Ashes and Diamonds (1958, Andrzej Wajda)

A Poetic License To Kill

*This is a Spoiler Review*

In my conquest to explore the gems that span across the ever impressive World Cinema, I am often drawn to that of Central and Eastern European films. Having explored the brilliance of Czech New Wave, I was introduced to a group of filmmakers known as the Polish Film School. A group of directors active between about 1956 to 1963, often dealing with Polish identity with a complex history in the wake of WWII. The first film I have chosen to see from this group was recommended to me by a friend**, and that is Ashes and Diamonds. After a little research I discovered this film to not only be one of Scorsese’s favourites, but also considered Francis Ford Coppola’s favourite film of all time! And so,* if you are looking to watch it, I was able to rent it from Amazon for £2.99.

A Brief Synopsis

This 1958 film, directed by Polish director Andrzej Wajda, is based on a novel from 1948 written by Jerzy Andrzejewski. It follows the story of Maciek, who is a young resistance fighter, ordered to kill the Communist leader, Szczuka, in the final days of WWII. As the film progresses, Maciek falls in love with the enchanting Krystyna, which starts to dissuade his intentions of continuing a life of assassination and running from enemies. Although, it may have been tempting for him to start a new life with her, he regrettably goes on to kill Szczuka, and abandons his chance of starting over, choosing a life of violence which inevitably brings him to being shot en route to his escape.

So What did I think?

Wajda has a very serious command of visual storytelling. To say the cinematography in this film is a complete visionary masterpiece is simply an understatement. The cinematographer, Jerzy Wojcik is perhaps the greatest of unsung heroes in this film. Within the mise en scene of the film, Wojcik illustrates themes such as the doomed fate of characters through cinematography. A moment I found particularly striking was in the finale; a party of merry countrymen and women dance to a Polish Waltz and Krystyna is forced to dance with them. The camera is positioned laterally to them, slowly tracking backwards. Krystyna’s life is slowly being realised as one without Maciek as more of the set around the frame is darkened, revealing A claustrophobia inducing shot as the brightness mid frame lies in stark contrast do a darkened frame. Krystyna’s life is being swallowed up by an inevitable darkness. This is only one of the many understated decisions with cinematography that further visualise the state of the characters and the fate that awaits them.

The second strongest element to this film, in my opinion, would have to be some of the performances on behalf of the cast. First off, the character of Szczuka played by Waclaw Zastrzezynsky. The antagonist of the story, is characterised in a very morally ambiguous manner, playing a rather sympathetic villain. Although his regime and ideals are considered to be wrong through the perspective of the 2 lead assassins, Wajda carefully knits in Szczuka as a sympathetic father longing for his long lost Son who has radically gone against the regime he has struggled to fight for his whole life. There is an ora of mentality from the filmmakers that shed’s politics and War in a negative light. It provokes the thought that despite the main character Maciek having a duty to kill someone, has every intention of not doing so, it’s not supposed to be satisfying as the spectator when he finally gets around to shooting Sczuka. 

The complexity of Polish nationality is clear here, different ideologies seem to seep into one another as good and bad play second fiddle to a very War torn country, not quite recovering from a war. This is highlighting the ashes left from the likes of the Warsaw Uprising which is very fitting for the title; Ashes and Diamonds.  Instead of glorifying the murder of the antagonist, we are instead made to feel sympathy for him. We know that the act was not a good one right after Maciek shoots his pistol. In Szczuka’s last dying breath, he embraces his killer. Maciek is left there with a dead body in his arms as celebration fireworks blaze up into the sky, masking the gunshots. It is a bitter and morbid moment, which has been excellently crafted, through the poetic nature of the mise en scene e.g. the fireworks lighting up the sky and reflecting into pools of water that surround Maciek as he seals his fate and runs away. A strong light projects onto Szczuka’s lifeless body. A haunting element that feels well built up to as the last act of the film crescendo’s to a finish.

Adam Pawlikowski plays the role of Andrzej- Maciek’s superior officer. If I didn’t know any better, I’d bet that this character was a strong influence on the likes of the James Bond archetype that would precede this film in a few years. The role is handled with precision as this character has laser focus, cut throat attitude, all business, and dutiful, whilst looking suave at the same time, which makes him a perfect contrast to Maciek. Maciek is played by Zbigniew Cybulski.

Cybulski is clearly the superior Star in this film. He develops a very memorable performance with an iconic look, with those dark shades and a personality that beams from the screen. He has a magnetic chemistry with the love interest and has a very dynamic contrast to his counterpart, Andrzej. This character is able to add levity and moments of comedy to the scene often if it seems like it needs energy to break it up. As a strong Beatles fan, this film was recommended to me after being told that Cybulski’s iconic shades had influenced the look of Stu Sutcliffe, which was a nice touch. There is no doubt that this actor is very James Dean-esque, in his look, and acting style. His ability is not limited to this however, as he attaches very nuanced elements to his performance particularly in his attitude towards Krystyna, in the way that he is able to romance her. Cybulski even had the ability to make scenes interesting when they may have otherwise seemed dull. For example, when he is chatting to the Innkeeper at the Hotel about their love for Warsaw, the dialogue is arguably uninteresting, yet, through his acting ability, a sort of magnetism makes their dialogue feel more important. A testament to how Cybulski’s performance has been greatly revered even by today’s standards.

The film’s overall story is rather excellently constructed, with heavy themes of violence and its negative implications. I gathered a difficult glimpse into the complex and moral ambiguousness of the national leaders at the time of a Post-War Poland. I felt strongly compelled to sympathise for Maciek and Krystyna and their doomed love story. This film was able to capture my imagination in many ways particularly the poetic license taken in the comparison of crushing coal to German occupied Poland. Poland is the coal that will either crumble into ashes from the pressure or it must birth a diamond. The characters in this film are subjected to the same crushing pressure. The War and the German occupation has reduced many of the buildings to dust and ashes, in a world where people need to rise above and shine amongst the aftermath of the conflict . There is no doubt that this film felt meaningful and complex in how it positions the character’s relationships to each other, in its cinematography, and in its general craftsmanship. It proves itself to be brilliantly engineered. This film is definitely something that would deserve a re-watch as I know I have probably missed several moments of genius, and there is no doubt that Wajda offers something very valuable to the Cinema.

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