After an original screening of Cairo Station in 1958, it is reported that a man spat in the face of its director, Youssef Chahine, saying, “You have given Egypt a bleak image.” A film about a degenerate who kills women as a result of fits of rage brought on by sexual frustration, it was unlike anything the country of Egypt had ever seen before. Until then, Egyptian cinema had been defined by feel good movies that presented mindless escapism for the masses. But here was a film that dared to explore the darker side of human nature and carnal desire. By today’s standards, it is very tame. There is no explicit sex and there is only one on-screen murder. But it was still provocative enough to enrage Egyptian society. The country’s critics condemned it as a blight on Egyptian cinema. The film was then banned for twenty years. It was only when it was shown in foreign film festivals two decades later that the world began to realize the film’s sheer genius. Now, the film that was originally hated and banned in its home country is recognized as one of its finest.
The film centers around a simple-minded newspaper-seller named Kenaoui (played by the director Chahine) who works at a Cairo train station. By all standards, he is a degenerate, a sexual deviant who obsesses over sex, but cannot get it. Indeed, when we first meet him we find him being asked for a telephone token by a pretty girl. A point of view shot informs us that he barely heard her. All he can do is stare longingly at her beautiful legs. But he does more than just ogle women on the platform. Back home in his beaten down shack out on the tracks, he cuts out scantily clad women from the newspapers that he is supposed to be selling. He creates a kind of disturbing museum exhibition of cut-out women on his walls which he hungrily stares at all day.
His desire is fueled by Hanuma, a beautiful woman that he wishes to marry. She makes her living illegally selling drinks to passengers on trains. In his shack, he draws drink baskets on the pictures of women so they will resemble her. In his mind, they are the perfect couple. But in reality, she is engaged to Abu Serib, a porter who is desperately trying to set up a union. Despite her engagement to Abu Serib, she takes great pleasure in leading Kenaoui on. Played by Hind Rostom, one of the great Egyptian sex symbols of the 1950s, she is a whirlwind of ravishing cruelty. Consider the scene by a giant fountain where Kenaoui confesses his love for her. He gives her his mother’s solid gold necklace, a priceless heirloom, as a wedding present. Her reaction is to flippantly say that it is fake. Unfazed, Kenaoui tells her of the life that they could share and how hard he would work to provide for her. With a sinister smile she listens until she cannot restrain herself anymore and rebukes him.
As he is teased by Hanuma, his behavior becomes more and more erratic. He begins to fantasize that they live together and attacks a cat that he believes is mocking him. Reports start to come in that different women have been brutally murdered and decapitated all over the city. These rumors seem like mere gossip, at least until Kenaoui beings to cut up the women on his walls. It is revealed that he is the killer who murders when his sexual frustration gets to a boiling point. In one of the film’s best scenes, he attacks a female worker at the station with a gigantic knife. The film utilizes dramatic and swift editing during the murder scene as the camera shifts back and forth between killer, victim, knife, and a barking dog that happened to be nearby. This kind of furious editing predated the infamous shower scene in Alfred Hitchcock’s Psycho by two years. To say that it influenced Hitchcock is nonsense, as he would have had no way of seeing it after it was banned in Egypt. But the similarities are unbelievably uncanny.
In fact, the similarities with Hitchcock are abundant. Take one scene where Kenaoui watches a crate with the body of his victim being carried by porters onto a train. Several times, the workers almost open it up to reveal the body. They struggle with it, commenting how unusually heavy it is. It is reminiscent of the famous scene in the cellar from Notorious (1946) where Ingrid Bergman knocks over a bottle containing uranium. Both scenes play with the audience, taunting them with dangers that get closer and closer until we cannot take it anymore.
Another similarity is the character of Kenaoui. He can be interpreted as a mixture between Norman Bates (Psycho) and John Ferguson (Vertigo). He is a madman, like Bates, who is driven to kill by his own neurosis. And much like Ferguson, he is driven forward by an obsession with a beautiful woman. Just as Ferguson tried to possess a dead woman by making another dress up just like her, hair color and all, Kenaoui tries to possess Hanuma. He becomes so obsessed by her that his rejection leads him to lose his mind.
Cairo Station is an amazingly complex film, but it doesn’t feel like one. It isn’t bogged down by its own plot as many intricate thrillers are. Instead, it moves with a lively energy that gives the film a life of its own. Notice how in the opening scenes the editing cuts only last long enough for the characters to deliver their lines before the camera is whisked away somewhere else. It is as if the film itself is mimicking the hustle and bustle of the train station. The plot takes time to develop each character, but we never feel like we are watching needless exposition. This is a tightly crafted, expertly executed film.
Great films need great directors. Cairo Station was blessed with one of Egypt’s greatest directors, Chahine, at its helm. During his career that spanned over four decades, he established himself as one of Egypt’s most active, controversial, and talented directors. While he constantly evolved as a director, one thing remained the same during his career: his love for his country. Born a Christian, Chahine would distance himself from organized religion later in his life. When he was asked if he would identify his religious beliefs, he answered: Egyptian. It was with this mindset that Chahine created Cairo Station. It examines the difficulties and problems that plague Egypt’s society, such as rampant sexual repression. But at the end, the forces of good manage to stop Kenaoui before he can kill his beloved. It is a desperate cry that Egypt, flawed as it might be, can overcome its own problems and set a course for its own better future. How appropriate for a man who did so much to influence the course of cinematic history.
Part One of Cairo Station