Andrzej Wajda’s Ashes and Diamonds (‘Popiol i diament’, 1955) is considered as one of the most important Polish films of all time. Championed by Francis Ford Coppola and Martin Scorsese, this film based on Jerzy Andrzejewski’s 1948 novel was considered to be the third installment of Wajda’s thematically linked ‘War trilogy’, which depicted the uneasy political and social realities of war-torn Poland. Mr. Wajda’s ability to combine stark realism and lyrical vision was evident in his first feature film, A Generation (1955). It was heavily influenced by Neo-realism and was mostly set in the war-ravaged areas of Warsaw. Wajda’s aesthetics in the war trilogy also inspired generations of film-makers, the most recent to cite is American comedian and director Bill Hader who made the Emmy Award-winning dark comedy series, Barry.
Wajda’s second feature, Kanal (1957) was more visually stylized and offered a grimly heroic account of Warsaw Uprising. A large chunk of action in Kanal takes place inside the sewers and the chiaroscuro style expertly filled the disorienting, claustrophobic atmosphere with pools of shadow and darkness. Ashes and Diamonds (1958) represents a maturation of Wajda. His use of expressionistic lighting long takes, baroque imagery and deep focus (which although borrowed from numerous sources, namely Orson Welles’ Citizen Kane) turns it into a formally unique and deeply symbolic work.
If A Generation and Kanal were impactful due to its simplicity and well-aimed thematic discourse, Ashes and Diamonds strives for a pure visual expression to sharply-etch the moral ambiguities of these post-war Polish characters. And Wajda found the perfect actor in Zbigniew Cybulski to project the wartime generation’s moral quandaries and flashes of optimism. In fact, the director’s treatment of wartime and existential themes is considered to have easily eclipsed Andrzejewski’s source novel as the author himself wished he could insert into his work certain dialogues from the screenplay.
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Set in the days of Germany’s final capitulation, Ashes and Diamonds opens with two men — Maciek (Zybigniew Cybulski) and Andrzej (Adam Pawlikowski) – lying on the grass by a roadside village chapel. A pretty little girl asks one of the men to help her place flowers on an icon above the chapel’s closed door. Just then, a third man, earlier hidden from our view, announces the approach of a vehicle. The two men instantly jump into action. They move closer to the approaching car, shoot at it, and then flee.
A little later, the commissar of the Communist party, Mr. Szczuka (Waclaw Zastrzezynski) passes the scene of cold-blooded murder and explains to the gathered workers that he and his aide were actually the intended victims. The murdered ones were workers at the local factory. Szczuka also laments to the enraged workers that although the war is over, the struggle for political dominance will continue. Meanwhile, Andrzej and Maciek reach a nearby town. Having disposed of the Nazis, the anti-communist superiors inside the resistance force have asked the duo to kill the new commissar of the town.
They only realize their mistake after reaching Hotel Monopol, where Szczuka is actually staying. Maciek checks into the room beside Szczuka and waits for further orders. Andrzej meets the Major (a brilliantly staged scene, where the always-visible shadowed ceilings suggest the constraints placed upon the characters’ actions) who reiterates the significance of killing Szczuka.
While up to this point, Ashes and Diamonds’ narrative juggles between different threads (one involves Szczuka looking for his estranged 17-year old son), the central focus slowly shifts to Maciek. The things unfolding within the hotel pushes him to dream of a life that doesn’t involve violence and acquiescence and there’s a sense of bleak fatalism which heightens his existential suffering. When Maciek opens his hotel room’s window he sees a woman cursing the killers of her fiance (one of Maciek’s victims). At a later occasion, he enters a dilapidated Church, before passing an upside-down Christ hammered with nails, and closely confronts the devastation caused by his violence.
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Maciek is torn between feelings of guilt and promise of blind obedience, which is particularly set off by his tentative courtship of Krystyna (Ewa Krzyzewska), a beautiful and lonely barmaid. He begins to fall for her and even thinks of leaving the resistance, but Andrzej reminds Maciek about his duty for his countrymen. In the background, a political banquet is held at the hotel, where scheming bureaucrats at different levels bargain for a better position in the new Poland. The banquet scenes are marked with dark humor as a mayor’s secretary (Bogumil Kobiela) — also an informant for the two assassins — gets heavily drunk with a misanthropic reporter and makes a mess of his career oppurtunities.
Jerzy Wojcik’s phenomenal cinematography excavates more meaning in the ironic backdrops (celebratory fireworks follows a tensely-staged assassination or the waltz of transfixed banquet guests at the symbolic dawn of a ‘new day’, the flaming drink shots, etc) than in the character actions. The energetic movements of the camera add a real sense of momentum to the otherwise morose drama. There are plenty of rich, memorable images in Ashes and Diamonds – for instance, a shot in the first shooting where a victim falls through a church doorway with his jacket on fire – that have outlived its broader existential motifs and specific post-war themes. Nevertheless, in the repeat viewings what’s fascinating to look at is Maciek’s internal contradictions; the split existing within himself that has to choose between brutality and tenderness. The spontaneity and mobility with which actor Cybulski (the dark glasses not only express his coolness but also his duality) plays the character also succintly typifies Maciek’s dilemma.
I might be far removed to deeply understand the tone and textures of wartime Poland (planning to read the novel soon). Yet the central quicksilver performance and Wajda’s virtuoso deep-focus compositions truly turns Ashes and Diamonds (103 minutes) into a bewitching work of cinematic art.