Andrei Șendrea

Since the invention of cinema, trains have featured heavily in the “moving” pictures, be they documentaries (Arrival of a Train at La Ciotat by the Brothers Lumière) or fiction (The Great Train Robbery by Edwin S. Porter). Cinema’s fascination with trains can be traced to both being staple traits of modernity, to the intrinsic and extrinsic “moving” nature of both[1], or to the fact that both have the ability to “take you places”.  One need only look at the masterpieces to get a sense that train really is, as one writer puts it, “the greatest dramatis persona in screen history[2]”: The General, Night Mail, Closely Watched Trains, Trans-Europ-Express or some of Alfred Hitchcock’s films. Drawing closer to the present time, and to the Balkans, trains are heavily featured in two of Theo Angeopoulos films, Landscape in the Mist and Ulysses’ Gaze, in Kusturica’s Life is a miracle and in Radu Mihăileanu’s Train of life.

In the films of Romanian director Lucian Pintilie train imagery is very much present. In some cases a train just passes by, its short presence inside the frame used as a reality enhancement device expanding the story beyond the edges of the screen: the train is coming from somewhere and is going somewhere, and that somewhere makes the characters and their story part of a bigger world. In most cases though, Pintilie uses trains for a variety of functions ranging from shot composition and rhythm construction, to storytelling device and as a mirror for more metaphysical journeys. Trains also come in handy in more elaborate constructions that reference cinema tropes or genres. On a more general level, pertaining to Pintilie’s entire body of work, a train also acts as the signature – one of many in fact – of an auteur. This text proposes a journey through the oeuvre of Lucian Pintilie, following these train tracks throughout his entire work. As with train stops, some are more important and will be dealt with in more detail.

The departure point is Pintilie’s first feature film, Sunday at Six, made in 1966. The title is in fact the departure time of a train leaving the Romanian capital of Bucharest for the Black Sea port of Constanța, in this interwar tale of communist heroism. On the surface, the film is a straight-forward narrative in the style of socialist realism. Radu, the main character, is a young party member involved in the struggle for a better world[3], an archetypal “good-guy”, a soft-spoken worker with an angel face and good manners. He falls in love with Anca, an upper-middle class architecture student, and later finds out that she is also a member of the movement. Pintile uses this politically correct story to deliver a stunningly beautiful formal exercise in modern filmmaking, in which the influences of the French New Wave and Antonioni are preeminent.

The film opens with a hazy image, the main character sitting behind a dirty window. It is, in fact, the window of the train the title of the film reffers to. With him is a slightly older woman, his party superior we find out later. The train is used here as a sort of world inside the world. On the more formal level, it gives Pintilie the chance to play with a modernist device: we see them talking, we understand that important information is delivered, but the director denies the audience the right to hear this conversation. Once the camera moves inside the train – the dirty window no longer in the way – we hear only bits of conversation that don’t make sense: there is talk of another woman and a feeling that the couple is waiting for her to come to the train station.

On the other side of the window, we see a lively scene that has a deliberate documentary quality to it: the platform is packed with young people laughing and enjoying themselves, most likely nonprofessional actors (it also seems that most of them are unaware that they are being filmed). There is an evident separation  between the visual structures of these two worlds, the train serving as a barrier between contrasting moods and themes: individual vs. community, sense of duty vs. carefree living, fiction vs. documentary. This last opposition can take us even a bit further into the realm of political commentary: staged propaganda vs. real life.

This opening scene, the main character’s formal isolation in the train wagon, is actually part of the film’s ending. Pintilie uses this static shot to mark the start of a flashback device. Physically the train is not going anywhere, it is in fact the beginning of a journey back in time, into the memory of events that have led up to this point: the main character’s subversive activity, the romantic entanglement and its tragic ending. The narrative will swing back and forth between the present and the past, and this kind of shots – the character waiting for the train to leave – will serve as punctuation for the fragmented flashback.

