa has three options: to remain silent – risking that Walter finds out the truth from other sources; to tell the whole truth – ultimately losing all power; and finally – to fabricate the truth, to create a discursive “self”, who takes on the humiliation of talking. Lisa chooses the third solution. She constructs a confession, in which both herself and her husband possess elements of power, forcing Walter not only to listen, but also to interpret. It was the latter function to verify this obscure truth: the revelation of confession had to be coupled with the decipherment of what it said. The who listened was not simply the forgiving master, the judge who condemned or acquitted; his was a hermeneutic function. With regard to the confession, his power was not only to demand it before it was made, or decide what was to follow after it, but also to constitute a discourse of truth on the basis of its decipherment 21. One of the problems with the contemporary part of the film is whether Walter is competent to judge his own wife. Lisa, on the other hand, is undoubtedly a “competent accused”, who knows perfectly well what not to say and why, in order to maintain some remnant of power.
Regardless of the authenticity of her story, it is evident that it preserves some semblance of the truth through the heroine’s efforts to objectivise her own past. All these endeavours can be found in the visual layer of the film. The second flashback, in contrast to the first, operates through calm and long shots, which are meant to imply that Lisa wants to show everything and will not hide anything from that reality. But only she has the power to decide what will be shown in her story, and what will be removed. The camera is at all times placed on the level of Lisa’s eyes, so we see the camp through her eyes. Thanks to this technique, the protagonist ceases to participate in events and is in the position of an observer, who has no influence on reality; she can only objectively record everything that happened. Lisa wants to convince Walter that although she undeniably was “in” that environment, she was not “inside it”, and kept a distance both from prisoners and other officers.
The beginning of her visual account is significant for it captures her tendency to objectivise the truth. With a clearly audible sound of an accelerating train somewhere in the background, the camera films, devoid of the slightest emotion, Auschwitz’s main square, the entrance gate, the train track, the ramp... We get the impression that there is something unnatural in this terrible tranquillity, this dead silence. The only hint that the shots portray the camp during the war, and not afterwards, are heaps of people’s belongings discharged after unloading of the train, which appear in the foreground. Following the slow movement of the camera, two soldiers on bicycles pass through the square. A short moment later, we learn the reason for the emptiness, the piles of clothes and luggage, and why the train has already departed. The camera moves slowly over the concrete roof of the crematorium hidden underground, and then rises following the natural direction of the gaze, to the black smoking chimneys. The first sequence of images clearly shows that Lisa knew perfectly well what the main purpose of the camp was; she does not hide it from her husband and does not pretend to be naive. At the same time, however, she begins her account by emphasizing that she did not take direct part in the “liquidation” of those transported there, and only saw what was left behind, the smoke and the piles of things, which were after all her main area of interest.
In another sequence of shots, with even more accuracy, and a similar self-control, Lisa describes her own place in the environment which she has already briefly outlined. We hear the crunching of her steps as she enters the “Canada” warehouse, the block in which she was supervisor. The camera consistently shoots only what Lisa saw, so it is she who decides on the nature and the mood of these images. Again, we see how she tries to objectivise her story, this time focusing on details. We are shown inside the barrack: everywhere lie piles of sorted belongings, which in this environment became the property of the Reich. Lisa’s eyes shift from the mess and the chaos, to show us the true treasures accumulated in the warehouses. Her gaze slowly and solemnly moves along the shelf, where in neat rows are placed candlesticks, silver, crystal; her eyes linger on one of the mirrors, and stop on the next one. For the first time in the film we see Lisa in Auschwitz in her SS officer uniform. She sees her own reflection in the mirror, but is clearly reluctant to accentuate in any way her physical presence in this space, so half closes her eyes and turns away her head.
The two clearly separated sequences of images which open Lisa’s story about Auschwitz, perhaps best express the strategies adopted by her. The heroine insists on the enormity of the camp, and the huge accumulation of items, while discreetly avoiding talking about herself. She only wants to be the person who tells the story; we have the impression that above all she wants to shift Walter’s tense and anxious attention from her own person, to the essence of what the camp was. She will persist in this method until the end, perhaps hoping that Walter will content himself with detailed descriptions of Auschwitz, and not inquire about exactly what his wife did there.
