Technically, this film is unfinished. Director Andrzej Munk was killed in a car crash about halfway through filming, and his colleagues and friends Witold Lesiewicz and Andrzej Brzozowski did what they could to release it – using still photos and narration to fill in the spots Munk hadn’t shot yet. But this piecemeal approach struck me in an unexpected way.
We open on a cruise ship, where Liza (Alexandra Śląska), a German expat living in South America, was enjoying a cruise with her husband Walter (Jan Kreczmar) ; it’s the first time since the end of the Second World War she’s been in Germany, and she’s eager to see old friends. But the ship’s first stop is in England – where they take on another passenger, a well-dressed woman (Anna Ciepielewska) Liza recognizes with a start. Walter asks why she seems so upset, and Liza confesses that during the war, she’d been in the Nazi Party and had overseen a warehouse in one of the concentration camps. And the well-dressed woman was very likely Marta, one of her former inmates.
The story Liza tells Walter is almost benign; Liza didn’t have anything to do with the prisoners, only their confiscated property, and she tried to give several prisoners jobs in her warehouse to save their lives. Why, when she found out Marta’s fiancé was also in the camp, she got him a job so they could see each other, and when Marta was ill, Liza pulled strings to have her kept in the dorms instead of to the unhygienic hospital barracks. But a bit later, after having seen Marta on board a few more times, Liza reflects on what really happened, and how her behavior towards Marta wasn’t quite so noble.
So there are some obvious production warts, and the editor was at a disadvantage. Only about half the film had been shot at the time of Munk’s death, and some of those shots may have also been unpolished. Some of the shipboard scenes Munk had planned hadn’t even been filmed, so Lesiewicz and Brzozowski had to round up some extras and stage some photos to stand in for “what this scene probably would have looked like,” while a narrator apologetically shared what Munk had planned for the scene. But by some fluke – the scenes which had been shot were all the scenes in the camp. So the only scenes we get with real, “moving” people….are all the scenes from Liza’s memories of the camp. It may have been an accident of fate, but it made me feel that for Liza, her past had suddenly come rocketing up to confront her and her years in the camp and her encounter with Marta were all she could think about. Forget the buffet table or shuffleboard court; she was too busy replaying her memories and examining “did I really do right by Marta?”
And, I mean, of course she didn’t; Marta was a political prisoner in Auschwitz and Liza was one of the officers. Liza’s own recollections of what “really happened” were also quite a bit crueller. But this film and the way it was staged suggested that even for the people who tried to claim that “I was just following orders” or “I was trying to help where I could”, their memories of the camps were still looming large in their minds, and may be torturing them a little.