Very nearly forty, Andrzej Munk died in a road accident in 1961, ending the career of the Polish filmmaker whom Roman Polanski considered his mentor. Munk’s Man on the Tracks, Eroica (1957), Cross-Eyed Luck (1959) and Passenger (1961) constitute a sterling body of work. Indeed, the last, completed by Witold Lesiewicz, using stills, and released in 1963, is a masterpiece, the single finest fictional film ever made on the subject of the Holocaust. (Wanda Jakubowska’s The Last Stage and Andrzej Wajda’s Korczak—both also Polish—are the runners-up, although the former, which Jakubowska based on her own term at Auschwitz, must be accounted semi-documentary.) The passing of Munk hasn’t achieved, worldwide, the resonance of Friedrich Wilhelm Murnau’s passing, also in a road accident, in 1931 at age 42. At least Munk, though, died in his Poland, not in Hollywood, where—Santa Barbara: close enough—Murnau, one of Germany’s premier filmmakers (Nosferatu, 1922; The Last Laugh, 1924), died, riding his motorcycle. Munk did not, like Murnau, end in a wreck of compromise.
Man on the Tracks—Czlowiek na torze—is a bold film, of a kind that Josef Stalin’s recent death, and the resultant loosened Soviet grip on the Polish film industry, facilitated. It’s a work about current laborers in Poland, and about the social atmosphere in which they work. It’s the work of a committed Communist, but an observant and inquiring one who finds he has more uncertainties and questions to probe than answers he can pull out of an ideological bag. It’s the sort of film that could not have been made in Hollywood at the same time, so vastly more oppressive was the political atmosphere in the U.S. in the 1950s.
Man on the Tracks begins famously with a man’s death. The man is Orzechowski, a former railway conductor—an older man, who haunts the local station post. He is run down on the tracks by the very train he used to engineer, which his replacement, recognizing him, brings to a screeching halt. How did this happen? Two possibilities are suicide and sabotage. Only one of two green lights showed, indicating safe passage for the train when in fact the situation on the tracks was the opposite of this. Did Orzechowski remove one of the lights himself?; is that what he was doing when the accident killing him occurred? And, if so, what was his motive? Was it political since he was a member of the old guard? Was he nursing a grudge for having been discharged after decades of service? Certainly Tuszka, the station master with whom Orzechowski continually butted heads, thinks it was a case of attempted sabotage. A board of inquiry will determine the truth.
Two motives of cinema intersect here: a character study; a search for truth. The intersection is this: the inquiry will eventually reveal the true nature of Orzechowski’s character. The revelation is logical; much of what we see, in flashbacks corresponding to the testimony of witnesses, predicts it, and yet it comes as something of a shock, given the distortions that these subjective accounts display. The structure of the film is often compared to that of Orson Welles’s Citizen Kane (1941) and Akira Kurosawa’s Rashomon (1950), with their multiple perspectives on identical events. As a post-mortem, however, Man on the Tracks is at least as much like Kurosawa’s masterpiece, Ikiru (1952). There, at Kenji Watanabe’s funeral, his co-workers, fellow civil servants, piece together truths about the man. Officials interviewing Orzechowski’s co-workers attempt to do the same in Man on the Tracks.
It’s a daunting enterprise, given the atmosphere of suspicion that envelops workers in 1950 Poland. A new program of railway efficiency has train engineers and crews competing to use as little coal as possible; the nation’s progress, the Party assures them, depends on this. At the same time, there are older workers, themselves resisting the redefinition of their homeland as communistic, who must function under the deepest cloud of suspicion. At heart, they do not equate the progress of Polish Communism with Poland’s progress. Orzechowski is such an individual. He burns coal generously, explaining that he does things as he was taught to do them and as he has always done them. The English subtitle beautifully expresses his crime in Tuszka’s eyes: Orzechowski “lags behind in saving coal.” The implication is that Orzechowski is dragging Poland back rather than moving it ahead. Therefore, his older age isn’t alone his liability that attracts the suspicious concern of others; it’s the different way of political life in Poland that Orzechowski can recall by dint of his old age. For the younger workers, the new order in Poland replaces German occupation; but Orzechowski has vivid social and political memories that go farther back. He is an odd man out because of both his age and the sense of Poland that goes along with his age. “Times have changed,” the stationmaster tells him, saying in effect, “You must get with the program.” But Tuszka really is trying to provoke Orzechowski’s retirement, toward which end he replaces Orzechowski’s assistant with someone who is loyal instead to him. Tuszka is also nursing a grudge. Years ago, Orzechowski reprimanded Tuszka for shoddy work.