The following image introduces prisoners of the camp. We see them only from Lisa’s perspective, as they chaotically run around a square in sheer terror, trying to load onto stretchers the thick layer of mud covering the ground. From among these prisoners, later lined up in straight rows, Lisa has to choose women to work in her warehouse. The scene of selection is very interestingly filmed: we have a panoramic shot showing the faces of the women tied to the rhythm of Lisa’s steps, but at times the camera stops on a particular face, to then quickly and abruptly move to the next one. All this increases our impression that the camera captures reality as seen through Lisa’s eyes. Lisa chooses Marta from amongst the prisoners.
It is at this point that Lisa introduces her main character. She must also realize that talking exclusively about dry facts or the reality of the camp would provoke questions about her personal feelings, reactions or behaviour. Focusing Walter’s attention on the character of Marta, she reveals about herself only that which is related to her chosen prisoner. As a result, in the second flashback it seems that Lisa does not intend to depict a false version of her relationship with Marta, but rather to use it as an escape from the inquisitiveness of her husband.
In this series of memories, Lisa does not choose Marta for herself but solely for the purpose of the story intended for Walter. That is why, in the next equally calm and long shot, we see Marta in normal clothes (except for the cross painted on her shirt), as she shuffles around the storeroom, writing something in a notebook. Tadeusz, Marta’s fiancé, enters into the glazed area, located slightly above the level from which the scene is carefully observed by Lisa. Clearly this is their first encounter; Lisa suggests that it only happened thanks to her. Tadeusz sketches a portrait of Marta, laughs, tenderly touches her, but we can sense the concentrated presence of Lisa, who is watching them. We can hear a creaking, a door opens, and of course, according to the logic of this visual retrospective, it is not Lisa standing there; instead we see another reflection of her face and her firm direct look. Half of Lisa’s face is reflected in the glass door; the image is extremely complicated, filled with crossing and overlapping surfaces, reflections and refractions, which suggests the complexity of emotions accompanying the heroine. Her face is not clear, and vibrates to the rhythm of the moving door.
Her blurry reflection is the second and final portrait of Lisa in the second flashback; from now on, the only character, the driving force of Lisa’s narrative, remains Marta. Thanks to her we visit along with Lisa the sick room, where Marta lies ill in the midst of other prisoners, and finally we enter Death Row, where she is taken after her arrest, and awaits to be shot. Both the sick room and Death Row are necessary to complete the image of the camp in the shape that Lisa decided to present it to Walter. They are the places, whose “fame” has survived the liquidation of Auschwitz, as it is there, except for the already mentioned crematoria, that most prisoners died. At the same time, as in the case of the crematorium, they are the places in which for quite different reasons Lisa was completely helpless. At the end of her story, Lisa emphasizes this helplessness, and combines it with her desire to help others, to save Marta’s life.
This brief review of pictures which form the substance of the second retrospection is enough to understand the mechanisms of its formation. Lisa’s story is made of facts selected for their present usefulness. It is not possible to assess the extent to which those facts are consistent with the truth, but this was not Munk’s aim. The idea was to give visual form to very specific ways of constructing memories. The present retrospective is formally more consistent than the first one, and only when compared with the next one, does it turn out to be full of gaps. However, let us not forget that in the movie we watch it before we get to know Lisa’s extensive internal memories. Should one try to put this narrative in the memory space-time of the whole film, it transpires that it is the most updated version of the past. Whilst the first flashback represented the emotional explosion of the past into the present, the second was already planned in the past as a story about what had happened long ago. It is therefore not literally related to construction of memories, but nevertheless shows a method of modelling one’s memory. The second flashback, in comparison with the other two, appears to be an artificial creation, albeit constructed from real images of the past.
