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Travelling on a luxury ocean liner with her husband, Liza (Aleksandra Slaska) is disturbed
by the sight of a young woman passenger. When asked by her husband, she says that the woman
bears a striking resemblance to Marta (Anna Ciepelewska), a woman prisoner she tried and
failed to save while she was a guard at Auschwitz. Later, as the voyage progresses, it
becomes clear that this account very much shows Liza in a good light, as she remembers
the events as they really happened.
Andrzej Munk was a leading Polish director of the 1950s, best known for Man On The Tracks (1956), and Eroica (1957). Passenger (aka: Pasazerka) - not to be confused with Michaelangelo Antonioni's 1975 film The Passenger - was based on a TV play broadcast live in 1960, and unfortunately not preserved. Munk died in a car accident on 20 September 1961 leaving Passenger unfinished: he had filmed all the flashbacks to Auschwitz (shot at the camp itself) and had begun work on the shipboard scenes. Witold Liesiwicz assembled the incomplete film, using still photographs and a voiceover narration to fill the gaps. This device, though no doubt a product of necessity rather than intention, gives the film a striking similarity to Chris Marker's classic SF short La jetée, itself a study in time, memory and their distortions.
The film centres on the relationship between guard and prisoner, both characters treated with much more complexity than simple black and white. Liza regards herself as a good soldier in wartime, and capable of compassion towards the prisoners that she has power of life and death over. It's possible to read this as a lesbian infatuation, but the film is more complex than that, with an ending that leaves it open to us to decide the nature and extent of Liza's guilt.
Passenger was filmed in black and white Dyaliscope but, unfortunately for this DVD release, Second Run were not able to find a master copy in the correct aspect ratio, in the original language and without burned-in subtitles. The DVD is anamorphically enhanced, but is cropped to 1.66:1. This is a pity, because although the stills are mostly in 4:3, Munk does make use of the full width of the frame for the live-action sequences. (By comparison, the US VHS release from Hen's Teeth Video, is in the correct ratio of 2.35:1, but is a version with an English-language narration and voiceover, though the dialogue in the flashback sequences is in the original Polish with English subtitles.) The soundtrack is the original mono.
The DVD contains a 45-minute documentary, The Last Pictures, made for Polish TV in 2000 by Andrzej Brzozowski, Munk's assistant director on the film, featuring interviews with Andrzej Wajda and Roman Polanski. Also included is a booklet containing essays on the film by Stuart Klawans and Ewa Mazierska.