Director: Andrzej Wajda
Screenplay: Jerzy Stefan Stawinski (based on his novel)
Stars: Teresa Izewska (Daisy), Tadeusz Janczar (Ens. Jacek), Wienczyslaw Glinski (Lt. Zadra), Tadeusz Gwiazdowski (Sgt. Kula), Stanislaw Mikulski (Smukly), Emil Karewicz (Lt. Madry), Vladek Sheybal (Michal), Teresa Berezowska (Tereska)
MPAA Rating: NR
Year of Release: 1957
Country: Poland
Kanal DVD
KanalIt is not surprising that one character directly quotes from Dante’s Inferno in Andrzej Wajda’s harrowing Kanal, as the film itself is like a steady descent into hell. There are no pretenses that it will be anything but; in the opening scene, an unnamed narrator introduces us to each of the main characters in a lengthy tracking shot, and then concludes by referring to them as “heroes of the tragedy” and telling us “Watch them closely, for these are the last hours of their lives.” There is no chance that there will be a happy ending.

Kanal takes place during the last days of the Warsaw Uprising in 1944 (it was the first film to tackle this subject). For two months, an army of rebels -- the Home Army --fought against the occupying Nazi forces in an attempt to liberate Warsaw. Unfortunately, the uprising was a failure, largely because the rebels were expecting the Soviet army to come to their aid, but Stalin had the army hold back because he wanted as many of the Polish rebels to be killed as possible since they would surely turn their attention against the Soviets once the Nazis were run out.

This fact is never mentioned explicitly in Kanal, largely because the country had been annexed by the Soviet Union after World War II and thus no filmmaker could openly criticize the communist regime. Yet, for Polish audiences of the time, watching Kanal must have been a grueling experience, with the missing Soviet army becoming a structuring absence that largely explains the tragic and often gruesome deaths of the characters. Thus, the audience could easily read into the subtext a strong criticism of the Soviet Union without any explicit critique on the surface.

The main characters comprise the tattered remnants of a Home Army company, which has been reduced from 70 to 43 in only a day, and by the end of the film will be completely wiped out. The film’s opening credits fade in and out against actual footage of the bombed-out ruins of Warsaw, setting the stage for the inferno to come. The company takes refuge in the remains of a large house, while the Nazi forces slowly surround them. The company is led by Lt. Zadra (Wienczyslaw Glinski), a dedicated commander who epitomizes the notion of never leaving anyone behind.

The company is eventually forced to retreat, and their eventual goal is make it to the heart of the city where they plan to make one last stand. The only problem is that there is no way to get through the German lines, thus they must go underground and travel through the city’s dank sewers. It is at this point that the film truly descends into its hellish vision of brave futility, as various members of the company get separated into small groups, not all of whom know where they are going. The increasingly exhausted rebels slog through a literal river of shit, their heads swimming from a lack of oxygen amidst all the methane gas. The sewer tunnels become like a prison -- or worse, a tomb.

Yet, despite the despondent tone of Kanal, you cannot help but become involved in the characters’ plight. Having been told up front that none of them will live, you would think you could adopt a distance from which to view the action. Yet, Wajda is such an accomplished director and his actors are so effective that we are drawn into their predicament, hoping against hope that someone -- anyone -- will somehow make it out alive. In this way, we are more closely aligned with the characters, as we struggle futilely against the inevitable along with them.

Wajda, always the lyrical filmmaker, manages to evoke moments of beauty and tenderness amidst all the excrement. Foremost in this respect is the character of Daisy (Teresa Izewska), a fiercely determined rebel who literally carries the mortally wounded soldier Jacek (Tadeusz Janczar), with whom she is in love, through the sewers, refusing to give up even when everything is stacked against them. Wajda also proves to be a great director of suspense, as a scene in which a rebel attempts to defuse a booby trap consisting of several hanging grenades is as stomach-churning and tense as anything Hitchcock or Clouzot ever put on film, and as brutally ironic as De Palma.

Any moments of beauty the film has to offer are juxtaposed with images as horrific as anything you’ll see in a horror movie. The expressionist cinematography by Jerzy Lipman (who also shot Wajda’s debut A Generation, as well as Roman Polanski’s debut Knife in the Water) heightens the sometimes surreal horrors of war at its worst. However, by focusing on the individuals, Wajda never lets it become overwhelming. Thus, one of Kanal’s most evocative moments is witnessing a composer (Vladek Sheybal), who has never pretended to be a soldier or rebel and has been driven insane by the pressure of trying to escape, wandering through the sewer tunnels, aimlessly playing a haunting tune on a flute. Wajda finds in that single image the perfect symbol of a world gone terribly, horribly, irretrievably mad.

A Generation Criterion Collection DVD
Andrzej Wajda: Three War FilmsKanal is available exclusively as part of The Criterion Collection’s “Andrzej Wajda: Three War Films” director-approved three-disc box set, which also includes A Generation and Ashes and Diamonds.
Aspect Ratio1.33:1
AudioPolish Dolby Digital 1.0 Monaural
  • “Andrzej Wajda: On Kanal” 27-minute interview with the director, assistant director Janusz Morgenstern, and film critic Jerzy Plazewski
  • “Jan Nowak-Jezioranski: Courier from Warsaw” 28-minute interview by Wajda of a Warsaw Uprising insider
  • Stills gallery of behind-the-scenes production photos, publicity stills, and posters
  • Essay by film critic John Simon
  • DistributorThe Criterion Collection / Home Vision Entertainment
    SRP$79.95 (box set)
    Release DateApril 26, 2004

    The new high-definition transfer of Kanal was made from a 35mm fine-grain master positive struck from the original negative. It looks better than A Generation, which suffered from a good deal of damage. Kanal is significantly cleaner, although there are a few scenes that have a lot of tiny scratches on them, much more than digital restoration could clean up without distorting the image. Otherwise, the picture looks very nice, with a good range of grays, nice contrast, and excellent detail (with the nastiness of the sewer scenes, the detail may be a little too good for those with a delicate constitution).

    The monaural soundtrack sounds fine. It is understandably limited in scope and fidelity, but it is clean of any cracks and pops and has only mild ambient hiss.

    Supplements on the disc include “Andrzej Wajda: On Kanal,” a 27-minute video interview recorded in 2003 with Wajda, assistant director Janusz Morgenstern, and film critic Jerzy Plazewski about the making of the film. Another interesting supplement is “Jan Nowak-Jezioranski: Courier from Warsaw,” a 28-minute interview by Wajda of a Warsaw Uprising insider. Lastly, there is a nice stills gallery of behind-the-scenes production photos, publicity stills, and posters.

    Copyright ©2005 James Kendrick

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    All images copyright ©2005 The Criterion Collection

    Overall Rating: (4)

    James Kendrick

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