As one might guess, despite Lisa’s best efforts, her admission comes as a shock to Walter. The rational narrative does not convince him of the negligible role his wife played in Auschwitz. For him, a “Good German”, the concentration camp, even described in a manner so calm and balanced, remains unacceptable. When Lisa ends her story, the images from the ship return, in which we see Walter and his wife separately, immersed in deep thoughts. Walter is not yet in a position to pass judgment, as he does not have the ability to objectivise, undoubtedly possessed by Lisa, and is not able to judge his own wife. Lisa is trying to find a place for herself in this frozen space-time, however, the story prepared so long ago and polished to the smallest detail, of which she is now finally unburdened, does not bring her any solace. The passenger no longer appears in this sequence of images of the present, but the tension is palpable as Lisa watches the other travellers, expecting to recognize Marta. The scene from the ball, preserved in the film only in the form of a few pictures, brings Lisa to her next nervous breakdown. She feels trapped, escapes, and as we learn from the script, she locks herself in her cabin to once again return to her past.
In the third retrospection, we get to know a fuller version of Lisa’s recollections, assembled by her memory, narrative and consciousness. But this painful process of remembering is not a simple reproduction, it involves a creative reconstruction of the past, in which are interwoven impressions and information from the present; it is a creation resulting only from pre-existing patterns. (...) A conscious recollection triggers the search process – a journey through the labyrinth of history, on the paths marked out by past impressions and emotions 22. It is difficult to imagine that Lisa could be calm at the time of this journey into the depths of herself, but she certainly managed to control the emotion of the first wave of memories, so she could consciously immerse herself in the past, and return to those feelings and thoughts. Admittedly, remembering is not identical to re-experiencing; every memory has quite a different force than the currently perceived event. That is why Bergson separated awareness from memory; even though both can cause very strong emotions, they are never exactly the same. Similarly, successive memories of the same event never take the same form, for they are always influenced by the present.
The third retrospective takes a completely different visual form than the previous two. This time Lisa is being introspective, so there is no evidence of objectivization or exclusion of herself from the space-time of her own experiences. The first scene is the most significant in this context; Lisa does not need to introduce herself in the camp’s space, as she did in the other flashbacks. We immediately find her in the “Canada” warehouse, in a spot that was her most private, almost intimate, space for the length of her stay in Auschwitz. Lisa confidently enters the block through a wide open door, and we see her in an American shot, in the full figure view; with a decisive gesture she smartens up her uniform. This depiction indicates that even now Lisa has a strong sense of pride, of which the SS uniform remains an important element. As in the second flashback, she is going in the direction of the storeroom, but this time we see her getting closer, firmly pressing the door handle, and with a single sharp pull opening the door. We see a half close-up of her, triumphant, at the time when she has managed to catch Marta with Tadeusz. At this point, we are dealing with a complex structure of images – in the frame of memories that Lisa weaves in the present time, we see a memory of what was already history in relation to that moment. Lisa remembers the scene, when because of some machinations of the kapo from the men’s camp, it is Tadeusz who is sent to “Canada” as a prisoner assigned to help her. Moreover we discover that not only did Lisa not facilitate their meeting, but considered it a disgraceful offense against Regulations.
The third retrospection is to a large extent based on precisely such reversals and completions of events told by Lisa to her husband. Initially, we have the impression that Lisa’s memories in this sequence are inconsistent, only later to discover that the structure of her earlier story was full of gaps, now filled by Lisa for her own benefit. We learn what happened in the time between the scene in the storeroom and Marta’s illness and the visit to the sick room, but mostly we are told why Marta went to the Death Row. I do not wish to discuss here all the scenes that make up the last flashback, as in large part they serve to reconstruct the conflict between Lisa and Marta. For now, the most important thing for me is to uncover in her recollection significant elements of memory structures in Passenger.
