'Schindler's List'? Here's an Even Better Watch for Holocaust Remembrance Day

Polish movie 'Passenger' (1963) was one of the first films to deal with the Holocaust, with a plot revolving around a charged meeting between a former Auschwitz inmate and her prison guard.

A still from "Passenger" (1963)
Film Polski, The Kobal Collection

I’ve told this story before, but it’s worth retelling. In 1999, British author-screenwriter Frederic Raphael’s book “Eyes Wide Open” was published. In it, he described his work with Stanley Kubrick, who was then making what would turn out to be his final movie, “Eyes Wide Shut.” Raphael barely met Kubrick during the course of their collaboration, which took place mostly over the phone. Kubrick would phone Raphael at all hours of the day.

He woke Raphael one night and, as usual, without identifying himself or referring to their joint enterprise, asked, “Frederic, have there been films made about the Holocaust?” Raphael, still drowsy, said that of course there were. “Which ones?” asked Kubrick. “Passenger” was the first that came to Raphael’s mind. “That’s not a movie about the Holocaust,” answered the irascible auteur, confusing Polish director Andrzej Munk’s 1963 movie “Passenger” (which Raphael meant) with Italian director Michelangelo Antonioni’s 1975 movie “The Passenger.”

After Raphael sorted out the confusion, Kubrick asked, “What else?” “Schindler’s List,” replied Raphael. “Six million people died in the Holocaust. ‘Schindler’s List’ is about 600 who were saved. It’s not a movie about the Holocaust,” replied Kubrick, before hanging up.

I don’t intend to deal with the fine distinction Kubrick made in relation to Steven Spielberg’s 1993 movie, which shattered the barrier that had previously prevented the subject being addressed in popular movies. I want instead to discuss the movie that confused Kubrick. Munk’s film, which should more accurately be called “The Female Passenger,” wasn’t the first full-length film to deal with the memory of the Holocaust.

Before it came 1960’s “Kapò,” by Italian director Gillo Pontecorvo (who went on to make “The Battle of Algiers”), which was slammed for its melodramatic nature. Still, his movie is more interesting than was claimed upon its initial release.

Munk was one of the first graduates of the National Film School in Lodz – one of the first signs of the new wave of Polish films in the 1950s. Munk’s film is a totally different movie than Pontecorvo’s. Part of its uniqueness stems from the fact that Munk was killed in a road accident during production in 1961. The movie was completed, while referencing this fact, by another director, Witold Lesiewicz. The resultant movie, therefore, reflects two parallel memories: one of the Holocaust, a memory Munk wished to preserve in his film; and the other a tribute to Munk himself.

Munk’s screenplay was based on a novel by Zofia Posmysz and tells the story of Liza (Aleksandra Slaska), a German woman returning to Poland for the first time since the war. On the boat going there, she recognizes a woman called Marta (Anna Ciepielewska), who was an inmate under her harsh supervision at Auschwitz. Their meeting evokes a series of flashbacks (filmed in Auschwitz-Birkenau Concentration Camp), through which Liza attempts to find some justification for her past actions. This proves futile and her dark secrets as a prison guard, which she has tried to repress, are revealed.

Due to Munk’s sudden death, the scenes he didn’t get to shoot – which take place in the movie’s present – are presented as stills. This gives the movie a unique style that was not originally intended: It confronts the “frozen” present with the “live” past, as recreated in Auschwitz, which mitigates the movie’s melodramatic dimensions. It was released in Poland in 1963, going on to be shown at the following year’s Cannes Film Festival. The movie became a significant part of the discourse concerning films and Holocaust commemoration.

While discussing Eastern European films that deal with the Holocaust, one should mention a more neglected one – but a film just as impressive as Munk’s. This is “Diamonds of the Night” (1964), by Czech director Jan Nemec. The movie was part of the Czech new wave in the 1960s, which included directors such as Milos Forman, Jirí Menzel and Ivan Passer. “Diamonds of the Night” was Nemec’s first full-length feature; he died in March at 79. His style in the film was a harsh and realistic one that also incorporated lyrical elements, including the hardships encountered by two Jewish youths in their attempts to survive after fleeing from a train taking them from one death camp to another.

It’s regrettable that Israeli television doesn’t present important and worthy films such as these to the public, instead of screening the same films over and over again on Holocaust Remembrance Day.