Sunday, November 13, 2011

#285: Ashes and Diamonds

(Andrzej Wajda, 1958)

Ashes and Diamonds is the most accomplished (and consequently beautiful) of Wajda's mid-50s war films, but it's also his most obtuse for the viewer far separated from the political realities which inform it onscreen and off. Even though Americans have not been widely exposed to the experience of Poland during the second World War, it's easy enough to identify the struggle - Nazis bad, non-Germans good. Even the experiences of the soldiers in Kanal are clearly laid out within the framework of the film, so the average person with a casual knowledge of world history has an easy way into the film's universe.

Ashes and Diamonds, on the other hand, is set after the Germans have surrendered, when the Polish faced a new, far more complex struggle between the pro-Soviet Communist regime that was being installed and the freedom fighters who were looking to bring true democracy to the decimated country. To make things more complicated, the film was shot while that regime (albeit a thawed post-Stalin one) was still in power, meaning the filmmaker's true sentiments (and presumably those of most of the film's audience) - which unquestionably lay with the Polish Home Army resistance fighters - needed to be obscured. This paved the way for a film that is flawed propaganda in the most invigorating way. Wadja's depiction of the resistance fighters and their enemies is incredibly complex. We are clearly meant to root for Maciek; he's struggling for what he believes is right and we see much of the film from his perspective. But we are introduced to him as he kills innocent people. We see the damage he has caused, yet we are given a portrait of the Communists as useless bureaucrats and compromised patriots, concerned with appearances and their own survival (and advancement) more than their fellow Poles. This is emphasized by the juxtaposition of Maciek and Szczuka dying alone as the party in the hotel reaches its apex.

The tightwire act muddies the film's message for the modern American viewer (i.e. me), but it must have been clear as day to the Polish and surrounding Europeans when the film was released. This begs the question of how successful a film can be when its context must be understood for it to be appreciated. In my opinion, very, since technically every great movie needs the context of one culture or another. Add onto this political significance the sheer beauty of the film in moments both expected (Maciek's walk through the burned church, the lit vodka glasses) and not (the reflection of the fireworks as Szczuka lays in the streets), and Ashes and Diamonds becomes Wadja's essential film, even if I initially enjoyed it less than the other two films in the "trilogy."

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