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First, I've read a book by Jerzy Andrzejewski and then I've seen the
movie. After that, I never went back to the book. It was not because it
was bad, quite the contrary - it was very good. But the movie by
Andrzej Wajda is definitely a masterpiece of Polish movie-making. The
main plot of the movie revolves around Maciek Chelmicki, a young
idealist who fought against the Germans and then turned to fight
against the Communists. He is sent to kill Szczuka, one of The Party's
middle rank administrators, by the Polish underground.That's the plot.
The movie itself is about a lot of important things, common to all
people (but I believe the Polish people will find a few of them more
1. Nothing is black or white, everything is just a shade of gray
2. Is death, no matter how you try to justify it, senseless?
3. Is it better to live, while on your knees or die standing straight? Or maybe it's better to try to live standing straight?
4. That sometimes it's not war that is hell, it's living through war and trying to live a normal life that is a lot harder (thank God I do not know if it is so)
Wajda's movie doesn't give direct answers to any of these questions - each person may watch the movie from a different point of view and get to a totally different conclusion. But even if you're not into psychological movies about war, or noir-movies (and Popiol i Diament is definitely a sort of a noir-movie) it's worth watching for just one scene - the burning vodka glasses at the bar - Cybulski at his best.
And lastly - the motto of the movie (and of the book as well):
"Will ash and chaos be left in the end, that follows a storm into abyss Or may a diamond be found in the ash, a dawn of an everlasting victory"
Cyprian Kamil Norwid
PS: I hope Mr Norwid will not turn in his grave at the quality of my translation but that part of a poem by CK Norwid sums up the movie really well.
"Ashes and Diamonds" is both an essential historical film and a visual
masterpiece. Set in the first days of Soviet occupation following World
War II, the film examines the moral dilemmas of the protagonist,
Maciek--a young rebel hit-man-- in following through with the
assassination of a leading communist party member--Sczcuka--who will
soon be empowered as a means of forming a puppet communist government
in Poland. The film is not limited to the perspective of the
protagonist, and alternates between the moral dilemmas of each of the
characters in fulfilling predetermined Soviet agendas in the formation
of a communist Poland.
The visual composition of the film is as masterful as the complexity of the characters and plot. Despite the notoriously bad film technology in the Soviet states and the constraints of Socialist Realism, the film manages not only to capture the potential richness of black and white, but also manages to avoid the standard pitfalls of over-zealous editing that often destroy other contemporary Soviet films. The frames are longer shots in general, and forced schematization through editing is all but absent. The precise composition of each scene throughout the film provides the visual coherency that would otherwise be imposed by careful editing; as an example, see the scene in which Maciek is underneath the staircase in the lobby of the hotel towards the end of the film, or the final "Polish" dance scene.
I would highly recommend some research into the political transitions of Poland in the years directly following WWI before viewing this film for the first time; this film was made for a particular audience who clearly understood certain cultural and historical references that a modern Western audience will inevitably miss (ie. "Were you in Warsaw?"). The thematic and emotional complexity of the film is also enhanced by an understanding of Polish history. I would highly recommend this film for any class examining Eastern Europe or Soviet Russia (which is the context in which I was introduced to this film in particular), or to anyone who would like to better understand the complexity of Cold War politics from a perspective behind the Iron Curtain.
I've seen this movie only twice, stumbling across it the first time in a theater in Skopje, Yugoslavia, and I left the theater almost in shock. I'd never seen such a combination of direction, editing, cinematography, and acting. (That business about Cybulski being "the Polish James Dean" is disregardable nonsense; like saying that Chopin was the Polish John Phillip Souza.) Wajda's other films didn't seem so impressive, but "Ashes and Diamonds" was simply superb. The images linger in the mind, even now, when artiness has become commonplace. The shattered crucifix hanging upside down; the final chase through the drying laundry; and Cybulski on his side, kicking himself around in circles atop a heap of garbage! It wasn't simply thought provoking, it was shocking. I can only remember one other time I felt stunned into silence on leaving a theater, and that was in LA after the first Bergman film I saw, which happened to be "The Seventh Seal." Don't miss it.
Surely the most mature of the trilogy; it's certainly the most elliptical and stylistically audacious. At the start, Cybulski is a laidback, coldly cynical assassin who lolls on his back in a field waiting to carry out his latest hit; suffering a crisis of confidence in light of his awakening love for a woman, he flirts with desertion before resigning himself to the demands of his position. His personal journey speaks eloquently to the national trauma, and he's just the most prominent in a complex collection of transition figures, caught on the official last night of the war, now looking forward but not yet able to escape the ravages of war and the attendant moral and psychological confusion, not yet free of potential victimhood (like the mayor's assistant who on learning of his boss' promotion drinks excessively in celebration of his own presumed advancement, but in his disruptive drunkenness kills off what future he had). The ending, intercutting a personal tragedy with the dancers doing the elegant polannaise in the streaming light of dawn, like disembodied Felliniesque figures, perfectly encapsulates the film's mix of toughness and allusiveness.
