Thursday, October 6, 2011

#283: A Generation

(Andrzej Wajda, 1955)

A Generation is an almost annoyingly ambitious title for a film, particularly one that is 90 minutes long. How do you encapsulate the experience of an entire generation in any narrative? Yet because World War II was so all-consuming - and perhaps more tragic than the experience of any other country - in Poland, it seems like the perfect title for Andzrej Wajda's first film. The kids (for that is what they are, regardless of age) depicted in A Generation do not ask for their roles in the war but have them thrust upon them. Wajda's two protagonists, Stach and Jasio, meet different fates during the course of the film (one of them chillingly depicted in the cover of the Criterion disc) and approach their engagement with their country's struggle in different ways. But their attitudes reinforce the basic message of the film: there was a real, interpersonal experience behind the myth of war, a reality that was elevated through happenstance to historical proportions.

This manifests itself in two ways. First, on a micro level, Wajda gives his characters authentic motivations that rarely have much to do with politics or nationalism. They fall in love, they take care of their families. They are selfish, cowardly, angry, seen putting on gangster personas and speaking of concepts beyond their understanding, constantly reminded of the war that is burning the Earth in the background. But on a micro level, this message demands attention because few films in history have been so genuine in their depiction of a reality transformed by war. Though America has been fighting wars since the 1940s on virtually a continual basis, war hasn't actually been felt by the US since the 1860s. This means it is impossible for Americans who were born and raised in this country to know what it would be like to live every day experiencing war on your own soil. Obviously a movie cannot hope to change this, but the moment when Jasio begins to be chased by soldiers and ends up in a shootout is an escalation of what has come before to such an enormous degree that (especially when coupled with the metaphor of the spiral staircase) the true experience of this generation begins to set in.

The tragedy of Poland's experience in World War II (something that is cleanly explained and explored in Criterion's essay on the film) can often be overlooked in history because of the parallel - and  inextricably intertwined - tragedy of the Holocaust. Without argument, nothing towers over the various atrocities of the 20th century like the Holocaust - an organized, pathological extermination of almost an entire race of people. One of the most incomprehensible tragedies of the Holocaust is how few Europeans (especially of course Germans) rose up to prevent this mass murder, but the notion is especially terrifying because it is impossible to know what truly could have been done and whether or not you personally would have been able to sacrifice yourself to stop it. Certainly Poland and its inhabitants had a great deal of guilt - justified and/or unjustified - after the war because of their inability to prevent the elimination of virtually their entire Jewish population. But they also had an enormous amount of suffering to overcome themselves, equally measured against their own abandonment by the international community throughout the war (peaking with the Warsaw Uprising, which was the subject of Wajda's next film, Kanal).

A Generation is especially impressive because it was made primarily by Polish people in their 20s in 1955 just a decade after the end of the war - an incredibly short amount of time to process such an immensely destructive experience. Yet Wajda's reflections on the impact of the war among countrymen who were not much older than him seems so fully formed that this alone makes the film an incredible accomplishment. Technically, A Generation might be regarded as a shade below classic, the work of an artist blooming but not quite at his peak. But in terms of historical relevance, A Generation joins Au Revoir Les Enfants, Rome, Open City, Ballad of a Soldier, and Army of Shadows as essential Criterion portraits of World War II, helping to form a fuller picture of the most transformative and tragic event of the last century.

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