ANDRZEJ WAJDA: THREE WAR FILMS: A GENERATION / ASHES AND DIAMONDS / KANAL – DVD review

In the years immediately following the end of World War 2, the world stood in shock as it learned of the enormity of the Holocaust. The horror of this genocide, along with the spectacle of the Nuremberg trials, understandably eclipsed many of the other tragedies associated with the war. The films of Andrzej Wajda, beginning in the 1950s, played a crucial role in broadening awareness of the great calamity suffered by the Polish population during Nazi occupation.

Andrzej Wajda was in his teens during the war, and joined the resistance movement. Afterwards, he studied as a painter and then as a filmmaker; he was one of the first students of the influential State Film School at Lodz which was established in 1948. He shot a few short documentaries during his school days, but his first feature was “A Generation” released in 1955. A modest success, he followed it up with “Kanal” (1957) and “Ashes and Diamonds” (1958), two films which turned international attention to the plight of wartime Poland and gained Wajda considerable attention as a major film director. These three films are collected in Criterion’s new boxed set, “Andrzej Wajda: Three War Films.”

Wajda’s films can only be understood in the context of Polish history. One of the first countries overrun by the Nazi war machine, Poland suffered tremendous hardship under German occupation. Jewish citizens were rounded up and walled off in the Warsaw Ghetto. Polish resistance remained resolute throughout the occupation but, outnumbered and outgunned, the greater part of an entire generation was lost. The war’s end did not bring a return to pre-war Polish sovereignty either; instead, the Russians took over as a new occupying force, and the resistance continued.

Wajda’s films deal with these issues and, implicitly, with a more central question. In a country occupied first by the Germans, and then by the Russians, what exactly is the Polish national identity. In these three films, it is an identity defined chiefly by resistance even in the force of overwhelming odds. Each film in this collection deals with a different story of Polish resistance during the latter years of the war.

“A GENERATION”

“A Generation” begins in 1942, and wears its neorealist influences on its sleeve. Shot almost entirely on location in war-torn Warsaw (parts of the city were still in ruins even in 1955) and with mostly unknown actors, “A Generation” is primarily a coming-of-age story. Stach (Tadeusz Lomnicki) is a teenager who, like any Polish teenager at the time, despises the Nazis. In the opening sequence of the film, he and his friends run after a German supply train, planning to throw off pieces of coal in a display of adolescent rebellion. However, a German officer shoots and kills one of the friends, sending the rest scattering for cover. In that moment, Stach’s playful days are abandoned, and he races headlong into adulthood as an apprentice laborer in a factory where he learns the dynamics of the Marxist class struggle.

Stach is an understandably angry young man who has no outlet for his rage until he encounters Dorota (Urszula Modrzynska), the charismatic (and, by coincidence, beautiful) leader of a communist resistance group. Stach joins, just as much to be with Dorota as to fight the Nazis, but he soon becomes a passionate and dedicated fighter. Things begin to go wrong, however, when some members of the group get carried away and gun down a sadistic Nazi officer in public.

Running at a tight 87 minutes, the narrative races along so briskly it almost feels as if scenes have been left out. This benefits the film enormously, as it has too much ground to cover to indulge in excessive mawkishness. Characters drop in and out of the story, the Warsaw Ghetto rises and falls, and the resistance slowly begins to fall apart. Stach, of course, falls in love with Dorota but their romance is doomed. In the understated and powerful final moments of the film, Stach watches helplessly from the shadows as Nazi officers take Dorota into a car and drive off. Nothing more needs to be said; she will die. The last scene is bittersweet and powerful. Stach cries for his lost love as a group of smiling young people walk up and call to him. The rising sun lights a nimbus around them, capturing the dual nature of “A Generation” of young people who represent both the tragedy and the hopes of an entire nation.

“A Generation” suffers from the occasional bit of preachiness, particularly when an older worker delivers the standard “workers of the world unite” communist rhetoric. However, the film’s crisp, economical storyline and the strong lead performances make it memorable and effective. I was particularly interested by the way in which the film showed that there was no single unified Polish resistance, but rather a wide variety of resistance groups. The factory workers unite under a communist-inspired group, but the bosses are members of the Home Army, a nationalist resistance force whose members are as suspicious of the communists as they are of the Nazis.

A point of interest: a supporting character named Mundek is played by a young first-time Polish actor by the name of Roman Polanski.

