Fipresci Home the international federation of film critics  
  about us | festival reports | awards | undercurrent   contact | site map 
home > undercurrent > issue 3 > Reporting on "The Passenger"  

about the writers

Larysa Smirnova is a Ph.D. candidate in French literature at Yale University. She has recently completed (with Dmitry Martov) a Russian translation of the first volume of Raoul Ruiz's Poétique du cinéma, to be published in 2007. Her research interests include 20th-century theater and literature, literary theory, and cinema.

Chris Fujiwara is the editor of Undercurrent and the author of Jacques Tourneur: The Cinema of Nightfall (Johns Hopkins University Press) and of a forthcoming book on Otto Preminger (Faber & Faber). He writes on film for The Boston Phoenix, Film Comment, Cineaste, and other publications and has contributed to several anthologies.


Heidegger, Martin. Being and Time. Translated by John Macquarrie and Edward Robinson. New York: Harper & Row, 1962.

Peploe, Mark; Wollen, Peter; and Antonioni, Michelangelo. The Passenger. New York: Grove Press, 1975.


[1] Martin Heidegger, Being and Time, trans. John Macquarrie and Edward Robinson (New York: Harper & Row, 1962), p. 126. Further references to this work will be given in parentheses. Page numbers given are those of the German edition.

[2] Mark Peploe, Peter Wollen, and Michelangelo Antonioni, The Passenger (New York: Grove Press, 1975).

Reporting on The Passenger
by Larysa Smirnova and Chris Fujiwara

Rachel watches footage of her husband's interview with a 'witch doctor.'

The recent reissue of Michelangelo Antonioni's The Passenger (1975) has made the film available for the first time in the United States in the longer version that has long been known in Europe under the title Profession: Reporter. The restoration of the omitted material is significant, but now that the superior version is generally available, comparing the two versions no longer holds any but a minor historical interest, and the original U.S.-release version is now nothing more than an archivist's embarrassment.

The two different titles of the film deserve more consideration. According to co-screenwriter Mark Peploe, The Passenger was the title its makers intended for the film. As it happens, the alternate title is not inapt, for The Passenger is concerned with the critique of journalism and the media. This critique in turn is closely linked to the idea of "the passenger" — a link that may be traced to Martin Heidegger's discussion of the inauthentic, public mode of being he calls "the 'They.'" Introducing this term in Being and Time, Heidegger unites the two themes that give The Passenger its two alternate titles: "In utilizing public means of transport and in making use of information services like the newspaper, every Other is like the next."[1]

The Passenger is a radical critique of this mode of being. The film asks: is it possible for one person to be not merely like another, but to be that other? This is a Heideggerian question: Heidegger, too, wonders (in Section 47 of Being and Time) whether "any Dasein [Heidegger's term for human Being] may be substituted for another at random, so that what cannot be experienced in one's own Dasein is accessible in that of a stranger." (239) At first, his answer seems to be negative, but he goes on to assert: "Whenever we go anywhere or have anything to contribute, we can be represented by someone.... Here one Dasein can and must, within certain limits, 'be' another Dasein." (239-40) The case of Locke, the hero of The Passenger, can be seen as a special problem in representability. In assuming the identity of Robertson, an English businessman who has been providing guns to rebels fighting the authoritarian government of Chad (the nation is named in the published screenplay of the film, not in the film itself), Locke becomes Robertson's representative, fulfilling his itinerary and carrying out his activities.[2]

Locke leans over the dead Robertson.

To the extent that such a delegation is a kind of being, then Locke indeed is Robertson. It's important to the film's assertion of the legitimacy of Locke's course of action and his claim to Robertson's identity (i.e., its assertion that Locke's assumption of Robertson's identity is not to be seen as an existential compromise or a theatrical deception) that Locke's being-Robertson is not called into question by others in the film. The desk clerk at the hotel in Chad, a car-rental agent, the rebel Achebe and his colleague, and all the others whom Locke encounters as Robertson all accept him unhesitantly as Robertson.