The past and present are linked through a repetitive shot of a descending building elevator, and other shots related to that elevator. The result at the end of that elevator journey – the dead body of his lover lying on the ground floor – is something we only find out about in the last instance of this repetitive shot. This is neither past nor present; it is pure memory time, a kind of limbo, a permanent purgatory, a somewhat Freudian device both in terms of formal construction and conceptual representation. The elevator is a memory that the character cannot escape, a moment that keeps playing inside his mind, as he is refusing the ending and wishing – willing it – to be different. The vertical movement of the elevator opposes the horizontal stasis of the train – the physical immobility and the mental descent into memory –, but the two machines are quite similar. It is an open elevator with a view of the inner court of an apartment building. The fleeting images flow in the same manner as they would if you would be in the train: fast, fragmented, confusing and implacable (the vehicle is on a track, once you’re on it, you can only go in one direction).

With his next film, The Reenactment (1968), Pintilie takes a direct stab at the oppressive nature of the regime, a clash that will result in an interdiction to make film in communist Romania. The film tells the story of two friends who are made to reenact a drunken brawl for educative purposes. As tension mounts between the teens and the adults – the filming crew and the state officials – the reenactment gets more and more real. At one point in the film they find out that the camera has been rolling with no film and one of the boys gets so enraged that he starts beating the cameraman. This scene takes place on a railroad track. As the others struggle to take the boy of the cameraman, somebody shouts “the train is coming!”. It’s a fake alarm and Pintilie shoots the whole scene so we only see the train is on the other rail track when it hurdles past them at great speed.

Here, the train serves as an element of classic storytelling and suspense building, a physical danger that is adverted at the last moment, causing both a climax to the fight and it’s end. But there is more to this than meets the eye. In the end one of the boys is fatally wounded. We see him staggering past a crowd of football fans walking in single file in the other direction. They all think he’s drunk and the boy is repeatedly scolded by all the passers-by. There is something in this procession that matches the train episode mentioned above: oblivious to the unfolding drama, the thoughtless mass of people is marching in the other direction[4]. This effect is further enhanced by Pintilie’s use of non-professional actors. Either follow the track set for you by an oppressive establishment or be annihilated: the crowd is as unimpressed with his drama as the train.

There is another type of train imagery worth mentioning here. These trains do not show up in the The Reenactment, and the film would have probably looked the same with or without them. But their impact on everyone involved must have been tremendous. The shooting started on 23 august 1968, just two days after the Soviet led Warsaw Pact troops invaded Czechoslovakia. Romania did not participate, and Nicolae Ceaușescu virulently criticised the invasion in a huge public rally. A move many believed would lead to war. Vladimir Găitan, who played one of the two main characters, remembers:

Trains filled with soldiers were coming from all over the country, passing on the railway tracks where our film takes place. I saw them at the windows, crying (…) These soldiers were going towards the border to fight the Russians (…) We even talked about how we were going to fight as partisans, the mountains were right behind us (…) I am sure this had a huge psychological impact, if not of any other kind, on what we where doing there.[5]

The next stop of this journey is The Oak (1992), Pintilie’s first film after the fall of communism but set in the ’80. The story follows Nela, a young psychology graduate who is assigned a teaching position in a remote industrial town. In the published script of the film, Pintilie describes her as “high class prostitute, dissident and party official daughter”. She knows how men work and how the power system works and what buttons to push. Since communism in Romania was a profoundly patriarchal society, most of the times these buttons are related to sexual persuasion. Nela uses her charms to get her way, and sometimes just for the sheer pleasure of messing with people’s heads, but she never delivers. She is chaste and shows a complete lack of authentic sexual interest.

A big part of the film is set on the train carrying her from the capital to the town in the middle of nowhere. Pintilie is a highly self-referential artist and this is one function of the train: her departure is scheduled for “sunday at six”. The director makes the connection obvious by inserting a close-up of the clock on the platform. Most importantly, the train serves as a motif and a visual context for the “heroine’s journey”, and this journey is three fold (not counting the actual physical journey).