“KANAL”

Where “A Generation” is bittersweet, “Kanal” is just plain bitter. Set in September 1944, “Kanal” is generally credited as the first film to tell the story of the Warsaw Uprising. In 1944, the Soviet Red Army reached the shores of the Vistula River, inspiring many Warsaw residents to think they would soon liberate the city. The citizens rebelled in August 1944, waiting for support from Russian troops which never arrived. Instead, the Russians, who had designs on Poland after the war, watched and waited as the uprising was crushed and over 250,000 Poles died in only two months.

“Kanal” begins at the end of the Warsaw Uprising, when hope had dissolved into despair. A platoon of Home Army soldiers tries to make a last stand against Nazi forces, but they soon realize they are badly outnumbered. Unable to stay and fight, they retreat to the sewers in a desperate effort to retreat to their base. The first half of the film, set above ground, continues the neo-realist tradition of “A Generation” but once the action goes underground, the tenor and look of the film changes markedly. Pseudo-documentary style gives way to constructed sets and moody, artificial lighting, and the film shifts into a brooding, existential mood.

There are no clearly-defined characters in the film, and most people are given names which represent characteristics or symbols (Wise, Slim, Bullett, etc.) The entire group can be seen as a single “collective” character, in the Eisensteinian sense. The group soon becomes disoriented and gets separated as they wander through the reeking, labyrinthine sewers. Only Daisy (Teresza Izewska) knows the way, and once she’s separated from the main party, they are doomed. Wajda doesn’t pull any punches here. Unlike many movie sewers, these sewers are not simply wet; they are swimming in filth and human waste, and the Home Army soldiers are drenched in it. They can barely breathe in the stinking morass, and tempers run short as they descend deeper into this reeking Inferno.

In some ways, the film has not aged very well. It suffers from a major case of strained seriousness and heavy-handed symbolism. The camera frequently dollies in tight on the artist Michal (Wladyslaw Sheybal) as he says… well, something “artistic.” Some of the power of the film is sapped by Wajda’s highly self-conscious sense of significance; every “important” moment is underscored just to be sure the audience doesn’t miss it. Still, “Kanal” is a very potent and moving film.

There are no happy endings here. Some of the soldiers get lost. Others escape to the surface, only to find German soldiers waiting for them. Other characters can only stare out at sun and freedom just inches away, but forever denied them by impassable iron bars. The Warsaw Uprising had many heroes and many victories, but ended in total defeat for everyone involved, and Wajda does not attempt to sugarcoat this fact. “Kanal” is as resolutely grim as any film this side of Pasolini’s “Salo.”

“Kanal” told the story of the Warsaw uprising to world audiences who were previously unaware of it. It also gained international acclaim, sharing the Special Jury Prize at Cannes with another film by a then little-known director, “The Seventh Seal” by Ingmar Bergman.

“ASHES AND DIAMONDS”

“Ashes and Diamonds” is, pun intended, the jewel of this collection. The entire story takes place on the final day and night of World War 2. May 9, 1945 represented the official end to hostilities and final liberation for many nations; in Poland, it heralded the arrival of a new Soviet regime.

Maciek (Zbigniew Cybulski), a Home Army soldier, is assigned to assassinate the incoming Russian commissar. Thanks to faulty intelligence, he botches the job and kills two innocent factory workers by mistake. In one of many stunning shots, a gung-ho Maciek pumps shot after shot into a worker who actually catches on fire from the bullets before tumbling headfirst into a chapel.

Maciek is eager to continue the mission, but he soon becomes sidetracked by a beautiful barmaid named Krystyna ( Ewa Krzyzewska.) Maciek is young and has led a hard life of fighting and killing, but the brief time he spends with Krystyna makes him rethink his priorities. The transformation is a bit forced perhaps. Maciek hardly seems like the reflective or demonstrative type, but he very quickly reveals to Krystyna that he now understands the true meaning of love for the first time ever and wants to change his ways. Of course, we already know that can’t happen; he’s a tragic hero, after all.

However, Cybulski manages to sell it thanks to a forceful, charismatic performance that made him a star and a legend in Poland. The classic young rebel, complete with ultra-cool sunglasses and cigarette pinched between gritting teeth, Cybulski has been called the Polish James Dean, in part because it’s just too difficult to call James Dean the American Zbigniew Cybulski. Maciek (and, by extension, Cybulski) became an icon to Polish audiences (much to the dismay of Soviet censors), forever immortalized by his heart-breaking death scene. Just as the dawn of the very first day after the official end of the war stretches over Poland, a breathless and bloodied Maciek dies alone on a massive trash heap, curled up in a fetal position. Cybulski would, unfortunately, further encourage the James Dean comparison when he was struck and killed by a train in 1967.

