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Jason Toews and fifi (the band)

Ashes and Diamonds

ashes_cybulski

Director: Andrzej Wajda
Country: Poland
Year: 1958

Background

The world was introduced to director Wajda via his1950’s “war trilogy” depicting events in Poland during and immediately after WWII. The first part of the trilogy, A Generation (1954), follows the members of an anti-Nazi underground group in Warsaw, and is deeply informed by Wajda’s own disillusionment with political jingoism. The film starred Zbigniew Cybulski (often called “the Polish James Dean”), who frequently appeared as Wajda’s filmic alter-ego. In addition to the Polish James Dean, A Generation also starred the man often called “the Polish Roman Polanski”: Roman Polanski.

No, I have not seen the film. I’m getting all this shit from Wikipedia.

The second entry in the trilogy, Kanal (1957), is the first cinematic treatment of the Warsaw Uprising. What? You don’t know about the Warsaw Uprising? For God’s sake, put down the Wii and read a book once in a while.

The final film of the trilogy (the only one I’ve seen, as of one hour ago), Ashes and Diamonds (1958), depicts the events of one day (May 6, 1945) at the close of WWII, crystallizing the zeitgeist of a Poland in transition. Like that? “Crystallizing the zeitgeist”? That’s why I’m paid to write these reviews, and you… oh wait.

The Germans had been defeated and ejected from Poland, but one occupying force was quickly replaced with another, as the Russians – who fought alongside the Poles to defeat the Nazis – now moved in and acted like they ran the place, putting their dirty boots up on the coffee table, you name it. The Home Army (underground resistance fighters) now began to wage war against the Russian occupiers, plus any Poles who collaborated with the Russians, any Poles who spoke disparagingly about the Home Army, and also any Poles who smoked American cigarettes (Hungarian cigarettes are stronger).

Even in 1958, this was touchy stuff in Poland, seeing as how the Soviets were still running the show. For that reason, Wajda had to make the film strictly even-handed. The assassinated Russian is one of the most sympathetic characters, and the Polish freedom fighter assassin – though heroic – receives a just punishment for his crime, which in this case is bleeding out on a pile of trash, his body jerking violently in horrific death-spasms.

Epilogue: In 1967 (the year I was born), Zbigniew Whatsisnameski, “the Polish James Dean,” a true rebel until the end, was cut in half while hopping a train. Absolutely true fact.

Synopsis

The film opens on a cross atop a church, which will be ironically echoed later, so look for that. The camera pans down to reveal two Polish Home Army freedom fighter hitmen lying on the grass, talking about the collaborationist bastard they’re supposed to whack: “Who is this guy again?” asks our hero, James De- er, Maciek. “Szczuka – Secretary of the District Worker’s Party,” replies his superior, Andrzej. A doe-eyed little girl asks the murderers for help opening the chapel door, but no go: it is hopelessly jammed. BY GOD.

A car approaches, the assassins grab their guns (which are now covered in ants; make of that what you will), take their shootin’ positions, and blast away indiscriminately. One passenger is killed, but the other flees to the (entirely theoretical) safety of the chapel. Our hero guns him down in cold blood, and the unfortunate victim’s back bursts into flames, as the chapel door now mysteriously swings open. Symbolism? You bet.

The shooters don’t know it yet, but they haven’t whacked the intended target(s). In a comic twist of fate, they have viciously mowed down Smolarski and Gawlik, two members of the Cement Factory Council. I wish I had just made that up, so I could take credit for it, but no: they are actually members of something called the “Cement Factory Council” and definitely did not deserve to die in a hail of bullets, back aflame, staggering into an pigeon-infested church. That other guy? Szczuka? He would have deserved it. But not poor Gawlik.

“How long do people have to die like this?” ask some passing peasants, but a satisfying answer is not forthcoming.

Our oblivious hitmen retire to the bar of the Monopol Hotel, as the parties celebrating the end of the war begin to heat up. Just as Andrzej calls Major Florian to report their glorious success, however… the collaborationist bastard Szczuka walks into the bar, and Andrzej sheepishly hangs up the phone.

I’m realizing that a large portion of Ashes and Diamonds consists of two not-very-skilled hitmen hanging around in restaurants and shooting the breeze after a botched job. JUST LIKE PULP FICTION!

As the enormity of their bung-up dawns on our heroes, Maciek gets distracted by something much more important: That sexy, sexy bartender! Her name is Krystyna, and she is having none of Maciek’s goofy flirting, though – in the interests of later plot developments – she is eventually won over by his irritating habit of jerking away his glass just as she is about to fill it (with room temperature 300-proof vodka).

There are many scenes that highlight the consequences of the bungled hit: Szczuka has to sadly inform the widow of one of the men; Maciek later sees the fiancée of the second victim wailing with hopeless grief, just before she is sexually assaulted by the obese owner of the Monopol. No, I didn’t understand that part, either.

Somewhere in here is my favorite exchange in the film. While a lavish party for the political elite goes on in the next room, the hotel manager talks to a decrepit old woman who appears to be some sort of bathroom monitor. “Anyone gotten sick yet?” asks the manager. “Not yet,” replies the bathroom lady. “First they give speeches, then everyone runs here.” That’s Polish political satire at its finest, right there, ladies and gentlemen.