The watch on the dead Robertson's arm

According to Heidegger, Dasein always assigns itself and has always assigned itself, "and it has done so in terms of a potentiality-for-Being for the sake of which it itself is — one which it may have seized upon either explicitly or tacitly, and which may be either authentic or inauthentic." (86) Whether Locke's self-assignment in taking over Robertson's itinerary is authentic or inauthentic is a central question of the film. When he first decides to become Robertson, Locke exchanges watches with the dead man. This symbolic gesture of interrupting one's own time and assuming another's might be seen as Locke's attempt to disavow his own history — something of which Heidegger would probably have disapproved. But we can also read the exchange of watches as marking Locke's full assumption of a more authentic time — a "futural" time (to use a Heidegger word) — in assuming the death that Robertson represents. Asked by the car-rental agent how long he will be on holiday, he replies, "For the rest of my life." This line (which he repeats in his phone call from the bar) reminds us that, as Heidegger puts it, Dasein is in every case its not-Yet and suggests, again, that taking the identity of Robertson is a way for Locke to remain himself.

Robertson's placelessness, explicitly shared by Locke, marks them both as perpetual "passengers." During the flashback to the two men's chance encounter in the hotel they share, Robertson says that he has "no family. No friends. Just a few commitments." Locke echoes this line later in the film when he says that he has "run out of [or perhaps "on"] everything — a wife, a house, an adopted child, a successful job — everything except a few habits I can't get rid of." Locke's "habits" are no doubt those of what Heidegger calls Dasein's everydayness, inevitable temptations toward "falling" that characterize Dasein in its inauthenticity and which indeed it's impossible to "get rid of" except at the cost of death. For Robertson, the equivalent of Locke's habits are his "few commitments," designated by the dates in his appointment book. In taking over Robertson's commitments, Locke provides himself with a specific form in which the habits of being can be expressed as an assignment. For both men, this assignment is all that continues to hold them in life, when everything else that defines human life as social Being-with-Others has been dissolved.

Locke's continuing to keep Robertson's appointments might be interpreted as just a giving-up, a self-resignation to a schedule that has been fixed by and for someone else. But his course of action could just as well be seen as resistance and engagement, compensating for the lack of commitment that characterized his activity as a reporter. For Locke is also a "representative" in a second crucial sense: as a journalist, he is delegated by others (TV producers, publishers, and, behind them, implicitly, "the public" or "society") to see and report on things taking place where they are not physically present. His becoming Robertson modifies his role as reporter, in that he is now delegated not merely to see, but to act. His action, moreover, has to do with the same materials with which he concerned himself as a reporter — words and images (the papers he gives the rebel agents) — and involves him once again in interviews ("Do you want me to tell you about my life?", an old man he meets by chance in the Umbracolo in Barcelona asks him, and then begins an account, which the editing of the film breaks off).

The old man in the Umbracolo

Flashback scenes (motivated in the narrative by the preparation of a documentary about Locke) show that for Locke, the profession of reporter consists of compromise, failure, loss of integrity, and the loss of his own voice. His wife, Rachel, tells him, "You involve yourself in real situations but you have no real dialogue." What replaces "real dialogue" is what Heidegger calls "idle talk," an irresponsible, "uprooted" chatter. (170) Locke tells Robertson: "People will believe what I write. And why? Because it conforms to their expectations. And to mine as well — which is worse." This kind of writing tells only what is already known, in a "groundless" retelling of the public interpretation of things (cf. 168-70). Locke's rueful "which is worse" expresses his recognition that his selfhood has been subsumed under the interpretations of the "They" and his guilt over this fact.

The 'witch doctor' The camera is turned around on Locke

One of the tapes his colleagues watch after Locke's "death" records an interview with an African "witch doctor" whom Locke asks if his experiences in the West brought him to question his tribes' traditions. Staring steadily at the camera, the doctor replies, "Your questions reveal more about yourself than my answers would reveal about me." Then he apparently seizes the camera and turns it around toward Locke. Challenged to repeat the question, Locke is unable to speak in front of the camera. The doctor's gesture performs the function of a call of conscience — something that Heidegger opposes to the report: "The call does not report events; it calls without uttering anything." (277) (And conversely "the 'They,' who hear and understand nothing but loud idle talk, cannot 'report' any call." [296]) Perhaps it's this encounter that motivates Locke to seek the rebels in the desert and thus prepares him for his encounter with anxiety. And perhaps it's in answer to the call that Locke assumes Robertson's identity and his itinerary — a course that starts with a death and leads to death.