First, it is a journey of social commentary. As the trains gets further away from Bucharest, this young intellectual and moral person is used as a contrast for a world that seems out of joint: mean, stupid, jealous and brutal. Some times this world is shown and some times we just hear the awful urban legends or sordid personal histories told by the other passengers.

Second, the journey has a surreal quality to it: there is a feeling that this train is carrying her to a far more different world than just another part of the same country. The train leaves Bucharest under a heavy rain and at one point the track is flooded and the passengers have to walk to the other side and wait for another train to pick them up. Pintilie uses every trick in the book to give this crossing a nightmarish quality: vast moonlit flooded fields in which people are walking in single file, arms wide spread and holding luggage. “They look like a bunch of madmen or clowns”, writes Pintilie. Nela, who is afraid of water, charms one of the conductors to carry her over the flooded part of the tracks. The would be Charon passing the Styx slips on the tracks and they both go tumbling in. It’s a rite of passage of sorts and, as we will see, the first of many more to come. In the script Pintilie describes the scene as the first of a series of infernos that will engulf the heroine.

Third, the train trip is the backdrop for a journey of sexual encounters and (self)discovery in the process. The main character leaves her boyfriend crying in the station back in Bucharest, is felt up by a passenger but brushes of the experience with a laugh and a slap in the face, and befriends a like-minded priest who might be a good match, but it turns out he is married. Only a few hours after stepping out of the train, she is beaten and almost raped by a gang of hooligans. She is narrowly saved by a young doctor who will eventually become her first and only lover.

The train is also the first and most visible means of transportation for the many journeys to come: the heroine gets a police car ride to the hospital, goes camping with the her doctor/lover, runs over the fields while being shelled by artillery fire, flies with an army helicopter, is taken for a motorbike ride by a drunken priest and hitches a ride with a secret police car, along with her doctor friend and the dead body of one of his patients. This very literal and didactic approach to the road-movie genre – and with Pintilie, you can be sure there is also some postmodernist irony involved, deconstructing the genre into “ways of moving from place to place” – ends with a hijacked bus full of children going up in flames after being shot at by the Securitate (secret police).

In Last Stop Paradise (1998), Pintilie adds a new gadget to his road-movie paraphernalia: a tank. The film’s hero – Mitu, an outgrown adolescent now serving mandatory military time – runs away from base to check up on Norica, his sweetheart, who has been cheating on him. And he does it in great style: he steals a tank and runs over her new boyfriend’s road-side restaurant. In a way, all of Pintilie’s films contain road-movie elements, apart from the obvious ones of course (trains and roads and unknown places), but Last Stop Paradise is as close as he gets to the genre. After the tank incident, Mitu is sent to military prison. He escapes again, unintentionally killing a guard, kidnaps Norica and embarks on a dead-end journey that draws strong similarities to such classics as Bonnie and Clyde or Thelma & Louise.  After the kidnapping, most of the action takes place on trains, and not just any trains, but those freight trains that drifters use, a standard trope of road-movies. To make it even more clear, Pintilie has his lead man play the harmonica.

Paradise turns out to be an actual train stop. An idyllic place by the sea, where the tracks stop and society can’t catch them. Here, the two reconnect. There is of course another side to this, the film’s original title, Terminus Paradis, is much more revealing. The secret police finally tracks down and kills the deserter. The last shot we see of him is one in which his blood drips on the rusty train tracks. As in The Reenactment, in the collision between man and society, man loses. Society is a one way track. Following this shot, Pintilie cuts to another train, one which brings Norica and their son to that last station where they found love.

