Man on the Tracks (Andrzej Munk, 1957, Poland)

While Man on the Tracks is somewhat lacking in comparison to Andrzej Munk’s later films such as Eroica, the director’s first narrative feature is still a compelling critique of the Stalin era. Munk arrived to feature films with a background in documentary shorts, and his debut feature exhibits a naturalism characteristic of documentaries. He undoubtedly drew here on his documentary short A Railwayman’s Word (1953), a social realist portrayal of rail workers attempting to delivering supplies on time. 

With its emphasis on the nature of hard physical labor, Man on the Tracks has echoes of the socialist realist style. However, in socialist realism films, the old railway worker who features in this film would be cast as the enemy. Here he is given a sympathetic treatment, as Munk delves into an exploration of the old, pre-communist generation versus the new generation. Munk was a member of the Communist Party in Poland, but ultimately expelled. He undoubtedly had insights into the inner workings of the party, and it shows in this film. The old generation, represented by the railway worker Orzechowski, is resistant to the Stalinist mentality, with its emphasis on cutting corners in order to get the job done. 

Munk and his co-screenwriter Jerzy Stefan Stawinski adopt a narrative structure that is dependent on the various flashbacks of people who knew Orzechowski. This is clearly a stylistic nod to films like Citizen Kane and Rashomon. Jerzy Wojcik’s stylistic chiaroscuro cinematography is striking. Overall, Man on the Tracks represents an intermediate period in Polish cinema, between the earlier socialist realist movement and the Polish film school that would rise to prominence during the thaw under Kruschev. As such, the symbology of the film is rather heavy-handed, but it shows directors like Munk were moving toward more personal and psychological narratives that would come to be embodied in films like Wajda’s Ashes and Diamonds.

7/10 

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