Ashes and Diamonds (Popiól i diament)

Ashes and Diamonds (Popiól i diament)
Director: Andrzej Wajda
Screenplay: Jerzy Andrzejewski & Andrzej Wajda (based on the novel by Jerzy Andrzejewski)
Stars: Zbigniew Cybulski (Maciek Chelmicki), Ewa Krzyzewska (Krystyna), Waclaw Zastrzezynski (Szczuka), Adam Pawlikowski (Andrzej), Bogumil Kobiela (Drewnowski), Jan Ciecierski (Portier),Stanislaw Milski (Pieniazek), Artur Mlodnicki (Kotowicz), Halina Kwiatkowska (Staniewiczowa), Ignacy Machowski (Waga), Zbigniew Skowronski (Slomka)
MPAA Rating: NR
Year of Release: 1958
Country: Poland
Ashes and Diamonds DVD
Ashes and DiamondsAndrzej Wajda’s Ashes and Diamonds (Popiól i diament) was the third film in a loose, originally unintended trilogy about Poland during World War II, and it is a fitting a capstone that solidified Wajda’s place in international cinema. Taken together, the three films, which also include 1955’s A Generation and 1957’s Kanal, form an impressive vision of a country being torn apart from every direction by tragedy of a global scale.

A Generation is actually a fitting title for all three films, as they depict with particular clarity the effect of World War II on the generation of men and women who came of age during the 1940s. In fact, the young male protagonists of the first and third films, although not the same, can easily been seen as a single character in two vastly different stages of life. In A Generation, Tadeusz Lomnicki played Stach, a teenager who has his political consciousness raised and loses his innocence as he joins the underground fight against Poland’s Nazi occupiers. In Ashes and Diamonds, Zbigniew Cybulski (known as the “Polish James Dean” for both his good looks and his early death) plays Maciek, a young man in his early 20s who has been fighting with the Polish Home Army against the Nazis for so long that he has lost all sense of life except the pursuit to free Poland.

Ashes and Diamonds takes place on August 8, 1945, the day the Germans unconditionally surrendered to the Allies, but the fight for Poland is far from over. The Stalin-led Soviet Red Army is poised to take over the country, and the Polish Home Army must immediately turn its attention from the Nazis to the Soviets, who were once their allies in the fight against Germany. When the film opens, Maciek and his partner, Andrzej (Adam Pawlikowski), have orders to assassinate Szczuka (Waclaw Zastrzezynski), a local communist party secretary who has just returned from the Soviet Union. Unfortunately, they botch the job by killing the wrong men, which Wajda depicts in brutal fashion to underscore how the violence does not end with World War II, but simply changes faces, in this case from a global world war to a more intimate civil war.

Maciek and Andrzej return to the Hotel Monopol in a nearby town, where they realize their mistake when Szczuka walks through the door. This is depicted in a brilliantly staged, Wellesian deep focus shot with Andrzej in the foreground calling his superior to inform him of the “successful” assassination, Maciek in the middle ground lounging against a bar, and Szczuka entering the hotel in the background, completely unaware that the two men in front of him have orders to kill him. Thus, Maciek and Andrzej must bide their time until they find a good opportunity to finish the job.

Meanwhile, a political banquet is being held at the hotel, which is filled with petty bureaucrats and schemers who are all jockeying for a good position in the new Poland. Wajda effectively employs this banquet as an opportunity to critique the speed with which power-hungry jackals attempted to fill the political vacuum left by the end of the war, something he never could have done before the post-Stalin political thaw beginning in 1956.

The heart of the film, though, is in the relationship Maciek strikes up with a beautiful barmaid named Krystyna (Ewa Krzyzewska). Because Wajda and coscreenwriter Jerzy Andrzejewski have condensed the events of Andrzejewski’s source novel into a single day, the relationship feels a bit forced, but it works nonetheless because the actors are so naked in their emotions. With all the turmoil in the air -- fears of the future mixed with the elation following the end of a long war -- it is understandable that Maciek and Krystyna would find solace in each other’s arms, even if they are strangers. They share the common bond of both being alone in the world, and together they discover a kind of love both had suppressed during the war.

This is a particularly relevant event for Maciek, who suddenly realizes that his devotion to the cause of Polish freedom comes at the cost of his own life -- not physically (although it might come to that), but emotionally. Maciek is very much a product of the era in which the film was made, with his dark glasses, contemporary clothes, and casual cool making him look as though he just walked out of an angsty French New Wave film. Yet, he is not as emotionally distant as his appearance would suggest; in fact, Maciek becomes an effectively tragic figure. Even the cool sunglasses have a tragic purpose: to shield his damaged eyes, which have become overly sensitive to light because Maciek spent so much of the war lurking in dark sewer tunnels during the Warsaw Uprising (the subject of Wajda’s Kanal, whose Dantesque imagery forever haunts those who see it). Having given himself over to the Home Army, Maciek is duty-bound to carry out the assassination of Szczuka, after which he will have to go underground. Thus, his heart is torn in two directions, as he must decide whether to sacrifice his newfound love for Krystyna in order to carry out his patriotic duty or follow his romantic longings and turn his back on his country and be labeled a deserter.

In this sense, Ashes and Diamonds is about the oldest subject in the dramatic canon: love, pure and simple. Wajda is first and foremost a humanist, but there is cold, dark irony to the film, one that rears its bitter head in the final scene, which literally strands the film’s existential questions on the top of a trash pile. Again working with cinematographer Jerzy Wojcik, who also shot Kanal, Wajda tells the story in bold visual terms; Ashes and Diamonds was a true moment of maturation for the filmmaker. His use of long takes, deep focus, and expressionistic lighting borrows from numerous sources, both American and European, but it all coalesces into a style that is uniquely and fully Wajda’s.

Ashes and Diamonds Criterion Collection DVD
Andrzej Wajda: Three War FilmsAshes and Diamonds 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 Kanal.
Aspect Ratio1.85:1
AudioPolish Dolby Digital 1.0 Monaural
  • Audio commentary by film scholar Annette Insdorf
  • “Andrzej Wajda: On Ashes and Diamonds,” video interview with the director, second director Janusz Morgenstern, and film critic Jerzy Plazewski
  • Newsreel footage on the making of Ashes and Diamonds
  • Stills gallery of behind-the-scenes production photos, publicity stills, and posters
  • Essay by film scholar Paul Coates
  • DistributorThe Criterion Collection / Home Vision Entertainment
    SRP$79.95 (box set)
    Release DateApril 26, 2004

    Of the three films in the “Andrzej Wajda: Three War Films” box set, Ashes and Diamonds looks the best, likely because the original elements were better cared for. Like the other films in the set, the transfer was taken from a 35mm fine-grain print struck from the original negative and digitally restored. With the exception of a few vertical hairlines here and there, it is practically flawless. The crisp black-and-white imagery is stunning, especially with its high contrast and theatrical lighting.

    The monaural soundtrack was transferred from an optical print track and sounds find after some digital restoration.

    Ashes and Diamonds is the only film in the box set to have an audio commentary. Film scholar Annette Insdorf’s track is definitely worth listening to, as she provides excellent historical context for the film and also offers solid formal analysis of Wajda’s visual style. Like the other discs in the box set, this one includes a video interview about the making of the film: the 35-minute “Andrzej Wajda: On Ashes and Diamonds,” which features the director, second director Janusz Morgenstern, and film critic Jerzy Plazewski. Also included is a brief bit of newsreel footage (just over a minute) on the making of Ashes and Diamonds and a set of 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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