On a conceptual level, Last Stop Paradise is an atypical road-movie, one where you see “train tracks” everywhere. A road – a man made path through nature – is freedom and discovery, you can always turn around or go sideways into the countryside. Train tracks suggest a path has already been chosen. Of course, for the audience, this is not evident. But Mitu knows, and this is his tragedy. He knows he is the kind of man that can only go his way. He is on a track also, ever since Norica chose the other man over him. His choices are still his, only he made them long ago. Unlike Norica, he has no illusions about how the journey will turn out. Sooner or later, the tracks end or something blocks the way. Always playing with genre tropes and references, Pintilie chose the latter version, a spin-off of western imagery: the train robbery (figure 4.6).

In Too Late (1996), the director uses the train imagery to tackle another genre, the horror. On a whole, the film is a thriller. As the film progresses, the explanations for the weird things going on tend to get more real, more human, and the horror gives way to social commentary about a system that turns its citizens into monsters. The film’s narrative follows a young prosecutor sent from the capital to investigate violent and mysterious deaths in a mining town. Pintilie weaves an intricate introduction structure, meant to confuse us and enhance the horror feeling. There are, in fact, four successive introductions, in the sense of establishing shots, each delivering a piece of information but at the same time making things even more complicated.

First introduction: Ominous but restrained cello music, fade in from the black screen of the opening credits to a medium shot of  a young woman playing the cello – it could also be a slender man, we can’t tell because the long hair is obscuring the face. Cut to a medium shot of a young man descending on an escalator. As we go further down (the cello music still playing), we notice the same cellist on the left side of the screen and on the right, what else, tracks. We don’t see them, but we see the people standing on the subway platform. A title card informs us we are somewhere in Germany just before a woman voice can be heard over the speakers, talking about delayed trains. In the last shot of this scene we can see the man going through his luggage: empty bottles of beer, old “hospital” pajamas and, finally, a few dynamite sticks.

Second introduction: A mining gallery, the title card reads “Romania, a few months earlier”. A naked man is shoveling waste on a conveyor belt. The setting is perfect for horror: as the miners stand down to eat, an insanely eerie laughter echoes through the galleries. The men stare frightfully into the abyss of the tunnel (rail tracks running through the middle of it), clutching their tools, waiting for some demonic encounter. As one of them raises his pickaxe, the foreboding cello is heard again.

Third introduction: The tension of the previous scene erupts violently: the raised hand holding the pickaxe falls down, but now it holds a violin bow. The music from the previous scene segues to a chamber concert. We recognize the young woman cellist with long, thin, black hair, along with three young boys, all playing the violin. The piece they are playing is different from the cello solo from the first scene. It’s more intense and dark, precipitated, feels like somebody is running away from something. This scene is quite short, and quite puzzling, because it doesn’t have an internal narrative like the first two.

The music leads us into the fourth and final introduction: from the concert we cut abruptly to an image of a dark and menacing train tunnel. Here the camera “is” the train, rolling over the tracks, going through tunnels. Plot-wise, this is the train taking the protagonist from Bucharest to the mining town. The four members of the music group are also on the train, going in the same place, but this we only find out later. For the moment, Pintilie wants to squeeze every bit of apprehension from this scene, and cuts – from the train POV – to a silhouette of the woman playing the cello on the corridor. This image has no relation to the narrative, it’s just the director indulging himself in composing a really bone chilling audio-visual piece. The young cellist turns out to be a side character, a false lead at best. She doesn’t influence the story, and nothing gruesome happens to her, Pintilie is just exercising his technique at horror imagery (when I saw it, my first thought was the horror cult classic The Ring). The train also contributes to the aggressive soundtrack, its whistling consonant with the cello. As the train escapes the endless tunnels and reaches its destination, the music slows down, becomes more elaborate and less visceral. The end shot of this long introduction is the train approaching the camera menacingly. It is a good opportunity for Pintilie to sign his work: with his name and with the presence of one of his favorite motifs.

In The Afternoon of a Torturer (2001), Pintilie uses the train journey as a framing device, a sort of “once upon a time”. The film is build symmetrically, with a prologue and an epilogue, both provided by a moving train. The narrative excuse for the two train journeys is this: an old professor, (accompanied by a young journalist), is visiting another old man, the one who tortured him in prison during the political repressions of the fifties. As with other instances, it could be argued that this is just Pintilie playing with form, with cinematic language, and of course it’s true: the segments are about the same length and you could almost sense the pleasure and reward of complicated shots that would go unnoticed by the average moviegoer. The prologue scene especially is very interesting.