Here, representation finds its limit. In dying, one can represent only oneself, as Heidegger writes: "No one can take the Other's dying away from him.... Dying is something that every Dasein itself must take upon itself at the time." (240) The Passenger is a meditation on various forms in which death can be conceptualized. Antonioni explicitly and radically rejects the heroic mode in which death is often treated in narratives about political engagement — and if The Passenger can clearly be read as such a narrative, it constantly defines itself in a negative relation to typical political-engagement narratives. (An obvious comparison would be with Dickens's A Tale of Two Cities, whose wastrel hero redeems himself by assuming the identity of another person and serving the cause of the Revolution, a course of action that leads to a glorious death.) In The Passenger, neither of the two deaths, Robertson's and Locke's, is presented as a martyrdom for a cause. Robertson dies, apparently, of a heart condition that his drinking has exacerbated. ("For the most part, Dasein ends in unfulfilment, or else by having disintegrated and been used up." [244]) In being murdered by a government agent, Locke at least dies a death that might seem worthy of an idealist, but the circumstances of his murder and the manner in which the film presents it eliminate any sense of heroism, leaving only the air of fateful exhaustion with which Locke resigns himself, and rendering irrelevant the cause, the motivation, and the agency of his death. Moreover, Locke's death completely lacks any instrumentality. Within the terms of the narrative, it leads to nothing. It would seem to lack any usefulness to the cause of the rebels, who would be unlikely to use the assassination of a gun runner — even one who is also a famous journalist — to mobilize public opinion against his killers.

If Locke's death isn't shown as a heroic fulfillment, it's because Antonioni wishes to deny such an easy satisfaction, and because he's concerned with a more radical and pure conception of death. The possible heroic aspect of Locke's death — his having sacrificed himself for a cause — is beside the point of the fact of death. His death is indeed a culmination but only in the sense that his choice of becoming Robertson, his course of action in fulfilling Robertson's itinerary, and what we see or are told of his previous life as Locke all express his readiness for death.

The film considers death in another aspect — as disappearance. In the first of the two Gaudí houses they visit in Barcelona, the architecture student (known in the screenplay as "the Girl") who accompanies him says to Locke, "People disappear all the time." Locke replies: "Every time they leave the room." This curious exchange has several resonances. In being thought of as disappearing, people are considered as present-at-hand or as ready-to-hand, as perceptual objects whose ending takes the form of the mere lack of visibility. In the context of the film's political plot, we will probably hear "disappear" as a reference to authoritarian regimes' assassination or imprisonment of dissidents. We even see such a "disappearance" in action during the film, in the sudden abduction of Achebe in an outdoor café. Antonioni shows the event in long shot, obstructing our view by a fountain, to indicate the indistinct, flickering nature of a presence that can so readily be swallowed up by absence and to imply the absence of interest that will follow (the people around are startled, but do nothing to intervene — it's obvious that in a few moments, they'll merely continue their conversations as if nothing had happened; Achebe will be missed as little as if he had never been there).

Locke's death is another such disappearance. The event is represented as the disappearance of Locke's body from the camera's field of visibility, as the camera tracks forward toward the window. Antonioni refuses to show the actual death — a reticence that can certainly not be interpreted as squeamishness, since, earlier in the film, he has shown actual death: the documentary footage of the execution of a partisan. (Antonioni's refusal to show Locke's death, or for that matter Robertson's, can be understood as a sign of respect for the nameless martyr: the staging of death would implicitly claim that the fictional death and the real death have the same value, thereby cheapening the real death and indicting the film's use of it as exploitative.) Rather, he "shows" Locke's death as something that happens to the frame — a change in perception by which the frame itself is taken as the boundary of what can be seen and known, and in which the modification of this boundary also modifies the world, in the flowing-together of the film frame and the frames created by the window and, within the window, by the bars through which the camera leaves the hotel room and emerges into the courtyard, and in the gradual circular movement that turns around toward the building and rediscovers the window from the reverse point of view. In the world bounded by the frame, the events are all emergences into the frame or disappearances from it, confirming both the letter of the Girl's observation ("People disappear all the time") and the spirit of Locke's reply ("Every time they leave the room"): disappearance happens whenever something as common as leaving the room occurs, and thus would seem unworthy of notice, yet it is part of what defines the world.

Locke turns away from the window

The camera passing between the bars

The camera's progressive abandonment of Locke may remind us that Heidegger called authentic Being-towards-death something that is necessarily hidden: "in accordance with its very meaning, this authentic Being must remain hidden from the Others." (260) Locke's death is a drastic withdrawal of interest from the world, signified first in his obscuring as a perceptual subject (his face being absent from the frame) and then in his turning away from the window, reversing the "turning-away" of the Heideggerian "falling," by which Dasein turns towards entities in the world.

