Reviews and notes
There is a haunting quality to ASHES AND DIAMONDS
. Its images are strong, and they stay in the mind: especially the final one.... And because the role of Maciek drew the world's attention to the acting talent as well as the personal charisma of Zbigniew Cybulski, who was himself to die so tragically a decade afterwards at the height of his career, the cult following that has developed for this movie has become inevitably associated in some measure with the kind of adulation that is sustained by the memory of James Dean. The link is understandable: both actors were ideal portrayers of the lost and the lonely, the victims of social climates into which they seemed to have been thrown by an inexplicably hostile fate. Yet to pigeon-hole Cybulski as the Polish Dean is hardly fair. In his own right, Cybulski was an artist of highly individual skill.
Additionally of course, ASHES AND DIAMONDS
(Popiol i diament, 1958) is justly venerated as an auteur
piece, and indeed as one of the most notable films ever to have come out of Poland. It is the third and by far the best in director Andrzej Wajda's trilogy about the Polish state of mind as it was conditioned in the years of the Nazi occupation. The first film of the three, A Generation
(Pokolenie, 1955), depicted some young resistance workers, suggesting that a delinquent youth could find a creditable outlet for his aggression in a wartime situation, and implying also that in such circumstances it is virtually imperative to learn how to hate. Wajda has described A Generation
as a 'protest against what was being portrayed then as the hero...who represented an almost obsessional idealism'. The second work, Kanal
(1956), stresses the particular hardships of war by showing the suspenseful predicament of some partisans who, during the Warsaw rising of 1944, tried to elude the Nazis by returning to base through a labyrinth of sewers whose exits had been mined by the enemy. In ASHES AND DIAMONDS
the action takes place in May of 1945. The war has just ended, but there is still resistance duty to be done - duty that is motivated by a nagging unrest.
Maciek is one of two men who have undertaken a dangerous assignment. They belong to a nationalist underground unit, opposed to the possibility which seems imminent of a post-war takeover by a police state brand of Communism whose officials would have been well versed in the authoritarian methods favoured by Stalin. The specific purpose of Maciek and his superior Andrzej (Adam Pawlikowski) is to kill a Stalinist named Szczuka who is about to arrive in a provincial Polish township and assume the post of District Secretary.
Given this situation, Wajda applied to it a heightened realism. From visuals of the most natural-seeming kind, he spread himself with remarkable ease and at the same time with discretion, so that the stylistic flourishes, even at second and third viewings of the film, seem to arise quite reasonably from the thrust of the action or the nature of the atmosphere. The tension inherent in the central thread of the assassination is wryly contrasted with the communal sense of release that marks the end of the war, and both of these interwoven elements give rise to Wajda's expansive devices, covering a range that has its affinities with the Italian neo-realist school and with the German expressionist period as well, without ever settling firmly in either of these extremes. It is, for such a subject, quite a daring style; and it is carried out with a sureness which is no doubt related to Wajda's training as a painter. One senses in much of his work a controlled relish for the bold effect, although he would be the first to declare that a spectator ought not to be primarily aware of style or technique or composition - at any rate, not while seeing one of his films for the first time. This is fair enough. Yet the abiding strength of ASHAS AND DIAMONDS
warrants numerous revivals, and each time one looks at it there is inevitably a keener appreciation of the mise en scene
Quite early in the film we are alerted to the nervy ambiance when a car assumed to be carrying Szczuka comes quickly into view and immediately Maciek and Andrzej open fire, killing two men, neither of whom is Szczuka. Maciek wields a machine gun. Its bullets pepper the back of one of the victims, not only causing the usual proliferation of small and ironically neat holes, but also drawing a flurry of flames at each impact. The vivid effect is quickly contrasted to a rather lyrical view of a tilled field and a plowman at his peaceful labour. Fiery destruction is writ large, to be reproached by a glancing reminder of the earth with its opportunities for growth. So, having established a heightened mood, Wajda introduces Szczuka, who takes note of the working men killed in mistake for himself, and offers what consolation and hope he can to the small crowd that has gathered. Szczuka remains a realistic but secondary figure as the ensuing drama, shrewdly contained within a time span of 24 hours, is concentrated upon Maciek. It is agreed that the assassination of Szczuka will be Maciek's responsibility, since there are more calls upon the time of Andrzej. Maciek takes a room in the town's only hotel. Here he finds himself drawn towards the wishful prospect of a peaceable life, and yet impelled by conscience or indoctrination or both to fulfil his violent duty.
The representation of Maciek, then, is germane to the film's purpose. We have seen him lying almost asleep on the grass with Andrzej as the film began. Seemingly he was able to snatch rest when he could despite the imminent action. A product of war, he is innured to a life of violence and can doze before killing. The war years have left other blights: Maciek wears sun glasses, being unaccustomed to the light because his resistance work has obliged him to spend so much time in the sewers. Sympathy is gained for him by the emphasis placed upon the glasses. In his room he pulls off his sweater and the glasses are twisted awry. Once, after watching as a tank passes by in a near-expressionist composition where the shadows are deep and the light sharp, he lifts the glasses and rubs at his eyes. They continue to irritate him, for presently at the hotel bar he rubs them again. Later, back in the room, having removed the glasses to check his gun, he is distressed when smoke from the cigarette he is smoking curls upward to his eyes. Repeatedly, but always quite naturally, we are shown this token of his vulnerability.
Equal natural in portrayal, although obviously compressed and thrown into relief as a dramatic device, is his relationship with the hotel's barmaid Christina (Ewa Krzyzanowska). It begins in the most casual and persuasive fashion when he orders vodka at the bar and snatches the glass away just as she is about to pour the drink. His playfulness is like that of an overgrown schoolboy. When Christina prepares to draw a beer for a customer, Maciek forestalls her by turning off the tap. So far we have no reason to suppose that he is especially lured by Christina. He would flirt in this light-hearted way with any girl, and already he is eyeing some of the others in the hotel. It is expediency as much as anything that concentrates his attention upon the possibility of sex with Christina, but once the rapport is established it is certainly strong enough to disrupt Maciek's sense of allegiance to the dangerous life he is leading and to make him wish for a conventional domestic future. He is romantic enough to liken Christina to a diamond, a gem to emerge from the ashes of the debilitating experiences he has known up to this point in his young and bleak career....
-Gordon Gow, Films and Filming, March 1977.
Weblink: Review by Derek Malcolm - one of his 100 favourite films
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