The film starts with a voice-over, an old man talking philosophy, then we fade in to see a young priest inside a train, smoking. There is something quite devilish in his eye as he bends over to pass his cigarette. Following his extended hand, the camera moves to reveal a young Gipsy girl taking the cigarette. And it keeps moving, a very long and very precise tracking shot, going in the opposite direction of the moving train. Like in The Oak, and Sunday at Six, Pintilie uses the train as means to explore human faces, people going about their daily business, most of them old and pauper, the sort of lumpen proletariat you can see in The Oak, only without the proletariat (this is post-communism, the industrial towns are all decrepit), and lacking their vital energy. The camera only stops after almost a minute and settles on the professor, and we realize he was the one talking philosophy all along. After a brief stay, we cut to the priest again, and again the camera tracks back to the two characters.

When we reach the characters the second time, the professor launches into his personal theory of quantum divinity. He uses the dirty train window as a drawing board: two opposing triangles, the material world and the metaphysical, their meeting point is the ultimate building block of the universe, the quark (both mass and energy). Now, for anyone who isn’t familiar with the work of Pintilie, the irony may be too subtle. They might believe the director actually thinks there is some great value in the professor’s theory, and in the kind of cinema that let’s its characters talk endlessly and give speeches about the grand things in life. Actually it is quite a dull demonstration, and the professor turns out to be a boring old fart (though this may also be absconded by his tragic past as political prisoner). Pintilie uses the repetitive tracking shot to distract the viewer from the boring speech. Then why use the speech in the first place? Firstly, because it helps to shape the character. Secondly, to deliver a punchline. The whole speech can be seen as a joke. While stating his final thesis, that the upside down triangle is heaven, and in its center lies God, the train slowly comes to a halt and the camera changes focus and we can now see beyond the dirty window. In the center of heaven lies a harmless old man holding flowers, the torturer awaiting his former victim; the Devil takes the place of God. The frame freezes, and we cut to a shot of all three greeting each other and engaging in small talk.

The film ends identically, only now the train goes in the other direction. The camera is again inside the train, watching the three characters through the dirty glass, the triangles still there. As the visitors climb aboard, the torturer is left to sit alone in the center of “heaven”, just as before. And, just as before, the image freezes, and another voice-over starts, this time it’s the executioner talking about his first crime. And, just as before, we realize the voice-over is in fact diegetic, as we see the young journalist listening to the recorded conversation. Then past and present start to mix again, the torturer, now a boy is riding the train with his aunt. His father told him to take her far away, so that she never comes back. The field the journalist sees through the train window becomes the field where the torturer leaves the aunt, threatening to beat her dead if she comes back. We are exiting the past, leaving the story; the train going back the same route is the epilogue, the “unhappily ever after”.

But Pintilie also works with ideas, not just form. The two triangles look like an hourglass. If you put an hourglass on the side you have infinity. There is no up and down, heaven and hell, past and present, it’s just a matter of perspective. The moral of this story is that there seems to be no moral, no redemption, no ascension. As the train goes back and forth on the same track, so too does the human mind travel, from past to present: the torturer’s memory so alive with guilt and regret that the people of the past play in the yard before his very eyes. There is a strong sense that happiness can only be attained through senility (forgiveness coming from forgetfulness), and this seems to be the case of the professor: he leaves the meeting unscathed, his ridiculous optimism untouched. Tragedy is individual, there are no lessons to be learned from history, nobody can share in the guilty man’s horror, not even the victim seems to care anymore.