Maciek checks into the Monopol, right next door to his intended target Szczuka. While he waits for Szczuka (I can’t tell you how irritating that is to type over and over again) to return, Maciek invites Krystyna up to his room. Incredibly, she agrees. They make sweet, sweet love (though nothing to post on Mr. Skin, sadly), after which Maciek finally removes his ever-present sunglasses (did I forget to mention that earlier?), signaling that he may be ready to shed his manly reserve. It’s very similar to the scene in Smokey and the Bandit when the Bandit finally removes his feather-adorned cowboy hat. Maciek also explains the reason for his sunglasses: his eyes were damaged by living in the sewers during the famous and historical Warsaw Uprising, which we all learned about in high school. Right?

Further postponing the inevitable killing to come, Maciek and Krystyna wander the streets, eventually ducking into a destroyed church or crypt. On the wall, Krystyna reads an inscribed poem:

So often are you as a blazing torch
With flakes of burning hemp falling about you
Flaming, you know not if flames freedom bring or death
Consuming all that you most cherish
Will only ashes remain, and chaos, whirling into the void
Or will the ashes hold the glory of a starlike diamond
The morning star of everlasting triumph

Between Krystyna and Maciek hangs an elaborate Jesus-adorned cross – wait for it – upside down! Thereby giving us the money shot we’ve been awaiting since the beginning of the film.

Maciek considers quitting the freedom fighters and maybe going back to school, maybe finishing that screenplay he’s been working on or opening a little used record store over in GdaÅ„sk, but Krystyna mocks his half-hearted grasping at a hopeless dream. Frantic, Maciek tries to kiss Krystyna (but in that icky way that girls don’t like, trust me), and she pushes him away. A majestic white horse wanders past, unexplained.

Back in the hotel, the collaborationist bastard Szczuka has been told that (IRONY ALERT) his own son was caught with a band of freedom fighters, and is now being held in a detention center. He rushes out to free his son, but instead is met by his anti-son, if you will: Maciek. Maciek shoots Szczuka, who falls into Maciek’s arms. They embrace, Szczuka dies, Maciek flees. The following morning, Maciek says a final goodbye to Krystyna. “You weren’t able to change things?” she asks him. “No,” he answers gloomily. On his way to the train station, the embittered hitman is chased by the police. Maciek is shot, and then staggers for what seems like several kilometers before dropping to the filthy ground in a garbage dump. He bleeds, groans, spasms, then curls into a fetal position and dies, alone.

Fade out and end titles.

What I Liked

First off, the cinematography is excellent. Filmed in deep, rich black and white, every shot is framed interestingly, artistically but not in an obtrusive, overbearing way. There’s one shot of a character lying dead on a wet cobblestone street, fireworks overhead reflected in a puddle, which is beautifully composed and heartbreaking. Story-appropriate use of Orson Welles/Gregg Toland-style deep focus (where something on the left side of the screen, for example, is in extreme close-up, while something on the right side of the frame is far away but still in focus) is prominently featured, and I am a sucker for that stuff. Next, the plot is cleverly constructed and dialectical, rather than didactic. A few of the roles were brilliantly acted: The collaborationist (yet sympathetic) Szczuka, the wise-beyond-her-years and movie-star-beautiful Krystyna, and the conflicted Andrzej are all mesmerizing and human.

What I Didn’t Like So Much

Characters who are supposedly seasoned freedom fighters hold guns as if they just now picked one up for the first time. I found Zbigniew Cybulski irritating; he’s supposed to be brooding and youthful, but to me he seemed like a skittish goofball. And there’s a lot of talking; the less you know about Polish history, the less it will mean to you.

Should You See It?

That’s a bit hard to answer. This is one of those movies that I appreciated from an artistic standpoint, but I have to admit that it did not excite or engage me. Still, if you are interested in learning more about Polish history, or about the explosion of “World” (non-Hollywood) cinema in the 50’s and 60’s, or if you’re simply interested in the question of when violence might be morally or politically acceptable… then yes, I would recommend Ashes and Diamonds. Otherwise, just read my summary and you’re good to go.

Next: L’Avventura (one of my favorite films on this list!)

3 Comments

  1. Your review (another amusing and insightful analysis) made it sound hysterically camp (OK, ridiculous). I appreciate being both educated and entertained (you should be a history teacher and no, I didn’t learn about the Warsaw uprising in high school, but when I read Mila 18). So now that I have been brought up to speed on the film, I will definitely pass. That must be heart-breaking for Matt and Jeff to hear, since I have complete access to Jason’s collection, 24/7. But as the platitude goes, we often don’t realize what we have until we’ve lost it.

    And now that your review is complete, there is some snow outside that needs shoveling…

  2. Well … I have not watched either of the films reviewed to this point, or “Shampoo” for that matter.

    Plus, I don’t have Netflix, or cable, or …

    So, if the library has it, maybe I will see it on the day my interest in Polish history peaks and I am compelled to look this up.

  3. Due to the fact that Netflix does not carry this film, I was going to include a snarky review of the film “Shampoo” as, I’m sure, it’s earily similar to the film “Ashes & Diamonds.”

    But…to keep with the integrity of this project – I will not post a reveiew for a film I have not seen.

    Suffice it to say, though, that “Shampoo” kicked ass.

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