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Andrej Wajda: Three War Films
A Generation, Kanal, Ashes and Diamonds
Criterion has done full justice to Andrzej Wajda (pronounced, roughly, "Ahndray Vidar") in this beautiful three-disc set. The transfers are beautiful and the extras are a first row center seat in a combination history and cinema class. The trilogy is a middle-50s take on what happened in Poland scarcely 15 years before, made possible by an ideological thaw in Eastern Bloc politics. Wajda and his collaborators remained true to the numbingly harsh realities of wartime while finding a path through official red tape and censorship, which was still of the opinion that the 'unfortunate era' was too politically disturbing for presentation in films.
For those not familiar with WW2 history the complicated politics are greatly in need of objective explanations. Poland was used as a political killing field by both Germany and the Soviet Union, while the Allies either remained aloof or concentrated their efforts elsewhere. Each film takes a different stage in the struggle to show the realities of war on the ground, in one's home territory.
We also see Wajda growing as a filmmaker in leaps and bounds, and becoming more influenced by Western filmmaking. The key filmmakers seen in the interview documentaries are eager to tell their stories. Wajda even interviews a surviving 'insider' of the Warsaw uprising of 1944, when Poles believed that the Allies were ready and waiting to help them, and that the Russians just across the Vistula river were poised to attack as soon as the Poles started fighting their Nazi occupiers. They were tragically, horribly wrong.
The first film in the trilogy is a testament to the idealistic rebels who formed anti-German guerrilla units in the middle of the occupation. The heroes are very young adults that volunteer in a burst of romantic energy, to enjoy (or suffer) a brief euphoria before their eventual capture. It's an eternal story hidden within the specific struggle, and Wajda and writer Bohdan Czeszko are able to maintain an accurate political context, even while highlighting sentimental details.
A Generation makes an excellent contrast with hardboiled American noir thrillers, in which demoralized men often struggle against psychological barriers or vague feelings of angst and alienation. Poland's embattled partisans would consider those problems a vacation, and the freedom to indulge inner feelings a luxury. We first see Stach and his fellow toughs happily stealing coal from a moving train, a stunt that might fit into a teen comedy. But the mood changes when the Germans shoot one of them dead. Stach's love life takes a big upswing when he sees the irresistible Dorotea. He takes innocent walks with her while planning murder raids to obtain German weapons, and we're reminded of the similar doomed couples in noir classics like They Lived By Night. Stach's new 'gang' is an odd group. Jasio seems to be there just to prove he's not a coward, while some the others are practically little kids. One boy in knee-pants is played by an impossibly young-looking Roman Polanski.
Wajda's direction tries to be 'real' in the style of the Italian Neorealist films that were at the time so influential, but he is repeatedly drawn to dynamic effects. A street battle erupts when Stach's group hijacks a truck to evacuate some refugees from the embattled ghetto, and the filming is direct and unadorned. But one fighter is cornered in a building, and as the Germans close in Wajda makes use of a circular stairway for an arresting series of visuals.
A Generation does without position speeches or long explanations of political details. We know that the older man who gets Stach his new job is a Communist resistance organizer on the same side as Dorota; we even see him escaping from the Ghetto. Stach's employers are also anti-Nazi and are hiding a veritable armory in the carpentry shop, but they are a nationalist faction opposed to the Communists and allied with the long-defeated Polish army. This makes it all the more touching when Stach greets some eager new recruits at the finale, with their fresh faces that haven't seen what he's seen, and don't know how miserably complex the issues are. They represent an entire generation of Poles willing to give their lives, with little more than a romantic dream to sustain them.
All three of the Andrzej Wajda films are accompanied by absorbing interview documentaries in which Wajda and his contemporaries explain the complicated politics of wartime Poland, and the unusually favorable political conditions that created the "Polish school movement" of the 50s. We're told that within the German-held city there were several competing, sometimes hostile liberation groups. The Communist nationalists were small, barely organized units such as the one Stach fought with, and they indeed helped during the Ghetto uprising. The remnants of the Army survived to stage the much larger Warsaw uprising in 1944, covered in the next film.
A Generation also includes Wajda's first film, an innocuous and issue-free look at a little town that specializes in folk ceramics. Ewa Mazierska's text essay in the enclosed pamphlet provides even more background on the awful predicament suffered by Poland, caught in the squeeze between the undisguised evil of Hitler and the hidden treachery of Stalin.
The second film of the trilogy skips ahead in time to tell a grim and harrowing tale of hopeless military defeat at the bitter end of the Warsaw uprising. Driven like rats into the city's sewers, the brave fighters struggle to their inevitable end. Director Andrzej Wajda makes us feel every claustrophobic heartbeat of men and women caught in a hellish subterranean maze.
Kanal stands in stark contrast to contemporary English and American movies that celebrated WW2 as a series of glorious victories. Ravaged by the German occupation, Poland lost millions to battle and mass murder and its capital was practically razed to the ground. Wajda's unique 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. They're the remnants of an official unit but 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 Chopin - they'd rather hear pop tunes like La Cumparsita.
Wajda's direction starts with a long trucking shot accompanied by a noirish narrator telling us that all of the brave fighters will soon be dead. Above ground, the style stays fairly conventional. The city around the unit has been utterly demolished and provides no end of surreal settings, with further enhancement unnecessary. Once the story shifts to the sewers the film's world constricts into a nightmare of half-lit tunnels, where it is difficult to know what one hears or sees.
