AFED #8: Pokolenie [A Generation] (Poland, 1955), Kanal (1956), Popiół i diament [Ashes and Diamonds] (1958); Dir. Andrzej Wajda

A few years back Matthew Sweet wrote an excellent article about the decline in general awareness of great world cinema in our multi-channel age. It inspired as-yet-unfulfilled fantasy to have a conversation in a chip shop with a girl I'd never met before (or had I?) about Last Year At Marienbad. Were such an encounter to take place I suspect I might fall in love there and then.

The movement amorphously defined as European 'art cinema' - particularly its golden era from the mid-fifties to the early seventies - is unquestionably my favourite, so I'll make no apologies for the fact it's going to crop up frequently in this blog. Taken as a whole it's a nexus of ideas and philosophies, yet with a shared conviction that film can, maybe should, be more than vicarious escapism.

These are films that challenge your preconceptions; an incitement to thought. Sure, there's plenty of pretension along the way, but pro rata it probably comes out less than the dross Hollywood has churned out.

What's more it's so dispersed and diverse that, unless you're a professional critic, there's always likely to be areas you've never had the opportunity to explore. Such a case is the work of Polish director Andrej Wajda and the loose trilogy of war films with which he launched his career.

Although the stories are ostensibly unrelated their shared references to events during the German occupation and subsequent rise of communism create a thematic unity. The first, A Generation, is the tale of wayward young man Stach (Tadeusz Łomnicki)in the Warsaw of 1942 who becomes politicised after becoming an apprentice at a workshop. When he encounters beautiful communist agitator Dorota (Urszula Modrzyńska) he signs up for the communist resistance.

Łomnicki convincingly portrays the Stach's transition from roguish chancer to committed freedom fighter, galvanised by Dorota's fate at the climax. Along the way he recruits his own resistance cell which includes a youthful Roman Polanski and reluctant hero Tadeusz Janczar, who provides the film with its visceral highlight; a thrilling pursuit and gunfight with the Nazis through the ruins of the Warsaw ghetto.

It's a bleak tale punctuated with stirring moments. As the great Lindsay Anderson (who Wajda credits with first promoting awareness of his work in the west) pointed out it manages to combine wartime adventure with the "revolutionary biography" of a young man becoming aware and wishing to change his world. In that respect it's perhaps the blueprint for many films that have followed since.

The second film Kanal (which literally translates as 'sewer') moves events on by a couple of years to the close of the 1944 Warsaw Uprising, when the Polish resistance group known as the Home Army attempted to liberate the city from the Nazis. For the benefit of those not up to speed with Polish political history (and I was amongst you) this was a right-wing nationalist group who were largely separate to the communist resistance and controversially the Russians did nothing to assist the uprising but forced the Home Army to be disbanded when they did finally intervene.

Kanal is the blackest and to my mind weakest film in the trilogy. It revolves around a small and diminishing platoon of resistance fighters besieged by the Nazis in the ruins of Warsaw's Mocotow province. After suffering further losses after another Nazi attack they resolve to escape, as others had before them, into the city's sewer network which they hope will lead to safe passage and fresh supplies.

Beneath the city, in the labyrinthine and pestilential darkness of the sewers the group becomes lost and broken up. By the time one of the group mentions Dante we've already realised it's intended to be analogous with hell. It's an atmospheric film and one has to admire the technical skill with which the sewer scenes are executed, but not exactly life affirming.

Watching Ashes and Diamonds one can see that it's the culmination of the experience gained from those first two films. The story takes place in an unamed town on May 8th 1945, the date of the formal German surrender.

Poland is now firmly under the thumb of the Soviets and a communist government has been installed. Maciek and Andrzej, two soldiers with the outlawed Home Army that has now embarked on a campaign of relatiation against the communists, have been ordered to a kill Commissar Szczuka, a communist district leader who has just returned from exile in Russia.

After the pair discover an initial attempt has been unsuccessful, they plan for a second attempt on Szczuka's life in the hotel where he's attending a banquet being organised by the town's mayor. Whilst waiting Maciek begins romancing Krystyna, a barmaid in the hotel and reappraising his life.

Zbigniew Cybulski
, who plays Maciek, has acquired the title of the 'Polish James Dean', helped in part by his premature death. He's a magnetic lead and as we discover more about Maciek and the path his life has taken he grows increasingly sympathetic. His constant wearing of sunglasses seems incongruous for the period until we discover that he also spent time in the Warsaw sewers evading the Nazis.

The rootlessness of his existence and emphasis on nothing than killing for an increasingly obsolete cause has left him spiritually destitute. As the romance with Krystyna evolves we discover that she too has been left scarred by the transience of life during wartime.

Maciek's ultimate fate is that of the flawed tragic hero and it's a barometer of how much more tolerant the Polish authorities had grown in the four years since A Generation, as such a sympathetic portrayal of the right would have been unthinkable before the country adopted a more benign form of communism.

Wajda still avoids overt criticism of the ruling ideology but highlights that good, valiant men became outcasts in the wake of the war, whilst others far less worthy found themselves in positions of power. Throughout the latter stages Maciek's long night of the soul is juxtaposed with the drunken frivolity of the banquet and we're left to draw our own conclusions.

It actually took two viewings before I could really begin to appreciate the quality of this one. While A Generation is at times propagandistic and Kanal unremittingly bleak, in the third film there are shades of light and dark, comedy and pathos. The sumptuous deep focus cinematography of Jerzy Wójcik provides further enrichment and allows for some imaginative mise-en-scene.

Ashes and Diamonds is a film which rewards your attention and compels you to think. If you believe these are worthy virtues for cinema then I highly recommend it.


  1. I've never seen this, but on the strength of your critique, I'm going to try and seek it out.


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