(Cairo Station; Cairo: Central Station; Iron Gate)
Director: Youssef Chahine
Production: Gabriel Talhami Productions; black and white; running time: 90 minutes.
Producer: Gibrail Abdel Hay Adib; screenplay: Gibrail Hay Adib; dialogue: Mohamed Abou Yussef; photography: Alvise; editor: Kamal Abou el-Ela; music: Fouad al-Zahiry.
Farid Chawky (
); Hind Roustom (
); Youssef Chahine (
); Hassan Al-Baroudi; Abdel Najdi.
Khan, M., An Introduction to the Egyptian Cinema, London, 1969.
Malkmus, Lizbeth, and Armes, Roy, Arab and African Film Making, London, 1991.
Markus, Bert, "Tatort . . . Hauptbahnof Kairo" in Filmwoche (Denmark), 1982.
Cine-Revue (Brussels), 17 June 1982.
Hollywood Reporter (Los Angeles), 7 August 1990.
* * *
Cairo Station —as Bab el Hadid is most widely known in English— is perhaps especially memorable for its rich visual content. It includes frequent long shots which place the main characters against the complex and busy background of the real railroad station of the title. It has occasional and highly effective sequences of complete silence, which contrast with the usual noise and bustle and place the weight of the story on visual explication alone. It also includes such powerful single images as the sight of living human beings dwarfed by a gigantic statue of the ancient ruler Rameses II. The fact that Youssef Chahine, who both directed the film and stars in it, was initially trained as a painter before turning to filmmaking comes as no surprise.
Yet films are far more than just the moving pictures they were initially labelled and dismissed as; and a film may be memorable for its visual content because the other elements that make it up are inadequate or unsatisfying. It must be stressed that Cairo Station is by no means a bad film—whether that means simply boring, or implies technical shortcomings, implausible plotting, wooden acting, or other defects. It is entertaining, thought-provoking, and on the whole worth spending time watching and absorbing. Yet it does fall short of the real greatness in other departments that its sheer visual brilliance deserves. The main problem is that it attempts to do too many things at once and thus ends up doing none of them as well as it might have.
If the film is taken, for example, as being mainly a portrayal of life among those who work in and pass through the "iron gate," the main railroad station in the Egyptian capital, it stands comparison with other films about great meeting places—such as Grand Hotel or even the Airport series. Just as they preserve forever the manners and interactions, down to clothes and haircuts, of particular types of people in a great public space at a particular time, so Cairo Station succeeds in creating, in a manner which looks effortless but must have been time-consuming and difficult, a convincing version of the sights and sounds of meeting and parting, buying and selling, eating and drinking. Even so, by 1958, for both Egyptian and non-Egyptian audiences, tugging at the heart-strings with meetings and partings between unnamed and briefly shown mothers and sons, conscripted soldiers and their families and other such clichéd figures was surely all too familiar a method for both evoking the audience's feelings and frustrating them. Thus what was presumably meant to underline the point that life goes on as usual, even as the central tragedy unfolds, continues to be valuable as a documentary record but, as a mainstay of the story, comes across as unfocused and uninvolving.
While such use of stereotypes in composing the background to the narrative is understandable—after all, an attempt at anything more complex or unpredictable might have ended up fussy and distracting— the dependence of the main story on similar stereotypes is a definite weakness. Kenawi, the disabled newspaper vendor whose unrequited love leads him to a violent mental collapse, is that stock character of both Arab and European literature, a man of peasant stock adrift in the big, frightening city. The lemonade seller, Hannoumat, who leads him on, only to repel him in the end, is the wearisomely familiar figure of the woman defined by her physique and her supposed instincts, apparently incapable of thought or initiative. The man she really loves, Abou Serih the porter, is handsome, popular, and—in a subplot which promises to deepen the complexities of the film but merely confuses them—nobly but mystifyingly committed to forming a union among his fellow-workers. But what are the motivations for their respective actions, beyond the obvious ones? A more daring, more critical, and—not an irrelevant consideration—more truly entertaining film might have depicted all three as real people, allowing Kenawi at least to try to overcome his constantly emphasized isolation, Hannoumat to have relatives and friends and a life of her own and Abou Serih to have doubts and anxieties about his personal and union affairs alike. But Cairo Station , for all its depth of field and breadth of vision, lacks psychological depth or social breadth. The final scene, when Kenawi is taken away in a straitjacket through the crowds, having been persuaded that he is dressing up for a wedding that will never take place, is indeed as moving and as ironic as it was no doubt meant to be, but would have been even more effective if the audience had been given more to sympathize with, to react against and to think about.
In its combination of technical brilliance with rhetorical hollowness Cairo Station is indeed no worse than most of the films produced by the dream factories of Hollywood or elsewhere. It may even be somewhat unfair and inappropriate to be disappointed by a film which was produced under similar conditions to the melodramas of the Hollywood golden age; which, at least for Egyptian audiences, can be compared and contrasted with others of Chahine's numerous films; and which was probably intended more as entertainment than as any kind of social commentary. But as with other melodramas of unrequited love and social fatalism, it is surely just as legitimate to regret the opportunities which were missed or frustrated as to give due praise to the ways in which other opportunities were taken and fully realized.