“Ashes and Diamonds” takes great pains to humanize all its characters. The incoming commissar wants to find his missing son, and hopes to forge a new and lasting peace. When Maciek finally guns him down in the streets, it’s not an act of glorious patriotism but an ugly, distasteful task which horrifies the young rebel. Maciek throws his gun away in disgust, and races off into the night as fireworks celebrating the end of the war light up the night sky.

Of course, I can’t possibly cover each film in sufficient detail in this review. I have to settle for just covering the basics. Wajda is one of the most influential Polish directors of all time, and is responsible for leading the “Polish school” of filmmaking which produced many great works from the 1950s on. Wajda continued to make politically charged films which grappled with significant moments in Polish history, building his reputation with films such as “Man of Marble” (1976) and “Man of Iron” (1981.) Wajda was even elected to parliament in 1989, reflecting his considerable status in Polish society. In 2000, the Academy of Motion Pictures awarded Wajda an honorary Oscar for lifetime achievement, and remains active to the present day. Now, thanks to this impressive new collection from Criterion, you can see where the career of one the world’s most influential directors began.

Video

The first two films are presented in their original 1.33:1 aspect ratios. “Ashes and Diamonds” is presented in its original 1.66:1 ratio. Each DVD has a new, restored high-definition transfer, and the quality varies based on the conditions of the source print. “Ashes and Diamonds” is immaculate, and the high contrast lighting (very nourish) is beautifully preserved. “A Generation” is in the roughest shape of the bunch, though “Kanal” also has plenty of dirt and scratches. However, even with blemishes, the transfers still preserve the light-dark contrast, and the black and white photography on all three films is beautiful (esp. on “Ashes”.) Not the very best Criterion transfers, but still excellent.

Audio

All three films are presented in Dolby Digital Mono. The music track on “Kanal” is often rather faint, but I’m pretty sure that’s the way it was intended to be. Otherwise, I have no complaints about the sound transfer. It’s crisp, clear, and well-mixed. All three DVDs are in Polish with optional English subtitles.

Extras

Each film in the collection is a single-disc with its own special features.

“A Generation”

-“Andrzej Wajda: On Becoming a Filmmaker” (34 min.) An interview with Wajda recorded in 2003 for Criterion. Also with critic Jerzy Plazewski.
-“Ceramics from Ilza” (10 min.) A short documentary shot by Wajda while he was a student at Lodz. The title says it all. It’s a series of shots of ceramic figurines from Ilza, along with information about some of the most important artisans from the town.
-Stills Gallery (also includes paintings by Wajda, some of which are quite lovely.)

“Kanal”

-“Andrzej Wajda: On Kanal” (27 min.) Another interview recorded in 2003 for Criterion. Also with Plazewski and Janusz “Kuba” Morgenstern, the assistant director of “Kanal.”
-“Jan Nowak-Jezioranski: Courier from Warsaw” (28 min.) An interview, conducted by Wajda, with a soldier who took part in the uprising. It’s pretty dry, but still valuable for those interested in Polish history. The interview took place in 2004, and Nowak-Jezioranski died in January 2005
-Stills Gallery

“Ashes and Diamonds”

-Commentary Track by Annette Insdorf, a film professor at Columbia University. Of interest, but like many commentaries by critics it does far too much interpretation. The only DVD in the set with a commentary.
-“Andrzej Wajda: On Ashes and Diamonds” (36 min.) Another 2003 interview, also with Plazewski and Morgenstern.
-1958 Newsreel (1 min, 21 sec.) A publicity reel for the film’s release.
-Stills Gallery

The interviews with Wajda are all very informative, and critic Jerzy Plazewski provides much of the historical and political context needed to better understand the films.

Closing Thoughts

My Film Value rating represents the entire collection. On an individual basis, I rate “A Generation” and “Kanal” each a 7/10 on the DVDTown scale, “Ashes and Diamonds” receives a 9/10. Of course, I always feel a little foolish trying to reduce a movie review to a mere number rating but I suppose it has its uses. I hadn’t seen an Andrzej Wajda film before watching this set, and I am definitely interested in watching more. If you are curious, then I strongly recommend renting “Ashes and Diamonds” to test the waters.

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