Despite the fact it’s based on a book from the ’40s, and set on the last day of the Second World War, the hero of Andrzej Wajda’s Ashes and Diamonds is, like the movie, a product of the 1950s. He’s an anti-hero, in actuality: cynical, jaded and nihilistic. He smiles quite a lot, but it’s a smile that says ‘Isn’t it funny how meaningless it all is?’ He is played by Zbigniew Cybulski, one of Poland’s most famous actors and about the closest thing the country had to James Dean. The similarity is not accidental: Wajda and Cybulski were influenced by Dean and Brando and the sneering youth of ‘50s American cinema.
Cybulski plays Maciek, an assassin for the Polish Resistance. He seldom takes off his sunglasses. He killed Nazis before the war ended and seamlessly makes the transition to killing Communists. One tyranny is replaced by another, and Maciek barely seems to notice: the war will never be over for him. Whether his target is on the Left or the Right is academic, and he doesn’t seem to believe it’ll really make any difference anyway.
At the beginning of the film, an assassination goes wrong and two innocent men are killed; in an unforgettable image, the bullet holes on one man’s jacket catch fire as he stumbles into a chapel. Maciek and his accomplice, Andrzej (Adam Pawlikowski) get another chance at their target, a Communist Official, in a local hotel. The bulk of the film takes place in and around the hotel; while Maciek and Andrzej await their opportunity, a party of government officials get drunker and merrier. Among their number is double agent Drewnowski (Bogumil Kobiela).
While the picture is covering fairly dark material, it’s not depressing and it’s not a slog to get through. Partly this is down to Cybulski – even if a few of his mannerisms are slightly dated it stands out as a powerful, ahead-of-its-time performance – but an unusually important part is played by the photography. Shooting in black and white, Wajda and cinematographer Jerzy Wójcik create some truly powerful images. The lighting is haunting and beautiful. Much is said about the old Poland, before the war, and whether it is lost altogether: the visuals are full of decaying beauty. The two death scenes towards the end are, on a visual level, perfection.
As is often the case with war movies, women are not treated very well. That isn’t at all to say that the film is sexist, just that many of its characters are. The lead female role is Krystyna (Ewa Krzyzewska), the hotel barmaid. Maciek flirts with her when they first meet; with an impudent smirk, he keeps moving the glass she is about to pour the vodka into. Krystyna is used to this; another scene has her pulled up and made to sing in a scene that has more than an echo of the conclusion of Paths of Glory, made the year before. She is the catalyst that hastens Maciek’s growing sense of doubt. It’s not that he starts to think that the whole damn thing is futile; he already thought that. It’s that in her he sees something that really would be worth fighting for. War is hell, but life doesn’t need to be.
Although the film is heavy with symbolism and melancholy, it’s seldom forced. Perhaps that’s because the characters see the symbolism too; the war has finished, but its effects are nowhere near over. Everywhere they look they are reminded both of pre-War Poland and wartime Poland; although Maciek at first seems somewhat arrogant, by the end we feel that apathy and confusion seem like the only sensible response when your nation has been stripped of its identity. Its identity – its context – had become the War, and while the allies celebrated the defeat of Hitler the Poles must have looked uneasily from West to East with a sense of dejection, and betrayal.
FILM: 4.5 out of 5
A surprisingly fresh, moving and beautifully made movie about the lasting effects of war, both on a political and personal scale.
QUALITY: 4 out of 5
The picture has been given a very sharp restoration, and with just a few minor imperfections here and there is about as good as you could hope for a 50-year-old black and white movie. The 2.0 audio track is similarly clean and hiss-free; again, for a movie of its vintage, no complaints.
EXTRAS: 2.5 out of 5
A 25-minute interview with director Andrzej Wajda which helps provide historical context both to the film and its story.
PRESENTATION: 2 out of 5
Fairly standard, with a menu that pretentiously chooses to eschew the usual options (Play Movie etc.) in favour of ambiguous categories like ‘Kiosk’ (extras) and ‘Projection Booth’ (subtitles). Give me a break. TWO STARS
OVERALL: 4 out of 5
A very nice transfer of a movie that really deserves your attention: it’s not hard to see why filmmakers like Martin Scorsese and René Clair have spoken so highly of it.
Ashes And Diamonds is available on Blu-Ray now.
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