The action of Ashes and Diamonds takes place over the course of a single day: the 8th of May 1945, the final day of the Second World War. However, for Andrzej (Adam Pawlikowski) and Maciek (Zbigniew Cybulski), two soldiers in the outlawed Polish Home Army, the hostilities are not over. The pair has been ordered to assassinate a leading Communist official, Szczuka (Waclaw Zastrzezynski). When their first attempt fails and results in the deaths of two innocent factory workers, they retire to a busy hotel to wait for a second opportunity. While there, the men drink and remember their fallen comrades. Maciek, who has seen too much killing, first flirts with and later falls for the hotel’s beautiful young barmaid, Krystyna (Ewa Krzyzewska), and begins to long for a normal life. Andrzej, however, reminds his young friend of his duty and warns him that failure to execute his orders would be tantamount to desertion. Meanwhile, Szczuka arrives at the hotel and attempts to locate his son, who also fought for the Polish Home Army and is now a prisoner of the Communists. As people gather to celebrate the end of the war, Maciek overhears Szczuka’s plans to walk across town to visit his son in prison. The assassin follows his target and shoots him on a deserted street. The next morning, as drunken revellers dance a Polonaise in the hotel bar, Andrzej drives away and Maciek heads to the train station, however, when he tries to avoid an ambitious, self-serving informant, Drewnowski (Bogumil Kobiela), he bumps into a patrol of Polish soldiers who shoot and mortally wound him when he attempts to run. Maciek continues running but dies, writhing in agony, alone on a scrapheap.
Ashes and Diamonds was the concluding part in director Andrzej Wajda’s so-called ‘War Trilogy’. The series, which chronicled the tragic experiences of ordinary Poles during the Second World War, began with Wajda’s debut feature, A Generation (1955), which centred on a group of students who join the anti-Nazi resistance. This was followed by the Cannes prize-winning Kanal (1956), a harrowing depiction of the Warsaw uprisings. Ashes and Diamonds, however, is the most accomplished and complex of the three. It established its director as a key exponent of the Polish Film School, an informal movement which emerged during the political ‘thaw’ of the late 1950s and early 1960s and included the work of filmmakers such as Andrzej Munk and Jerzy Kawalerowicz. More than this, however, it has come to be hailed as both the finest achievement of Wajda’s six-decade career and perhaps of Polish cinema in general.
Played by the brilliant 30-year-old actor, Zbigniew Cybulski, Poland’s answer to Marlon Brando and James Dean, Maciek is one of the great anti-heroes in post-war European cinema; a figure who spoke to both the generation of Poles who fought and died during the war and the nation’s increasingly rebellious youth in the late 1950s, when the film was released. (Cybulski became an iconic figure in Polish culture, and his premature death – perhaps an accident, or perhaps suicide – formed the basis for Wajda’s deeply selfreflexive, Everything for Sale, in 1968).
Maciek does not conform to the simple proletarian heroes typical of Eastern Block Socialist Realist cinema, who obediently sacrifice themselves to the cause. Not only does he fight against the Communist Party, he is also an intelligent, even rebellious figure, who comes to question his mission. This newfound complexity in the characterisations is representative of the so-called ‘thaw’, the period of de-Stalinisation which took effect in the late 1950s, and similarly conflicted, human characters can be seen in contemporary Soviet films of the time, such as Mikhail Kalatozov’s The Cranes are Flying (1957) and Grigoriy Chukhray’s Ballad of a Soldier (1959).
Ashes and Diamonds is also a remarkably complex portrait of a country divided against itself and Wajda extends an equal compassion to Szczuka, the target of the assassination attempt. He is a decent, sympathetic man; a veteran of two wars who wishes only to be reunited with his son. Indeed, a kind of surrogate father-son relationship develops between Maciek and Szczuka which comes to a tragic end when the older man dies in his killer’s arms, the sound of gunfire drowned out by the fireworks set off to mark the official beginning of peace. This seemingly even-handed treatment did not, however, meet with official approval. Szczuka, not Maciek, had been the central character in Andrzejewski’s original novel, and the decision to shift the focus to the subordinate character proved controversial with hard-line critics and the authorities, who thought, not incorrectly, that Wajda romanticised a protagonist who was a member of a renegade, anti-Communist organisation, while making the Communist official a dignified, if somewhat ineffectual character. As a result, the state refused to allow the film to compete at the 1958 Cannes Film Festival and did not allow Wajda to attend the out-of-competition premiere that the Festival organised. Moreover, the director remembers that the film was only given a limited release in its native Poland.
Despite such run-ins with the censors, which have been a far from uncommon occurrence in Wajda’s career, he has, unlike several younger Polish directors, such as Roman Polanksi (whom Wajda mentored) and Jerzy Skolimowsky, elected to remain in his native country, regardless of the problems inherent in making films under a Communist regime. Indeed, he has maintained that the ‘censorship of money’, which dominates commercial film industries such as Hollywood, is far harder to circumvent than the political censorship he has laboured under.
Wajda has also noted that state censors are often very literal in their thinking and that they have a tendency to censor words and to overlook the visual subtext of a film. For example, he has argued that it was ‘impossible to censor the acting of Zbigniew Cybulski’ and that his remarkably physical performance contained a certain something ‘between sound and picture that constitutes the soul of [the] film’ and that ‘it was his way of dealing with people which […] was politically unacceptable’ (Falkowska 2006: 51). Additionally, the censors were not quick to pick up on the rich and potentially subversive visual symbolism that permeates many scenes.