In Section 53 of Being and Time, Heidegger insists that an authentic Being-towards-death must have nothing to do with the actual and must instead "anticipate," rather than "expect" (which would be to expect an actualization), the possibility of death — in the absence of any "picturing" of a concrete, actual death. The Passsenger very strikingly conveys this openness, this indefinite character of the possibility as possible, in its final movement — which brings Locke toward death, lets us know somehow unmistakably that his death is imminent and that he, somehow, knows it too, yet never articulates (never allows Locke to articulate) this foreknowledge in concrete terms. The film is fully imbued with the imminence of death but refrains from embodying this death in a definite certainty of the narrative. Certainly, death is the theme of the story Locke tells the Girl — about a blind man who gains his sight at age 40 and is so appalled by the ugliness of the world that he kills himself. The story can be interpreted as analogous to Locke's experience: Locke, like the blind man, was given the chance to see for himself, rather than for and through others, and has ended by choosing to die. It's crucial that Locke's readiness doesn't take the form of going somewhere or inaugurating some final phase of action. He has already entered into this final phase, and at the moment when he tells the story, he is lying on the bed in the hotel room: he has already placed himself in the position where he is to die.

When Locke asks the Girl to look out the window and describe what she sees, it's not because he's interested in the presence or absence of an awaited object. His very delegation of the task of looking to her implies a lack of interest: if he cared what was out there, he would look for himself. However, the film's emphasis on this moment belies his lack of interest: if what the Girl sees were truly of no significance, this moment would not take place. The film gives priority to the act of seeing. "'In the moment of vision' nothing can occur; but as an authentic Present or waiting-towards, the moment of vision permits us to encounter for the first time what can be 'in a time' as ready-to-hand or present-at-hand. (338) Heidegger insists here on the possible as possible. Objects perceived in the "moment of vision" are held in the field of their pure possibility: they are not allowed to become objects of actual concern (which would mean becoming distractions of the "They").

The Girl looks out the window

"'In the moment of vision' nothing can occur": the privileging of such nonoccurrence is the concern of Antonioni's work in general and of this scene in The Passenger in particular. But what, in fact, does the Girl see through the window? "A little boy and an old woman. They're having an argument over which way to go. . . . A man scratching his shoulder. A kid throwing stones. And dust. It's very dusty." Worth highlighting in this litany is the theme of the possible as such: human reality as unrealized and undetermined. The dispute between the little boy and the old woman over which way to go takes place in a context of indifference (we don't see these two people and know nothing about the alternate paths confronting them), associated with the conclusion of Locke's own struggle to find direction. We are reminded of the old man at the Umbracolo, who said to Locke that when he sees children, he sees not a new life beginning, but the repetition of the same old tragedies. In the scene described by the Girl, the human potential represented by the children is already circumscribed by the copresence of embodiments of what they will become: a man, an old woman, dust. In the Girl's report of this scene, the visible is the possible as such, not so much the ready-to-hand or present-at-hand themselves, as the field of their emergence.

If the foregoing suggests a rather more negative assessment of the moment of vision than Heidegger implies, this is because the entire film has led to the point where Locke's Being-toward-death has no other outcome than death: with Locke's self-imprisonment in the hotel room, the narrative of The Passenger has reached a stage where he no longer encounters his possibilities and circumstances as possible objects of concern. If Locke's condition at this point can be called ecstatic, it's in an entirely negative sense: a radical standing-outside the self that experiences time as a completely indifferent field of cyclical emergences and disappearances. Such resoluteness is the antithesis of curiosity, which "does not await a possiblity, but, in its craving, just desires such a possibility as something that is actual" (347) and leaps from present to present in a distracted quest for the new. If journalism is characterized by curiosity, Locke's end confirms his rejection of his profession — bidding farewell to it through the report of the Girl.

Larysa Smirnova
Chris Fujiwara




bullet. # 7 (1.2011)
bullet. # 6 (4.2010)
bullet. # 5 (5.2009)
bullet. # 4 (10.2008)
bullet. # 3 (11.2006)
bullet. # 2 (7.2006)
bullet. # 1 (4.2006)


issue #3 (11.2006)

bullet.   Austrian cinema now
bullet.   Austria in the 1960s
bullet.   Otto Preminger
bullet.   Michael Glawogger
bullet.   Max Ophuls
The Passenger
Danièle Huillet Tribute

bullet.   Jonathan Rosenbaum

bullet.   Cahiers du cinéma

bullet.   Adrian Martin

bullet.   Chris Fujiwara

bullet.   John Gianvito