Maybe I was a stereotypical Millennial suffering a mid-thirties crisis, or maybe I just secretly enjoyed the inescapable irony, but for whatever reason the two-dimensional interplay of light and shadow could simply not leap off the screen and reach my heart. The silver screen had simply lost its sheen. But then something amazing happened, something that clearly changed the course of my life.
On Thursday evenings, after a long day, a long week, students were expected to show up for screenings of world cinema classics - films that everyone agreed were of outmost historical importance, but no one enjoyed watching. Attendance was low. So with obvious resignation, I dragged my feet to yet another screening, hoping I may catch up on some sleep. Only this particular evening, the powers that be decided to screen Andrzej Wajda's “Ashes and Diamonds”, and not only did I forget about my sleep deprivation, but I rediscovered my love for cinema. In Cybulski's character I forgot that I was staring at a screen because the light and shadow intertwined to create a real living breathing person, a person who spoke to me with they intimacy of a close friend but with the mystery of a stranger. And I'd be damned if this stranger wasn't cooler than James Dean.
Fast-forward six years and I'm now living in Poland and studying at Mr. Andrzej Wajda's school in Warsaw. I'll present you with the most memorable scenes of Polish cinema and I'm eager to hear your suggestions. Granted, I’m no authority on Polish cinema, but I want to discover more of this spectacular genre - new and old - and I invite you to share in this experience. It seems only appropriate to start with the movie that got this ball rolling.
Ashes and Diamonds (1958) - director: Andrzej Wajda; screenplay based on the same-titled novel by Jerzy Andrzejwski
A cauldron of a night, boiling with feverish intent. It is the 8th of May 1945, the German forces have capitulated and in the Hotel Monopol in an unknown provincial town the guests are celebrating the eve of Poland's liberation. A beautiful young woman is invited to the stage and sings a patriotic bit inciting Poland's finest to drive out the enemy heedlessly and remorselessly. Of course, the men who this great burden has fallen upon are sitting in the adjacent room and are listening to the tune with embittered faces. The two men are Home Army resistance soldiers who have been ordered to assassinate Szczuka - a secretary of the Polish Worker’s Party - in an attempt to push back the puppet government that is being formed as a satellite for the USSR. These two men know that after five years of occupation and resistance, they have driven one foe out, and the other is on its way in through the backdoor. The resistance will have to continue. Slumped over and demoralized - they are the unfortunate subjects of a portrait of patriotic insurgence, and the music whispers irony in their ears. This portrait is particularly striking since one of the men - Maciek Chełmicki (Zbigniew Cybulski) - has, through cold-blooded murder, illustrated the merciless extent of his soldier’s code of honor, and now for the first time is revealing a chink in his armor.
Congratulations! If this is the first time you've watched this scene, then feel free to boast to friends, strangers, and house pets about having seen one of the most memorable and celebrated scenes in the history of Eastern-European Cinema, and one of its most iconic anti-heroes (it may be noted that it is one of Scorcese’s favourites).
On this particular night the scent of alcohol reminds Maciek of drinks at “Red’s” place. Maciek grows increasingly frustrated at the pretense of ignorance by his companion and superior Andrzej (Adam Pawłikowski), and he sends the vodka shots shooting across the counter. When Maciek kindles the drinks, Andrzej can no longer help himself but participate in this tribute for their fallen brethren. Maciek is about to light the two shots that symbolize them, but Andrzej blows out the match and proclaims “We’re still alive”. Maciek bursts into manic laughter - he knows what it means to be alive today and in their position. It is with mixed awe and discomfort that we listen to their indifference of the one indisputable fact in their argument, the one thing they can both agree on: there’s a death-sentence hanging over their heads. And so, the question arises - how does one life with that fact?
This is the moral dilemma that our existentialist hero is faced with. Much like Poland, Maciek and his companion Andrzej are like chess pieces, forced to wait idly on the board as the clock of history ticks deafeningly. Fate has chosen them to continue playing their parts in an endless loop of bloodshed as they stand on the brink of a civil war. In carrying out their roles, it is their duty to sacrifice their own personal destinies for the greater good of national freedom, and so, they do not have the right to emote and have personal needs. But on this night, Maciek realizes for the first time that he is shackled to sacrifice and cannot opt for freedom; that when all of this is over - even if he is still alive - he has no one left that is alive and waiting for him. Suddenly, the chance encounter with a beautiful barkeep (Ewa Krzyzewska) invites the prospect of a normal life, and with it - a brutal will to live surfaces from the tragedy.
Wajda was allegedly looking for an actor to emulate James Dean’s sense of temperament and unpredictability, and picked Cybulski for the part since he had been overseas and seen movies starring Dean. Just judging by this scene - Cybulski delivered, and a little bit (much) more. Resisting the simple stereotype of the assassin, Maciek is a man damaged by war (his sight impaired by wandering in the sewers during the Warsaw Uprising). Behind the electrifying theatrics of his performance and the saccharine nostalgia of his words, Cybulski shows us the true strength of his character, this scene, and this movie - he shows us a human face. It is the delicate yet poignant depth of a desperate man who simply wants to live, free from the responsibility of fighting for freedom. He is saying to us - there has to be more than this, there has to be more to life than simply dying (even if it’s for a noble cause). And with his modern attire and shaded glasses, he is a kind of anachronistic hipster, a specter for Poland’s war generation who lost their innocence and much much more. He grew to become an important representative not only of Poland’s disaffected youth (and allegedly the sales of the same sunglasses that Cybulski wore shot up following the movie’s release), but also of Poland’s fractured national identity and the tragic history that affected ordinary people.
The movie was made in the aftermath of the 1956 “thaw”, also known as the Polish October that saw an end to the Stalinist era, albeit the prospect of true creative and political freedom was not in sight. Perhaps Wajda, when making this movie at this fateful time, felt a little bit like Maciek. Either way, the movie established Wajda as a leader of the new Polish cinema, and as an important figure in world cinema. In Jerzy Wojcik’s astounding photography work in this film, you will find allusions to Orson Welles’ “Citizen Kane” (for the knowledgeable - long takes from a single P.O.V, deep focus low-angle shots capturing oppressive ceilings, etc.), and a strong air of film noir.
Further Recommendations: If this movie tickles your fancy, do check out the two other films that together with this one form Wajda’s war trilogy - A Generation (1955), Canal(1957).
I part with you with an excerpt from the poem (by 19th-century poet Cyprian Norwid) that serves as the title for the novel/film and perfectly sums up the movie - rendering my entire rant redundant:
So often, are you as a blazing torch with flame
of burning rags falling about you flaming,
you know not if flames bring freedom or death.
Consuming all that you must cherish
if ashes only will be left, and want Chaos and tempest
Or will the ashes hold the glory of a starlike diamond
The Morning Star of everlasting triumph.
Author: David Tejer, 16/06/2015