It won’t be easy to get at the truth about Orzechowski, in particular because the cloud of suspicion he was under made him very private, guarded, quite rigid. Thus the film begins in pitch darkness as the train inexorably proceeds until the brakes are applied. The black-and-white cinematography by Romuald Kropat and Jerzy Wójcik conjures a blackness of night blacker than any I’ve seen in any other film. This darkness is, of course, correlative to the depth of mystery surrounding Orzechowski and his motives; the gleam of the train, perhaps, indicates the possibility that some clarity can emerge from the darkness. The voluminous smoke from the train suggests the murky, self-serving testimony, given at the inquiry, that, for those directing the inquiry, will have to negotiate a path—a track, if you will—between darkness and clarity.
We come to see, in effect, two Orzechowskis. One is the tight, demanding, formal figure who doesn’t suffer fools and who feels oppressed by the surveillance he is under. The other is a more relaxed Orzechowski, who socializes with same-age friends, for example. Each exists, if you will, on a separate track, but the tracks cross one another in (until the end) the film’s most exquisitely moving moment. It’s Saturday morning in the park. Orzechowski’s new assistant is there to meet his girlfriend, who awaits him on a park bench. She is in sight when Orzechowski comes strolling with his wife. The assistant tries to hide, to avoid a confrontation with his cantankerous boss, but Orzechowski spots him and is immediately suspicious that the young man is there to spy on him. However, when it becomes obvious that the man is there to meet his girl, Orzechowski breaks into a warm smile, and the couples make gracious introductions. Boss, assistant; non-Communist, Communist; old, young: for an instant none of the divisions matter. For an instant, we see four Poles interacting. Orzechowski even asks the young couple to join him and his wife, but the assistant and his girl leave to go (the assistant says) to the movies. The good moment is gone.
The inquiry finds its way back to the Orzechowski we glimpsed in the park. For all the suspicion of sabotage that had been leveled at the dead man by Tuszka, the Communist board of inquiry, acting intelligently and humanely, arrives at the truth. I will not disclose the particulars about the damaged signal, for this revelation involves a visual moment that’s a surprise and a cheat—a glorious cheat! In one of the flashbacks, we observe something that the witness to whose testimony the flashback corresponds could not and did not; and what we observe exonerates Orzechowski of any charge of sabotage against fellow Polish workers and fellow Polish citizens. Luckily, the head of the board of inquiry, without benefit of what Munk shows us, is able to figure out what happened. Orzechowski was on the tracks on that fateful night to attempt to correct the problem of the missing signal that would have properly halted the train, averting disaster. He dies in the attempt, for it is he, ultimately, who halts the train at the forfeit of his life. Orzechowski was a Pole and a working-class hero; how can we not have seen that? Thus Munk strikes down the equation (embodied by Tuszka) of Communism and the righteous element of the working class. Munk stresses instead Polish identity under the political skin. The humanity of this resolution is overwhelming.
The boldness of the film is a little jaw-dropping. While in the United States, in its grip, McCarthyism generated films either in support of it or, otherwise, so riddled with allegory and indirection that audiences had to ferret out subterranean gleams of dissent, at the same time Communist Poland kept the green light glowing for this bluntly, highly critical film of a deleterious atmosphere of suspicion amongst Polish workers. Man on the Tracks assails Polish McCarthyism, where the bedeviling accusation is not that one is a Communist but that one is not. The wisdom of the board of inquiry doubtless smoothed the edge of the film’s scalpel, rendering the film more acceptable to Polish authorities. And no one doubts that the film couldn’t have been made had Stalin been alive in the Soviet Union. Still, the jaw drops.
The acting in this film is competent except for the lead. Kazimierz Opalinski is superb as Orzechowski.
The excellent script is by Munk and Jerzy Stefan Stawinski, whose story the pair adapted. Their next collaboration would be Eroica (Heroism), a biting, sardonic satire about Polish wartime heroism.
With Munk about, shooting film, the shibboleths do not stand.
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