The Danish director Bille August’s “Night Train to Lisbon,” a German-Swiss-Portuguese co-production with a stellar European cast, will have its world premiere out of competition at this year’s Berlinale (February 7-17). The philosophical drama-cum-thriller stars Jeremy Irons and features Tom Courtenay, August Diehl, Bruno Ganz, Martina Gedeck, Jack Huston, Mélanie Laurent, Christopher Lee, Lena Olin, and Charlotte Rampling (who replaced Vanessa Redgrave).
The film was adapted by Greg Latter and Ulrich Herrmann from the ruminative, labyrinthine 2004 novel by Pascal Mercier (the pseudonym for Peter Bieri, the Swiss professor of analytic philosophy). The book is widely considered one of the last decade’s most intellectually satisfying works of European fiction.
Irons plays the aging Classics teacher Raimund Gregorius (Swiss in the novel, English in the movie), who is as dedicated as he is erudite, but lives a boring, lonely, spiritually empty life – words have become more important to him than people. (A “prissy” fellow teacher is called Virginie Ledoyen, either a bizarre nod to the beautiful French star or a coincidence.)
After rescuing a woman from jumping off a bridge to her death, Gregorius is prompted by the melodic way she pronounces “Português” when naming her mother tongue to visit a Spanish bookstore. There he chances on the volume “A Goldsmith of Words” by the Lisbon doctor Amadeu de Prado. The book’s cogent meditations – on the meaning of language, whether or not humans can change and discover “a hidden internal life of unimagined depths,” the deceptiveness of appearances, and the unknowability of others – affect Gregorius so deeply that he resigns from his school and starts out on the 26-hour train journey from Bern to Lisbon, via Geneva, Paris, and the Basque region.
Once there, he discovers that Amadeu had died of an aneurysm. He also learns that, as a man of blazing integrity, Amadeu had fought against Prime Minister António de Oliveira Salazar’s authoritarian right-wing regime, which had deployed the secret police organization PIDE to repress civil liberties and political opposition. Amadeu’s treatment of a leading policeman, “the Butcher of Lisbon,” had caused his patients to ostracize him, pushing him into increasingly dangerous acts of resistance.
Despite the vagueness of Gregorius’s quest (even to himself), he is changed by his meetings with Amadeu’s surviving relatives and friends. In the film, Lee plays the priest who had taught Amadeu, and Rampling the sister who keeps his flame. Courtenay is an infirm fellow resistance fighter who had been tortured by the police, and Gedeck the latter’s niece, the eye doctor who treats the symbolically myopic Gregorius.
Ganz and Olin also play former resistance fighters, Jorge and Estefania, once a couple. Although Estefania had fallen in love with Amadeu and he with her, Amadeu rejected her, staying loyal to Jorge, his best friend. In the movie’s flashbacks, Huston, Diehl, and Laurent play the young Amadeu, Jorge, and Estefania.
“Each man’s lives touches so many other lives,” says Clarence the Angel in “It’s a Wonderful Life.” “Night Train to Lisbon”’s version of that adage is Gregorius’s reflection, “Was it possible that the best way to make sure of yourself was to know and understand someone else?” The success of “Night Train to Lisbon” will depend on how effectively it depicts Gregorius’s comprehension of Amadeu’s inner life directing his future onto a different track – metaphysically, no mean feat.
Click on the video below to hear Jeremy Irons and other cast members discuss the making of "Night Train to Lisbon":