The third retrospection is entirely subjective, and is not subject to any of the consequences of the uncontrolled influx of memories. At all times the camera is located at a certain distance from Lisa, allowing her to move freely within her own memory space; thus Lisa is “inside”. Only sometimes events are filmed in a way that would indicate that we see it through Lisa’s eyes. One of these scenes, however, is extremely significant – Lisa observes the children behind barbed wire walking in pairs directly from the carriages to the crematorium. This image, given its way of being filmed, the position of the camera, and the focus of attention on select details of this event, better fits the second flashback. Clearly, Lisa found that while the sight of the chimneys smoking with human ashes does not directly concern her, the vision of children who will be shortly gassed is too private, and too intimate a sensation of her own.
In the present introspection, there is only one scene that is totally doubled up with a scene in an earlier story, and incidentally in both cases the same pictures were re-used. Again Lisa recalls her visit to Marta in the sick room. Like in many other moments of this retrospection, it is especially important to show Lisa entering the place: it emphasizes her physical presence in the concrete space, not just an awareness of its existence. The third wave of memories also carry the most violent scenes in the film, and reveals a richness of background to what in Lisa’s earlier accounts was shown as sterile. We realise that Lisa does not thinks herself innocent and uncontaminated by that reality, nor was she blind to the atrocities which took place in the camp. She had an unclear attitude to it, and is not willing to disclose it to Walter, so she prefers to purge her story not only of emotion, but also of all the facts that could provoke these emotions. But from the moment Lisa decides to make an effort to remember, she adds to the stream of memories not only more events, but also her own feelings. That is why, from the point of view of memory structures, the third flashback is a natural consequence of the previous two. It includes both the modified emotions of the first flashback and the completed facts of the other.
One should also consider whether the construction of Lisa’s memories exhausts the full contents of her memory; whether it says everything about the events that took place between Lisa and Marta in Auschwitz. Of course the answer is no. And not because Munk did not finish his film, but because remembering the past never uncovers everything. Our memory stores all experiences and accompanying emotions, but only some take the form of visual memories. The resulting structure is
not, however, immutable, because what we usually call experience is undergoing constant restructuring; we continually rewrite history, change our view of individuals or events belonging to our past 23. In Passenger, the memory is constructed in three different ways, each primarily describing Lisa then and now, and only secondarily the reality of the camp at Auschwitz. By treating the space-time of the film as a subjective whole closely connected with Lisa, and by referring to categories of truth, all we can reconstruct are Lisa’s emotions; that was after all the main theme of the film and the focus of Munk’s interest. We can certainly strive to examine the images of the camp on the basis of Lisa’s memories, but we must remember that Auschwitz, as indicated by the director himself, was shown in the film through two filters: from the perspective of twenty years later, and – seen through the eyes of a German female SS-officer 24.
Those “filters”, which make Passenger a film that is not in the strictest sense about Auschwitz, are at times quite difficult to grasp. The barely outlined contemporary part makes it easy to forget this framework, so important in understanding the director’s original intentions. When Lisa finishes evoking her memories, the reality of the ship returns; in the last shots we see her and Marta passing each other on a narrow deck. Lisa initially tries to hide her face under the brim of her hat, but ultimately, in a fit of pride and determination she decides to confront Marta for the last time. She defiantly looks the passenger in the face, but the latter walks by, leaving Lisa in consternation, in eternal uncertainty. Until the end of film, we do not know if the passenger, who eventually leaves the ship, was truly Marta. Just as the passenger in the opening sequence was filmed moving closer using an American shot, now as she moves away she is filmed using a medium shot. The passenger’s gaze leaves Lisa and the viewer, as she disembarks from the liner, on board of which Lisa and Walter are left. The next photos show the vessel departing from the shore; in the penultimate shot, we see the ship on the diagonal from lower left to upper right, as it sails away from the space-time of the movie. The last image filmed using a long shot shows the ship disappearing out of the film’s frame.
