Retro Review: Ashes and Diamonds

How does a nation go on without a nation? What happens when someone is completely confident in their identity, in their self-worth and value, but continually has that identity stripped away or undermined? Can a single man stand up against the course of history, or are we all just cogs in the machine, destined to grind away into nothing under the influence of a force we can’t even comprehend?

These crises make up, in essence, the national predicament of the Polish people for the past several centuries. Overrun, split and scrabbled over by the Russians, Prussians, Austrians, Hungarians and Germans, Poland desperately sought independence on numerous occasions, only to find themselves conquered yet again by a foreign power. The situation was perhaps never more dire than in the years surrounding WWII: divided by agreement between Germany and Russia before being completely overwhelmed by Hitler’s forces, Poland’s steadfast resistance against their occupiers during the war was the stuff of legends (particularly the Warsaw Uprising), but ultimately futile, as the Polish people watched their Nazi oppressors merely switch to Soviet ones.

Director Andrzej Wajda (pronounced AN-drey VAI-da), in his 1958 film “Ashes and Diamonds,” completed a trilogy of war films (following “A Generation” and “Kanal”) that seamlessly meshed together the grander implications of a national, political identity crisis with the personal repercussions of individual restlessness. “Ashes and Diamonds” distills the concept of “Polishness” at the time down to one, conflicted young man, and lets circumstance run its course. Like Poland itself, the fate of resistance fighter Maciek is inevitable, except when it’s not: there are so many chances, so much luck involved with Maciek’s path, yet even he seems all along to know where everything will turn out. Indeed, it may be exactly because he knows the ending history has written for him, that in the end it comes to fruition.

Maciek’s tale takes place entirely in an unnamed Polish town on one day, a critical day: May 8, 1945, the day Germany officially surrendered to the Allied powers. Along with his friend and Home Army (the Polish resistance) supervisor Andrzej, Maciek was been assigned to assassinate Commissar Szczuka, a Polish communist returning from exile to take charge of the new Soviet government in the area. Their first attempt goes tragically awry, but Maciek is given a second opportunity later that day when he checks into the same hotel as Szczuka.

Complicating matters is the fact that Szczuka is no villain: he’s a genuinely well-meaning man trying to do what’s best for his country. To him, the Soviet regime promises equality and self-preservation for the Polish working class, and his hopes provide a stark contrast to the cyclical violence of the Home Army. In fact, returning home from abroad, Szczuka’s greatest priority is no political task, but merely to find his son Marek, who was adopted and raised by Szczuka’s sister-in-law after his wife died in a concentration camp. Marek, influenced by his aunt’s right-wing Polish nationalist views, has joined the Home Army, but has recently been captured and detained by the Russians. In an ironic twist, it is this side of Szczuka, his enduring humanity, that ultimately does him in, as his impatience to see his son again leads him to walk the streets late at night without an escort.

Maciek is unaware of all of this, but still he hesitates in carrying out his orders, thanks to a rapidly developing crush on a local bar maid, Krystyna. In Krystyna, Maciek finds a possible alternative to the Home Front’s militarism. The destruction of Warsaw clearly broke Maciek down to his current, disillusioned state, but Krystyna offers hope for a new life, for a chance to rebuild the beauty and peace lost in the war. There is an absolutely extraordinary sequence between Maciek and Krystyna in a bombed-out church, where Maciek refers to the girl as the eponymous diamond amongst the ashes. We get the sense that Maciek desperately wants to cast off his loyalties and find a new future with Krystyna, but he’s already chosen his side. He must stand up for himself and for his nation, no matter how doomed he knows the enterprise may be.

That church scene is perhaps the culmination of the technical mastery of “Ashes and Diamonds.” Wajda’s camera is loaded and precise: like with Hitchcock, we sense that every frame is meticulously designed to demonstrate shifts and imbalances in power between the characters. But there is also a brashness to Wajda’s images that is more reminiscent of the French New Wave (much as I may still love Godard, Truffaut and Resnais for their ideas and style, I grow less and less impressed with their “innovation” the more I explore the cinema of the time; between Wajda, Melville, and other Soviet films from the Khruschev Thaw such as “The Cranes Are Flying,” it’s clear that the international cinema of the 1950s was not nearly as stagnant as the canonical narrative of film history would have you believe). Take, for instance, a shot in which Maciek and Krystyna stand in the background, divided by a half-destroyed, upside-down crucifix in the foreground: it takes guts to reflect the chaos of the situation in such a near-blasphemous frame. I would describe a few other shots and montages that are equally powerful, but many of them come at the film’s very end, and I would not wish to spoil the film’s enthralling conclusion any more than I probably already have.

There is a sub-plot involving a weaselly double agent named Drewnowski and his drunken escapades, which adds a bit of humor to the film but distracts from the truly engrossing passages revolving around Maciek and Szczuka. Actor Zbigniew Cybulski, who plays Maciek, was often referred to as “the Polish James Dean,” and the comparison is an extremely appropriate one, considering Cybulski’s instant charisma, tortured screen personality and tragically short career (he was killed at the age of 40, attempting to jump on to an already-speeding train). Counterbalanced by the stoic authority of Waclaw Zastrzezynski, the actor who plays Szczuka, the two make “Ashes and Diamonds” a captivating exploration into the post-war Polish psyche. Both of their characters share a vision of a brighter, better, independent Poland, a vision which they know will not come true during their lifetimes but they pursue all the same. Perhaps it was the work of men like these that finally gave rise to Solidarity and an independent nation, but history has no use for such easily disposable parts.

Verdict: 4 out of 4 stars

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