I saw Kanal once in the early 70s, I think on PBS television, and was floored by it. The story embellishes nothing and makes no attempt to glamorize the fighters or otherwise transform them into valiant martyrs. The unit 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 gentle, disoriented composer-pianist is played by familiar actor Vladek Sheybal, who later parlayed his melancholy stare into memorable villain parts in films like From Russia with Love, Casino Royale and The Wind and the Lion.
Kanal's filmmaker docu concentrates on the conditions that allowed Wajda to make a film that concentrates only on the crushing defeat of the Warsaw uprising. Apparently the revived Polish army held part of the city for a short time, and even established a post office and flew their flag while the Germans regrouped. Kanal skips that part of the story to instead show how horrible defeat can be for fighters who know that surrender means extermination. Wajda explains that the political tragedy: The Russian army simply paused in their invasion to first allow the Germans to wipe out the Polish resistance. Stalin apparently figured that the Germans were doing his work for him - that he'd have to do the same thing later anyway, when the Soviet Union took over. Although there's no explanation for it in the movie, Polish audiences in 1955 knew what Daisy was looking at as she stares out over the Vistula in the last few seconds of the film - the Russian troops that could have saved them, biding their time.
Even more intriguing is Wajda's interview extra with Jan Nowak-Jezioranski, who served as a courier between the Warsaw underground and the Polish government in exile. The fighters believed that encouraging radio reports from London and the Soviet Union would translate into aid when they began their uprising, whereas there was never any serious help from the Allies. The depth of Stalin's perfidy wasn't known until later; those military officers not executed by the Germans, were systematically killed off by the Russians after the victory. Nowak-Jezioranski also explains that the obliteration of nationalist resistance during the war meant that Poland was spared the bloodbath of the Hungarian uprising ten years later, about the time Kanal was being made. By that time the Poles had found other ways to resist the Soviet Comisars.
The essay for this disc is from the noted film critic John Simon.
Ashes and Diamonds
Ashes and Diamonds is by far the most western of the three films and the most politically complicated. One would expect a more strident pro-Communist tone from a movie made in a state-run film school. It's certainly there, but in a very downbeat way. The 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. Its source was a popular pro-Communist novel, which insured smooth sailing during production ... but the powers that be didn't know that Wajda's rewrite had displaced the central figure of a People's Minister in favor of a minor character, a hit-man for the nationalists.
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. Wajda admits that his main character was purposely allowed to act and dress in an anacronistic manner, so as to create more identification among young people who were small children during the occupation.
Ashes and Diamonds is full of surprises. The hip antihero Maciek is soon revealed as an anti-Communist assassin. The more we see of the people he works for, the more we're convinced that his loyalty is misplaced: he's thinks he's still fighting for the nationalists who didn't escape the sewers of Warsaw. 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 was often called the Polish James Dean, a plug line that robs Zbigniew of his individuality.
In Ashes and Diamonds Cybulski has found 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. The first American actor to hit upon 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 to murder and torture. Even if the facts were true, the stories were way too obvious. Ashes and Diamonds concentrates on 24 hours in 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. A mayor's aide who helps in the assassination is a fool 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 zealot.
Maciek soon finds himself in a psychological funk. He 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 bumps face-to-face into his intended target. 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?
The noirish photography in Ashes and Diamonds creates an excellent 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. But Wajda's visuals have undeniable power. There's a killer scene in which a man hides from the police behind a freshly-hung sheet, which suddenly stains with blood as he's shot. Although the movie is in B&W, the effect is so good we seem to perceive it in color.
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 a wholesale endorsement from the average working men, who just want security and an end to the murders.
Ewa Krzyzewska is the kind of soulful beauty that could make any man question his lifestyle. Cybulkski is a fascinating actor to watch, and became a genuine movie star. 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.
The docu on Ashes and Diamonds lets Andrzej Wajda explain how this movie encouraged him to open up as a filmmaker. Allowing his main actor to play the part in anachronistic dress and out-method the American actors of the time is one thing, but Wajda also admits that he was greatly influenced by movies like The Asphalt Jungle. In 1958 the classic noir look had all but disappeared, but Ashes and Diamonds takes us back to its visual heyday.
Unique to this disc is an informative audio commentary by Annette Insdorf, and a Polish newsreel snippet showing Wajda at work with his actors on the Ashes and Diamonds set.
On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair, and Poor,
| A Generation rates: |
Supplements: Interview docu Andrzej Wajda: On Becoming a Filmmaker with the director and film critic Jerzy Plazewski; Ceramics from Ilza, film school short subject; photos, posters, director artwork; essay by film scholar Ewa Mazierska
| Kanal rates: |
Supplements: Interview docu Andrzej Wajda: On Kanal with the director, asst. director Janusz Morgenstern and film critic Jerzy Plazewski; Jan Nowak-Jezioranski: Courier from Warsaw, Wajda interviews a Warsaw uprising insider; photos, posters, director artwork
Supplements: Audio Commentary by Annette Insdorf; Interview docu Andrzej Wajda: On Ashes and Diamonds with the director, asst. director Janusz Morgenstern and film critic Jerzy Plazewski; Newsreel footage from the set of the movie; photos, posters, director artwork
Packaging: 3 Keep cases in card box
Reviewed: April 15, 2005