Wednesday, March 11, 2009

NFB Film of the Week: Paul Tomkowicz: Street-railway Switchman

Digging through these National Film Board archives, I find myself constantly discovering these films that might appear bland on the surface, but which reveal surprising reservoirs of emotion. Take Roman Kroitor’s Paul Tomkowicz: Street-railway Switchman as an example. It seems like a rote piece of nationalist filmmaking: part of the “Faces of Canada” series, it focuses on the titular character, a hard-working Polish immigrant who works as a switchman in Winnipeg. Set in the middle of a rather chilly looking winter’s night, the 64-year-old Tomkowicz sweeps the snow from the streetcar tracks and provides a dry narration that recounts bits of his past and mundane details of his present routine. But the film’s winter imagery—of whitened streets beneath the black night, lights surrounded by a halo of snow—evokes the beautiful quietude of walking a Canadian city in the depths of a cold night, that sweet melancholy state before the frostbite kicks in.

This brief character study unsurprisingly takes on the same desolate qualities as its setting. Observing that he can safely walk Winnipeg’s streets at any hour of the night, Tomkowicz explains in a clipped, restrained voiceover, “My sister wrote me in my village in Poland the soldiers came in one night and murdered 29 people—my brother, my brother’s wife.” It’s a shocking detail, but even more startling is how detached the man is as he describes the death of his own relatives. “Why they do that?” he asks. “I don’t know.” As he speaks, the tone in his voice sounds no different than when he later contemplates smoking his pipe and reading the paper on his day off.

The rest of the voiceover is delivered in a similarly dispassionate tone. This can at least be partially contributed to the fact that Tomkowicz is no professional actor, and like most non-professionals, he becomes self-consciously inexpressive and controlled when being recorded. Not that this is a deficiency in the film—if a director like Robert Bresson could wring potent emotions out of the non-emotive amateurs in his films, then why not this film?

In fact, Tomkowicz’s lack of emotion as he describes his life is what gives the film its surprising emotional impact. The voiceover has the quality of an internal monologue—it skips around seemingly at random, jumping from quotidian musings about what he will do on his day off to thoughts of mortality as if the two were interchangeable notions, each of no greater significance than the other. Tomkowicz mentions that the streetcars will be replaced by trolley buses, effectively making the switchman obsolete. He sounds unperturbed by this turn of events, noting that he will be retired before the trolleys drive him out of a job. But his thoughts continue on this declining track and he considers the possibility that at 64 he might not have many years left: “Maybe another couple of years—finished. I don’t know.”

Of course, even after making this observation, Tomkowicz goes on to sketch out things he can do when retired, so if it sounds like I’m obsessing over the man’s death, at least take comfort in the fact that he doesn’t seem particularly bothered by the prospect of that last streetcar ride into oblivion. His mortal thoughts come and go as casually as those passengers whose faces occasionally light up the film with the promise of a bustling, dynamic world somewhere far away (and warm too, I’ll bet)—somewhere outside of the serene, lonely world of Paul Tomkowicz.

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