Andrzej Wajda’s Ashes and Diamonds has all the hallmarks of a difficult European movie: it is concerned with an unfamiliar postwar history, produced under strictly controlled Stalinist oversight, and filmed with meager resources. Yet Popiól i diament is accessible, visually sophisticated, and startlingly modern. Some background, from Criterion’s entry on the film:
In 1999, Polish director Andrzej Wajda received an Honorary Academy Award for his body of work—more than thirty-five feature films, beginning with A Generation in 1955. Wajda’s second film, Kanal—the first ever made about the Warsaw uprising—secured him the Special Jury Prize at Cannes and started him on the path to international acclaim, secured with the release of his masterpiece, Ashes and Diamonds, in 1958. These three groundbreaking films ushered in the “Polish School” movement and later became known as the “War Trilogy.” But each boldly stands on its own—testaments to the resilience of the human spirit, the struggle for personal and national freedom, and Wajda’s unique contribution to his homeland and to world cinema.
One quickly grasps the fundamental tension of post-WWII Poland necessary to get into the movie: the populace, dependent on the Polish Home Army (actually, the Sluzba Zwyciestwu Polski—Service for Poland’s Victory—or SZP) during the Nazi occupation, is put between the incoming Soviet-backed Communist regime and the SZP’s resistance of the Stalinists. If you’ll pardon me, I’d like to go directly to a key critical angle: Wajda was fishing for an viewers under similar constraints. As Paul Coates puts it in his essay for the War Trilogy package, “[c]riticize the Home Army too strongly and the audience will turn on you; offend the regime, and your film might be amputated or aborted.” Given the inhibitions under which Wadjda was operating, it’s remarkable that Ashes and Diamonds is so balanced and at ease; in fact, this balance is one of the wellsprings of its modernity.
The other source is Zbigniew Cybulski’s electrifying performance as Maciek Chelmicki, the SZP resistance fighter who is tapped to assasinate a local Communist party secretary; Cybulski, a fish out of water, dressed in fifties beatnik garb down to his dark glasses—the actor refused to don period costumes, unlike the rest of the cast—is near-unanimously likened to James Dean, a rough contemporary, but there’s something of a young Brando in him, too. (Wajda, on yielding to Cybulski’s sartorial preferences: “I think that was the moment when I became a director. I was able to not direct what didn’t need to be directed.”) By all accounts, the young audience for the film found, in him, a countercultural spokesman.
Criterion’s extras on Ashes and Diamonds are typically excellent; of particular interest is a revealing interview with the director who, on the precipice of the era of the auteur, demurs. The imagery and cinematography is exceptional—many writings dwell on the scene where Maciek lights afire the shot-glasses of vodka on the hotel bar, evoking votive candles; or mention the scene where a white horse wanders into the frame outside the hotel; or the striking image of Maciek and the barmaid (who figures prominently in activating his emotions on the night they make love) in the churchyard, with an inverted, crucified Christ bearing a crown of needle-like thorns [pictured, although the reduced resolution does not do it justice]. Wajda reports that Andrei Tarkovsky was reputed to admire the penultimate scene, where Maciek’s wound is revealed as he is hiding amidst white bedlinens, billowing on an array of clothelines at the outskirts of town. As the assassin clutches a sheet to his abdomen, a red bloodspot is revealed—a visual allusion to the Polish colors, visible as Maciek departs the hotel on the way to his murderous act.
It is hard to avoid the conclusion that, in spurning the auteur’s persona, Wajda found the balance that he sought, a balance that was necessary for the film to find its audience. Its presence is everywhere one looks: from politics to Maciek’s acute awareness of a choice between the seductiveness of a “normal” life with the blonde barmaid and the heroic life of the soldier fighting the Communists; the character of the party secretary, whose son is one of Maciek’s SZP brethren, is rendered in shades of gray; with the dynamic presence of Zbigniew Cybulski, it seems as if it were filmed ten years more recently than 1958. This is already an overly long post, so I ’ll end with a quote from the interview with Wajda, revealing a humility not often associated with artists, and illustrating, again, his effectiveness.
The secret of our war films was that with those films, we augmented our biographies. I didn’t participate in the Warsaw uprising, but I made Kanal. I didn’t find myself in situations like Cybulski or Maciek Chelmicki in 1945, but I made Ashes and Diamonds. I didn’t particpate in the kind of operations depicted in A Generation, or in the kind of bravado portrayed in the film Lotna. So these films became a substitute for parts of my life.
Pawel Fabjanski, a young Polish photographer who graduated from Polish National Film School in June, has been on a roll. His website touts several awards, current shows in Warsaw and Vienna, and a profile in issue number 424 of French Photo magazine, all since his degree; his commercial-savvy “pink rabbit” series was a winner of Arctic Paper’s competition that landed the nuclear power plant image [inset right] in the “Cool Solutions 2006” calendar. Not busy enough, apparently: the beautiful Christmas lights image is from his new “Loneliness” series.
[Via Coudal, a] searchable database of classic Polish film posters, with images, mostly from the 1950s through the 1970s; thumbs exhibited are the cream from Henryk Tomaszewski, Tadeusz Trepkowski, and Eryk Lipinski, original graphic designers commissioned in 1946 by Film Polski (a state film distribution monopoly). The site’s proprietor has commerce on his mind—“[t]he best works should reach the $10k range within a decade, and an average price may easily quadruple. Right now, they are still a bargain…”—but the rest of us can still admire.