At its most basic, Andrzej Wajda's "Popiol i diament" (called "Ashes
and Diamonds" in English) may seem to be a look at where Poland would
be going after WWII ended. The plot involves young Maciek Chelmicki
(Zbigniew Cybulski), who has helped expel the Nazis from Poland. With
the Soviet Union now taking over the country, he is ordered to shift
his allegiance to them. Through Maciek's acquaintances with communist
leader Szczuka and barmaid Krzystyna (Ewa Krzyzewska), a potentially
explosive situation arises.
If you know nothing about how the movie got made, this seems to be the whole purpose. But there are other points. In a mini-documentary about the movie, Andrzej Wajda and his collaborators explain how the novel on which the movie is based had Szczuka as the main character. Wajda not only moved the focus to Maciek - and gave him sort of a James Dean look - but also stressed the scene where Maciek talks with the man who fought in the Spanish Civil War. Apparently, fighting like the man did is a Polish tradition. Therefore, the film likely appeals to the Poles in almost every way; the perfect Polish movie, if you will.
Although I've never seen any of Andrzej Wajda's other movies - hell, I'd never heard of him until the Academy Awards gave him an honorary Oscar - I staunchly recommend this one. One can clearly see how he used the movie to subtly challenge the Soviet domination of his country (of course, they couldn't openly say anything against the USSR). Poland's pro-Soviet government had approved the movie, but didn't want to let it outside Poland. Wajda got some people to smuggle it out of the country, and it reached much of the world. Probably the most amazing scene is the end. I won't spoil the end, but I'll note that blood on a white sheet looks a bit like Poland's flag (a nationalistic statement).
All in all, a great movie. Andrzej Wajda has every reason to be proud of it.
*** This review may contain spoilers ***
When Germany surrendered in WWII on May 8, 1945 there was much
celebration in the West, but the mood in Poland was not altogether
jubilant - the Nazis had been defeated but the Soviet occupation was
settling in for a long stay. The complexity of the political situation
is reflected in this film but, short of having been there or studied
the history, an encompassing understanding of the chaotic situation
must remain incomplete I think. However, this film is a great example
of how focusing on the lives of a few characters in a single
twenty-four hour period can illuminate significant historical facts in
the context of an intriguing story.
The characters are representative of the factions existing in Poland on the day of the German surrender. You have: Maciek, a resistance fighter who had opposed the Germans and was continuing the struggle against the communists; Szczuka, a Pole who embraced the communists and had become a party official; Drewnowski, whose sympathies were with the resistance, but who hedged his bets by playing on both sides; people sucking up to the new power structure for purely personal gain; and most folks, who were just trying to get by.
Moral ambiguities abound, raising issues with no easy answers. In an attempt to kill Szczuka Maciek mistakenly kills two innocent workers returning from a day of work at a local cement plant. Is continued resistance worth the sacrifice of innocent Polish lives? Maciek is conflicted about this and when Maciek's superior officer asks his superior if it is really necessary to kill Szczuka, he gets a resounding "Yes," followed by the question, "Is this the Poland you fought for?" Ordinary citizens bemoan the fact that any killing of Poles by Poles is wrong, but the very existence of the resistance shows that there is no universal agreement on that. Though Szczuka may be on the wrong side, he is not played as a villain and in fact he seems sincere in his convictions. You believe there is no evil intent when he says, "The end of the War isn't the end of our fight. The fight for Poland and what kind of country it is to become has just begun." Having met and become infatuated with the beautiful Krystyna, Maciek is torn between giving up on the resistance and pursuing personal goals. But his superior officer's implication that to do so would be traitorous to the cause resonates with him and, when he has an opportunity to kill Szczuka, he casts his lot with the cause he has fought for - a cause he knows is probably doomed, and will doom him. Better to die for a doomed cause you believe in than live a lie? Or, is it better to work within the system in trying to achieve heretical ideals?
Zbigniew Cybulski is a quirky but charismatic actor. His unexpected facial expressions and body movements create a unique, memorable character. All the actors are good, and the melancholy score is perfect for the mood of the film - it is reminiscent of some of the more plaintive works of Nina Rota.