Thus the story ends exactly as it began. Lisa’s journey continues and she cannot be sure whether her subjective time will restart again, and allow her to step into the future. It is precisely the future that is absent from the structure of the spacetime of this movie, but one should not be surprised – the future also depends on memory. If Lisa is in some way able to shut down her past, which already made the present stand still, there may be a future for her. At the moment, however, as the ship departs, there is no doubt that Lisa has not completed the process of reconstructing her past. What is important is not that she did not tell the “whole truth” about her life, about the camp, but that she has ahead of her many such situations, where she will have to face a flood of similar memories. Lisa now returns to Europe, to Germany, where she will not be able to avoid encountering her past. Forgetting is natural, and memory – a construction, an artefact 25.
This scientific publication was financed by the Minister of Science and Higher Education in the frame of the “National Programme for the Development of the Humanities” [Narodowy Program Rozwoju Humanistyki] for 2012-2013.
1 M. Bakhtin, Forms of Time and of the Chronotope in the Novel, in: his, The Dialogic Imagination, Four Essays, ed. M. Holquist, trans. C. Emerson and H. Holquist, University of Texas Press, Austin-Texas 1981, p. 84. [powrót]
2 Ibidem, p. 252. [powrót]
3 S. Beylin, Z Andrzejem Munkiem rozmawiałam w poniedziałek 18 września, “Film” 1961, no. 41, p. 11. [powrót]
4 A film narrative from three different points of view is also the compositional basis of Rashomon by Akira Kurosawa, See. T. Lubelski, Wariant obalania tabu. “Człowiek na torze”, in: idem, Strategie autorskie w polskim filmie fabularnym lat 1945-1961, Kraków 2001, p. 147. [powrót]
5 Very important, it seems to me, is the fact that the engine driver Orzechowski’s story as told by three narrators having different opinions about the main character was Munk’s idea. There was no such structure in the scenario by Stawiński, See. J. S. Stawiński, Notatki scenarzysty, vol. I, Warszawa 1979, p. 64. [powrót]
6 It is important to introduce at this point a clear distinction between Munk’s private photos and the photos from the opening of the film, as well as stills from the ship. The latter are, after all like a frozen film divided into film frames, not filmed photos. On the screen we perceive them as static, but the projection takes place normally. This film is “moving” in the same way as other movies, but some “photograms” do not change into “kinegrams”, but are repeated many times see. A. Wadensjö, Wyspa w czasie, “Kwartalnik Filmowy”, autumnwinter 2002, no. 39-40, p. 179. [powrót]
7 I refer here to a conversation with Zofia Posmysz which took place on the 4 March 2003. [powrót]
8 See A. Wadensjö, op. cit. p. 175. [powrót]
9 Ibidem. [powrót]
10 Ibidem. [powrót]
11 Ibidem. [powrót]
12 H. Bergson, Creative Evolution, trans. A. Mitchell, Dover Publications, New York 1998,
p. 5. [powrót]
13 Ibidem, p. 41. [powrót]
14 Ibidem. [powrót]
15 I refer here to a conversation with Andrzej Brzozowski on the 7 March 2003. [powrót]
16 G. Deleuze, Proust and Signs, trans. R. Howard, The Athtone Press, London 2000, p. 56. [powrót]
17 J. Kordys, Pamięć i opowiadanie, in: Praktyki opowiadania, selected texts, eds. B. Owczarek, Z. Mitos, W. Grajewski, Kraków 2001, p. 142. [powrót]
18 Ibidem, p 131. [powrót]
19 Ibidem, p 130. [powrót]
20 S. Beylin, op. cit. [powrót]
21 M. Foucault, The History of Sexuality, vol. 1, transl. R. Hurley, Penguine, London 1990, pp. 66-67. [powrót]
22 J. Kordys, op. cit., p. 139. [powrót]
23 Ibidem, p. 130. [powrót]
24 S. Beylin, op. cit. [powrót]
25 J. Kordys, op. cit., p. 129. [powrót]
The beginning of cinema in Poland, prof. Małgorzata Hendrykowska
Polish Cinema 1945-1954, prof. Tadeusz Lubelski
History of the Polish film industry, Andrzej Bukowiecki