Reviewed by Glenn Erickson
Grim and harrowing, Kanal tells a tale of hopeless military defeat as a monument to the fighters
of the Warsaw uprising, a futile gesture of patriotism by the occupied Poles in WW2. Driven like rats
into the city's sewers, the brave fighters struggle to their inevitable end. Director Andrzej Wajda makes
us feel their every claustrophobic heartbeat.
At the end of the Warsaw uprising, the few remaining groups of Polish resistance are
collapsing under the German onslaught. After taking heavy casualties, the 43 men and women fighters
of Lt. Zadra (Wienczyslaw Glinski) are ordered back into the center of the city via the only route
not completely controlled by the Germans, the sewers. Their retreat is into the confusion and panic of
a hell below the city streets with poison gas being thrown into the access pipes and
the Germans waiting above each exit. Soldier Jacek Korab (Tadeusz Janckar) has been wounded while
putting a robot tank out of action; his lover, messenger Daisy (Teresa Izewska) knows the sewers
well but also knows how little chance any of the 43 have of getting out alive.
In 1956, the Western countries were mostly making War movies that celebrated the various glorious
victories of the decade before. Poland had been severely ravaged by the German occupation, losing millions
to battle and mass murder and its having capital practically razed to the ground. Under the circumstances,
a movie saying how swell it all was wouldn't have been appropriate. Wajda's battle epic is an up-close and
dirty look at doomed fighters in their final agonies.
It's easy to draw analogies about a story where idealistic fighters are forced into an underground
hell; after a fairly conventional opening battle, Kanal becomes a haunted trek through a
stinking catacomb. We can't share the fighters' discomfort but we can feel their claustrophobia.
For the wounded, feverish Jacek, the underworld becomes a surreal and disorienting limbo. He only
has Daisy to help him struggle through the filth to some hoped-for exit.
The attitudes of the fighters are unconventional. Even though they're the remnants of an official
unit they function like partisans, with only Lt. Zadra and his sargent Kula (Tadeusz Gwiazdowski)
observing proper protocol. Some of the fighters have paired off and are sleeping together. One
member of the unit is a pianist with no fighting experience. He stays because he can't rejoin
his family across the city, and plays piano for his comrades. He tries to play classical - they
want to hear tunes like La Cumparsita.
Wajda's direction starts with a long trucking shot and then stays fairly conventional as the
fighters make camp in some ruined houses. The city around them has been utterly demolished and
provides no end of surreal settings, with further enhancement unnecessary. Once the story moves to the
sewers the image becomes a nightmare of half-lit tunnels, where it's difficult to know what one
hears or sees.
I saw Kanal once in the early 70s, I think on PBS television, and was blown away by
its struggling people caught in a hopeless situation. The story embellishes nothing and makes no
attempt to glamorize the fighters or otherwise transform them into valiant martyrs. The group breaks
up into smaller groups and pairs, and their fates are cruel but logical. The commander actually
seems to make it into the clear, but ... it wouldn't be fair at all to explain further, except to
say it's genuinely gripping.
We wince while watching beautiful blonde Teresa Izewska slug her way through the sewers, dragging
handsome Tadeusz behind her. The disoriented composer-pianist is played by familiar actor Vladek
Sheybal, who later parlayed his melancholy stare into memorable parts in films like From Russia with
Love, Casino Royale and the
soon-to-be-released The Wind and the Lion. He plays a sensitive hero here.
Facets video's DVD of Kanal is a disappointment. It appears that a Polish distribution company
called Polart is responsible for the transfer, which is from a dark and contrasty print with a number of
disturbing splices up front. Twenty years ago on early VHS with this quality would have been all we
but sparkling DVDs of some of the rarest foreign films are now available. I should think that a taped
copy from cable television would be the equal of this disc, unfortunately.
The hardest thing to report is that the darkness of the print actually makes it difficult to follow
some of the action in the sewers. Several of our main characters come to ends I couldn't make out, and
I couldn't even see what happened to Vladek Sheybal. The disc comes under Savant's 'research quality'
category: it's what you watch while waiting for a better copy to come along.
The disc has removable subs and a couple of galleries with a few photos and posters. A short
bio on Andrzej Wajda tells us almost nothing about him. It's possible that the disc, menus and all,
is a reformatted Polish original.
It doesn't feel good basically slamming a disc by a filmmaker who needs to be seen more and not less. I
can report that Facet Video's disc of
Ashes and Diamonds has much better quality.
On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair, and Poor,
Supplements: photos, posters, bio
Packaging: Keep case
Reviewed: December 7, 2003
DVD Savant Text © Copyright 2007 Glenn Erickson