Martin Scorsese is a major proponent of the films by Powell and Pressburger, especially The Red Shoes (1948), which I loved and will probably reference in just about any positive review from now on. Scorsese, a notable cinephile, is one of the few vocal champions of The Red Shoes (who has come on my radar). Since I loved the film and Scorsese isn’t such a slouch in the filmmaking department himself, I wanted to track down his Top Ten films and make sure I’d seen them all. Andrzej Wajda‘s Ashes and Diamonds (1958) was on that list and on that of Francis Ford Coppola (among others). It stood out for four reasons: (1) the subject matter (Polish resistance in World War II) was right up my alley, (2) it’s Polish and I’ve never seen a Polish film, (3) I had never heard or read of it anywhere before, and (4) it was available on Blu-Ray at a reasonable price in the UK (via Amazon US). So I bought it and I watched it, not knowing what to expect.
Maciek (Zbigniew Cybulski) and Andrzej (Adam Pawlikowski) are lying in the sun by a church, waiting for a man they’ve never met. They’re going to kill a man called Szczuka (Waclaw Zastrzezynski). The nervous Drewnowski (Bogumil Kobiela) stands look out and sees a car coming. Maciek and Andrzej jump into place with practiced ease and gun down the two men in the car. The three men part ways. Soon after, another car arrives on the scene. It’s Szczuka, the communist organizer, and his associate. He knows that the attack was meant for him, but he’s callused after years of war. Maciek and Andrzej meet up at the local hotel to call their commanding officer and report the news when, to their surprise, Szczuka announces himself at the reception desk. The job still needs to be done. So, waiting for the right time, Maciek meets a beautiful barmaid, Krystyna (Ewa Krzyzewska), which makes him reconsider his priorities.
I can’t rightly recall a movie that so clearly and beautifully explained it’s own title. It comes from a 19th century poem by Cyprian Norwid (Tragedia fantastyczna) the prologue of which reads:
From you, as from burning chips of resin,
Fiery fragments circle far and near,
Ablaze, you don’t know if you’re to be free
Or if all that is yours will disappear?
Will only ashes and confusion remain,
Leading into the abyss?
Or will there be in the depths of the ash
A star-like diamond,
The dawning of eternal victory!
Even in 1958, over a decade after World War II, Wajda, who adapted the novel by Jerzy Andrzejewski (with Andrzejewski co-writing the screenplay), would have no definitive answer. Poland had substituted one anti-semitic occupation for another. The fire was still blazing, if a little lower and a little sadder. The characters of Ashes and Diamonds reflect this somewhat in their own moral ambiguity. Maciek is clearly our hero, going from cold-blooded bravura freedom fighter to 50s angsty young man, but his numb existential outlook on life is not completely attractive. His aping of future American style–or is it Americans aping 40s European style?–is the better signal. That and the interaction with a beautiful blonde. She too is pretty disassociated from reality, but things have been terrible for Poles and the civilians didn’t have the benefit of fighting back. Soldiers and tanks march and drive through town at once connecting them to the war and yet remaining distant and transitory.
Seeing the film for the first time on blu-ray complicates the sense of time. This is a black and white film from 1958, but it’s crystal clear and the sound is well-balanced. How do I judge this against American or foreign films of the same era? From appearances, Ashes and Diamonds looked ten years ahead of its time. The violence was bloody and emotional, there was some adult language and sexual situations, and the cinematography by Jerzy Wójcik was amazing. The camera was fluid and would use a lot of interesting perspectives that I don’t associate with the era. That may have more to do with my illiteracy in foreign film than anything else as the two films I thought of were The Seventh Seal (1957), especially with its dark metaphorical dance near the end, and The Spy Who Came in from the Cold (1965). After reading Wikipedia and the booklet inside the blu-ray case, the influence of Rebel Without a Cause (1955) among others, especially in Cybulski’s performance, were obvious.
However unlike The Red Shoes or The Seventh Seal, Ashes and Diamonds didn’t quite strike me with its obvious genius. There’s just so much I don’t quite grasp about the film. Is there a clear moral of the story or are there clear enemies? Surely the Soviet Union was the enemy of any Pole from that era who wasn’t a devoted Marxist. Why that’s so is only vaguely hinted at in the film with an interrogation scene and the bare existence of a continuing resistance militia. But that militia is treated, rather objectively, as just one more group who will cede principles to accomplish their nebulous goals. That did strike me. But perhaps Cybulski doing his James Dean impression was just a bit too silly without an English-speaking voice to absorb and normalize the performance.
Perhaps it was the story and pacing that played out much like French films Le Samouraï (1967) that cut short a character’s story to make a point. There was so much story that felt cut out so that we could watch Maciek and Krystyna chat at the bar or walk around the city. What happens to Szczuka’s son? What is the resistance actually accomplishing? What role does the aristocracy play? Even though it’s Polish, Ashes and Diamonds is just so French. You need a decoder ring in the shape of Polish history to reveal all the cleverness of the film. That’s not necessarily a bad thing, it’s just a club I don’t have in my bag at the moment. Despite that, there is the distinct impression given that this is a very good movie with a lot of things a film maker or critic could benefit from. So it makes sense that it’s in Scorsese’s Top Ten.
Also, this must hold the record for the most Zs and Ks in the opening credits.
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