Oddly, many critics in the West also failed to notice some of the film’s symbolic resonance and accused Wajda of indulging in visuals which have been described as baroque or even excessive. While it is unquestionably more stylised than the comparatively conventional A Generation, and the austere look of Kanal, the elaborate mise en scène can neither be dismissed as mere window dressing nor simply as another move away from Socialist Realism. Indeed, just as Maciek’s reason for never removing his dark glasses is revealed not to be a stylish affectation, but rather the result of having spent too much time in the sewers during the Warsaw uprising, one must look beyond the surface of the visuals to the more profound meaning underneath.
For example, the notable sequence in which Krystyna and Maciek talk amongst the ruins of a bombed-out crypt and then read the poem by the Polish Romantic poet and ardent nationalist, Cyprian Norwid, which gives the film its title, is richly symbolic. Norwid’s poem asks if the flames of martyrdom for the national cause will bring only chaos, or if its ashes also ‘hold the glory of a star-like diamond’. This work, which Maciek knows by heart, therefore expresses the young man’s doubts about the sacrifice he may be required to make for his country, but it also alludes to his doomed Romanticism, and his determination to make that sacrifice. The poem’s reference to flames is also significant, and the film is full of recurring images of fire, from the glasses of vodka Maciek lights in memory of his dead friends, to the flames that burst out of the bullet wound of one of the men killed in the first botched assassination attempt, to the fireworks that explode as Szczuka is killed. Immediately after this poem is recited, Wajda conjures up one of the most striking images in the film: as the pair enters the crypt, the camera tilts down and in the foreground of the shot, bisecting the frame and dividing the two lovers is a large upside-down crucifix, with the face of Christ illuminated by a shaft of light. The downward movement mirrors the film’s opening shot, where the camera cranes down from a cross on top of a church (a metaphorical fall). However, the inverted cross symbolises a world in turmoil and dramatically underscores the protagonist’s loss of spiritual faith as well as his loss of faith in the cause he is fighting for, while the gentle swaying of the cross, like a pendulum, also reminds the audience that time is running out for the two lovers.
Although it would be wrong to view the film as being either unoriginal or less than authentically Polish, and the film’s romantic pessimism is certainly characteristic of the Polish Film School in which Wajda played a central part, Ashes and Diamonds also betrays a complex and eclectic array of influences. On the one hand, the rubble, bombed-out buildings, and ruined churches that characterise the film’s exteriors are reminiscent of Italian Neorealism (perhaps the key inspiration on the Polish Film School). Yet there are also moments of almost Buñuelian surrealism, such as the sight of the white horse trotting down the street past Maciek. The lighting is highly stylised and Expressionistic, and betrays the influence of Hollywood film noir. For example, Maciek’s death on a deserted rubbish heap, which is certainly amongst the most affecting and memorable in European cinema, recalls Sterling Hayden’s death throes in John Huston’s The Asphalt Jungle (1950). However, perhaps the key American influence is Citizen Kane (1941). Inspired by the numerous low-angle shots in Orson Welles’ film, Wajda had his production designer, Roman Mann, include ceilings in all of the interior sets. Wajda’s compositions, with their considerable depth of field, similarly bring to mind Gregg Toland’s work on the earlier film.
Aside from the visual kinship, it is not too grand to make comparisons between Wajda’s film and Welles’s. Just as Citizen Kane changed the direction of American cinema, Ashes and Diamonds, both politically and aesthetically, was instrumental in helping to foster a new Polish cinema free from the constraints of Stalinism and (at least temporarily) from the doctrine of Socialist Realism. Also, more than any other Polish filmmaker, Wajda has probed into the national myths surrounding the Second World War and its aftermath. However, despite major works such as A Generation, Kanal, Lotna (1959), Samson (1961), Landscape After Battle (1970), Korczak (1990), The Ring With the Crowned Eagle (1993) and, more recently, Katyn (2007), Ashes and Diamonds remains his most significant, complex and moving depiction of his nation’s tragic involvement in this conflict.
Cast and Crew:
[Country: Poland. Production Company: Zespól Felmowy KADR. Director: Andrzej Wajda. Screenwriters: Jerzy Andrzejewski and Andrzej Wajda (from the novel by Andrzejewski). Cinematographer: Jerzy Wójcik. Music: Filip Nowak. Editor: Halina Nawrocka. Production Designer: Roman Mann. Cast: Zbigniew Cybulski (Maciek), Adam Pawlikowski (Andrzej), Ewa Krzyzewska (Krystyna), Waclaw Zastrzezynski (Szczuka), Bogumil Kobiela (Drewnowski), Jan Ciecierski (Old Porter).]
Janina Falkowska, Andrzej Wajda: History, Politics and Nostalgia in Polish Cinema, New York, Berghahn Books, 2006.
John Orr and Elzbieta Ostrowska (eds), The Cinema of Andrzej Wajda: The Art of Irony and Defiance, New York, Columbia University Press, 2003.
Andrzej Wajda, Wajda on Film: A Master’s Notes, London, Acrobat Books, 1991.
The Routledge Encyclopedia of Films, Edited by Sarah Barrow, Sabine Haenni and John White, first published in 2015.