Reviewed by Glenn Erickson
Andrej Wajda's Ashes and Diamonds is a demanding but rewarding art film with a curious take on
Polish politics circa 1945. Since the movie was made in Soviet-dominated Poland in 1958, one would
expect a more strident pro-Communist tone. It's certainly there, but in a very downbeat way. Perhaps
this picture was part of the softening of the Communist party's attitude toward filmmakers, as
reflected in the Soviet tragic romance
The Cranes are Flying.
Framed as a dark intrigue about a political assassin with an itch to change his lifestyle,
Ashes contains a lot of expected one-man-alone spy movie content, some well done artsy scenes,
and an attitude toward Poland that endorses Communism in a rather back-handed way.
1945. Poland. Germany has just surrendered. Reactionary assassin Maciek Chelmicki
(Zbigniew Cybulski) undergoes a crisis of
conscience after murdering the two wrong targets in a hit intended for People's minister Sczcuka
(Waclaw Zastrzezynski). He relocates his target in the hotel Metropol but falls in love with Krystyna, a
bartender (Ewa Krzyzewska). Meanwhile, we see the people behind the reactionary counterrevolutionaries -
German sympathizers, disgruntled civil employees, and bitter bourgeois types who think the Communists will
be stopped by their guerrilla tactics and murders.
Long assured that Iron Curtain movies never departed from the iron-clad party line, we're surprised when
Maciek, the hip antihero of Ashes and Diamonds turns out to be an anti-Communist assassin. Zbigniew
Cybulski could easily have been an international star; he's cooler than any American hipster of that
time, and can be described as a cross between Warren Beatty and perhaps Richard Beymer. He's often
described as the Polish James Dean, a plug line that robs Zbigniew of his individuality.
In Ashes and Diamonds Cybulski has a style that wouldn't be hip in America for several
years. He sports a Jack Kennedy flip in his hair and wears oversized sunglasses, explained in the film as
the result of spending months in the Warsaw sewers fighting Nazis - see the Savant review of
Kanal. The first American actor
to hit a similar 'look' was Jack Lord as Felix Leiter in 1962's Dr. No.
I've seen Cuban movies about counterrevolutionaries threatening Castro's 'paradise', and they were
100% propaganda about CIA scum infiltrating the countryside and murdering and torturing. Even if they
were true, they were way too obvious. Ashes and Diamonds is about the brief period when
Poland was politically up for grabs. The new Communist government was disorganized and right-wing
partisan groups were operating against the new Soviet-influenced rule the same way they'd harried
the German invaders.
Ashes and Diamonds favors the Communists, without a doubt. The new minister is seen as a man
of courage and honor who sincerely wants to help Poland, and the Mayor's dinner is attended by polite
Russian Army representatives, including a smiling female officer. When the police downtown round up
some partisan troublemakers, the lead officer treats them with as much TLC as James Dean got from the
cops in Rebel Without a Cause. One punk is actually the minister's wayward son.
The complex screenplay blurs the lines between good and bad even further, although the actual anti-Communists
are certainly not set in a good light. One fool who helps in the assassination is an aide to the
Mayor who ruins his career by getting drunk. The brains behind the killing is a rich aristocrat with
a wife who wants to leave Poland as soon as she can. Maciek's immediate partner is an unfeeling
That leaves Maciek, who starts out as a carefree thrill-killer who hasn't given a serious thought to
what he's doing. This don't-care attitude is his best defense against capture, as he doesn't behave
furtively and thus doesn't attract the suspicion that his superior does.
It all goes haywire for Maciek when he shoots the wrong man. He's confronted by evidence of the pain
he's caused (a rather coincidental witnessing of a fiancée's misery) and even stumbles into
a ruined church where his innocent victims lie. He's as cool as a cucumber when he runs into his
intended target face-to-face, and finds out what a nice guy he seems to be. But the clincher is his
one-night romance with the gorgeous Krystyna in the Metropol hotel. She's gone through the same losses
as has everyone else in this sad country, but seems to be looking for some kind of hope. This rekindles
Maciek's youthful idealism and throws him off balance. Will he or will he not carry out his wicked
mission? Can he keep his cool long enough to do it?
Ashes and Diamonds introduces a lot of characters and often leaves us to figure out who
they are, which leads to some confusion when more than two players look too much alike. The noirish
photography is excellent for atmosphere - most of the stills of Cybulski show him brandishing a
machine gun in daylight but the majority of the film takes place in darkness. Every once in a while
director Wajda lets symbolic visuals run away with the picture. When Maciek tries to express
his doubts in a ruined church, a large idol of Christ hangs in the foreground - upside down.
There's also a tense climax heralded by (literal) fireworks, as the night in question is set aside
for celebration of the fall of Nazi Germany.
There's a thoughtful fairness in the symmetry of having both
the new Communists and the murdering renegades reminisce about the wartime resistance days - both
sides lost most of their friends but remember their comradeship warmly. The message is of course that
Poland needs them all to come to the aid of the (Red) party. When
the minister makes a speech on the road, he doesn't receive wholesale endorsement from the average
working men, who just want security and an end to the murders.
Cybulkski is a fascinating actor to watch, and Ewa Krzyzewska is the kind of soulful beauty who
could make any man question his lifestyle. He mostly stayed in Poland, but was also seen in at
least one French film, a science fiction movie called La Poupée in 1962. He's also the
lead player in the bizarre meta-fantasy
The Saragossa Manuscript.
Facets Video's DVD of Ashes and Diamonds is rather better-looking than their concurrent
presentation of Kanal. The picture is still contrasty but we see enough to pick out
all of the characters and appreciate the moody sets and lighting. The package is a Polart
import, and Facets probably had little control over the quality.
One small grief are the subtitles which are removable and easily read. I think they paraphrase or
soften some anti-American comments: I distinctly heard the work 'Yankee' more than once when someone
was making a disparaging remark, but no negative sentiments show up in the subs. That was the main
gripe with the original American release subtitles for Fritz Lang's M - references to Communists were
dropped from the text.
A big stretch of subtitles in the film's midsection are mis-aligned, appearing either too early or
too late and making it difficult to keep straight which remarks belong to which character. It's an
added unnecessary distraction. I had a hard time recommending Kanal, as the dark print made
the story hard to understand. Ashes and Diamonds has a much more demanding plot, and is
acceptable, although both films
really deserve serious restoration. Andrzej Wajda received an Oscar a couple of years back, and when
they showed a clip montage of his movies, I doubt anybody watching had ever seen one of them. 1
Whoever approved the box copy for Ashes and Diamonds grossly distorts the film: "With the battle
against the Nazis over, a new struggle emerges: the struggle against the Communists." This wrongly
implies that Maciek's right-wing killer squad are freedom fighters. If Facets thinks
this is an anti-Communist movie, they're wrong. Or maybe they're just marketing the film the best they
can for the 'New Order' in our country.
On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair, and Poor,
Ashes and Diamonds rates:
Video: Good --
Sound: Good --
Supplements: stills, posters
Packaging: Keep case
Reviewed: December 7, 2003
1. In fact, it was on Oscar
night that I realized the director's name is pronounced An-dray Vie-dar ... when I'd been wrongly
calling him Wadge-da for twenty years. Oops.
DVD Savant Text © Copyright 2007 Glenn Erickson