When looking at the entire body of work of an artist it is very important where you begin your journey. Usually, the critic will analyze the work on a chronological basis, trying to trace back the changes in style and themes to biographical elements. Imagine a subway map where the stops are the films, it is important if you start from one end or the other, or somewhere in between. It is equally important where you go from each station/ film. You can go back or forward or you can skip certain stops. The accumulation of details – or montage, to keep on this side of the metaphor – can be very different and can point you in one direction or another.

My journey through Pintilie’s oeuvre started quite randomly with Carnival Scenes (1981), his fourth film and the last one he made before the fall of the communist regime. The film grew to legendary proportions because it was shelved by the censorship even before the final editing was completed, and Pintilie was – for the second time – forbidden to make films in Romania.

Before seeing this film, though I had seen a few of his works, I wasn’t even aware that there was a map. Of course there is always a map, with some authors it’s just more visible than with others. But because my initiation was Carnival Scenes, I became aware – as I saw new films and revisited the ones I had seen already – that Pintilie had drawn his own map, one in which his work couldn’t be separated from his professional life and his clashes with the regime. His creativity worked in such a way that all his films ultimately went back to the same concepts, obsession, motifs, cinematic building blocks and ultimately, his own life story. And this map started here.

I don’t mean to say there is a grand design to be found here, that the dirty windows of his trains can be traced back to some psycho-analyzable event in his childhood, a model train or some other “rosebud”. But the train is a part of his persona as an author and auteur, one of his trademarks. And he is the kind of author that will always take the opportunity to reference his other work, when given the chance. For this reason, I will conclude the paper with a different set of rail tracks from the ending of Carnival Scenes. Here, one can see not only the author’s signature, but the man himself, doing the signing. Much like Afternoon of a Torturer, this film too has a framing device, one in which the trains are missing but the tracks are present. The tracks are in fact those used by the crew for the camera dolly, and the framing device takes the form of breaking the fourth wall (we also see lighting crew, boom operators, etc.).

Although the audience has seen this happen in the beginning of the film (figure 7.1), the intensity of the drama is high enough to make it forget the trick until it’s used again in the end. As the camera moves away from the subject of the shot – a horse drawn carriage carrying the characters of the story – we can hear Pintilie giving orders to the crew: “get some more smoke on the left side!”.

Even so, nothing could have prepared the spectator for the last shot of the film: a “confused” Pintilie entering the frame, his megaphone in hand, looking at the camera, as if he were just a passerby that happened to wander on set (the dolly tracks can be seen on his right).

After a brief moment, he starts trailing the characters and giving orders again as a director should: “the carriage, move a little faster!”. This is more than a clever play with the devices of postmodernism. There is this strange feeling – enhanced by the smoke, the sad operatic music, and the actual diegesis of the film – that he has become part of the story, a character in his own film, his life as important a stop in the map of his work, as any other film. Looking at Pintilie lost in the mist, the dolly rails besides him, I remember all the trains running through his films and all the elaborate tracking shots. And I feel Godard might be right after all, when style and content are one, “a tracking shot is a matter of morality”.

*This is a revised version of a paper that was written for and presented at the Roads and Crossroads in

[1]    Think of  the moving rolls of film inside the camera/ projector, and the rhythmic sound of the wheels turning.

[2]    Cinema Would Be Nothing Without Trains, by Phil de Semlyen –

[3]    The Romanian Communist Party was banned for most of the interwar period, a lot of the leaders being sent to prison. After the war, when the communists came to power, the state propaganda began building a romanticized account of the Party’s exploits during this period.

[4]    The way the masses are portrayed in the film was among the main critiques, voiced by Nicolae Ceaușescu himself. The film was given a limited release in 1971, but it was quickly exiled to rural and small cinemas, and Pintilie – who by then had become a legend – was banned from making films in Romania. In 1972, following his staging of Gogol’s The Government Inspector, Pintilie got a second interdiction: no more theater also. Following his theater ban, Pintilie will go into self imposed exile in France.

[5]    Vladimir Găitan, in a TV interview for “Ca-n Filme”, aired on September 2, 2018 – – starting from minute 6.