A most impressive aspect of this film is the black and white cinematography. Every scene is artistically composed and there are many scenes that achieve a stunning effect, such as the one between Maciek and Krystyna in the ruined church with a life-sized crucifix hanging upside down and swaying to the sound of an eerie squeak, perhaps suggesting that the church had been turned on its head, or otherwise marginalized. The initial scenes also suggest the impotence of religion during this difficult time. When one of the innocent workers tries to escape Maciek's shots, he seeks refuge in a church, but the door is locked. After the door jam has been blown off the worker falls through the doorway, revealing a mangled crucifix inside.
This film encourages one to do a little study of Polish history. Poland lost over five million civilians in the war, about three million of them Jews. This out of a population of thirty-five million. Poland also lost over 400,000 military personnel fighting for the allies, about the same number that the United States lost. Total U.S. casualties during the war accounted for about a third of one per cent of the total population, compared with a 16% loss of the Polish population. And, in the end, what Poland got for its sacrifice was a fifty year period of Soviet occupation. The segment of Norwid's poem that Maciek recites, "Will only ashes remain, and chaos, whirling into the void, or will the ashes hold the glory of a starlight diamond?" is particularly poignant in view of what happened.
This film is in a league with the best black and white films of Bergman and Fellini.
*** This review may contain spoilers ***
"Ashes and Diamonds", the final segment of Andrzej Wajda's celebrated war
trilogy("A Generation" and "Kanal" preceded it) explores the effects of
world war II on Poland's disillusioned youth. Wajda's unglorified vision of
warfare and it's bitter aftermath, is informed with moral and historical
ambiguity, leaving the viewer with several independent decisions to make.
After a first viewing, "Ashes and Diamonds" is a story of violence and love, skillfully-plotted and compulsively told; a typical suspense thriller with it's perilous assignments and stylish black and white cinematography suggesting noir. On another level, the film contains elements of high tragedy.
"Ashes and Diamonds"(The title is taken from a poem by Norwid) posits that the wrong done to a generation of youngsters, who died in a suspect cause, was deplorable. Wajda's frames are filled with bold and exciting images that infuse his work with an an admirable visual intensity. The filmmaker's penchant for hyperbole and symbolism; for the ornate and the spectacular, led to a persistent charge of 'baroquenesss'. It is my observation however, that the consistant visuals and atmospheric richness of his cinema, blend congrously with his thematic concerns. "Ashes and Diamonds" is an explosive evocation of post-war chaos. In it's compassionate attitude towards the individual, the community, and the nation; with it's committment to historical and social relevance, and in it's eloquent approach to human destiny, "Ashes and Diamonds" remains one of the most significant and provocative films ever to come out of Eastern Europe. Kurt Note: The plot of this review was willfully excised so as not to get anywhere near a 'spoiler' tag.
Ashes and Diamonds is the film I have seen at least 15 times in my youth. I know it by heart as I was deeply impressed by the dilemma it depicts. Maciek remains for me the hero of illusions and disillusion. The small hotel of the film will be allways the scenery of personal and historical fate and the last scene will sum up for me always the eternal question of "quo vadis?"
This is one of those movies that convince me of the medium's universality. Wajda is using his skills in emulation of Hollywood examples (for example, the tenebrous lighting reminiscent of fashionable noir movies and the deep focus honed by Orson Welles and Gregg Toland), but his story is genuinely about post-war Poland and is intensely personal and honest. In Zbigniew Cybulski, he has an actor who catches the director's personal feelings about the War and what has happened to his homeland, his bravery struggling against the ambiguity and despair brought on by war weariness and soviet betrayal. We see the sociology of the moment, from the hotel clerk's nostalgia for Warsaw, now ruined, to the hardened barmaid, who wants desperately to believe in love. The whole spectrum is sampled, from the ineffectual old leaders to the vicious soviet man who assists the targeted Sczcuka, himself a decent but conflicted character. It's remarkable that Wajda got the film made despite his soviet minders.
"Ashes and Diamonds" (Polish, 1958): And, this is the third of Wajda's trilogy about WWII in Poland, or perhaps better stated, inside the Polish people. This one is set on the last night of the war, and the following first day of official peace & freedom from German domination. As with both of the other films, nothing is as simple as it might first appear to us, or to the story's characters. Although it might not be "necessary" to view this trilogy three nights in a row (as I did), they SHOULD be seen in sequence. The writer and director chose exceptionally interesting and symbolic moments in time to place these stages. Note: NONE are upbeat, optimistic considerations of what war creates, except perhaps Wajda's inclination that the Poles do what they MUST for the greater good, even when it is for their individual worst.
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