Hell in the Sewers of Warsaw

Just out of film school in 1954, painter-turned director Andrzej Wajda‘s first feature film “Pokolenie” (A Generation), based on the novel by Bohdan Czeszko, who also wrote the screenplay) remains impressive. There are painterly chiaroscuro compositions, but also gripping action sequences, and strong characterizations. (And unlike Pasolini’s first movie, Accatone, there are well-done tracking shots and none of the lingering on scenes that are dramatically finished.)

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A lot happens in the 83-minute running time of “A Generation.” Set in the outskirts of Warsaw in 1943, the movie starts with a group of young male slackers (just like “Accatone” does). Three of them jump onto a German train hauling coal toward the eastern front. Pillaging a bit is their form of resistance to the Nazi occupation. One is killed by a guard’s bullet and the film settles onto a shocked protagonist, Stach (Tadeusz Lomnicki), grazed by another bullet.

He stumbles into what seems to be a brick factory and (I think) perceived as being an opponent of the German Reich is taken on as an apprentice in a furniture-making factory. Being the most junior employee, he is run ragged. Sent off with a more senior one, Sekula (Janusz Paluszkiewicz), he receives a brief lecture on surplus value. (This might seem like elementary Marxist propaganda, but in the very informative Criterion edition interview with Wadja that I heartily recommend watching before the movie, I learned that the Polish authorities wanted this cut lest Polish workers think that they were still not receiving most of the value of their labor, though it was going to the state rather than to private owners.)

A very attractive young woman, whose code name the viewer will learn is Dorota (Urszula Modrzynska) distributes leaflets to the workers urging them to join the People’s Army, Stach is smitten both by her and by the glory of fighting the occupiers. He forms a band of freedom fighters (one of whom, Jacek (Ryszard Kotas) says he is already a communist, but is torn by the need to stay alive to support his father and engaging in high-risk actions).

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There is a killing that the occupiers consider an act of “terrorism.” There is exemplary punishment, an extended chase (not as extended as in “Odd Man Out,” but even more stylishly shot), a carnival set up by the Germans just outside the walls of the burning Warsaw ghetto, a daring rescue operation, intrigues, romance, a Gestapo visit, a beating, and more. The ending looks like standard Soviet glorification of a band of anti-Fascists, though is open to other interpretations (not only from the tears in the eyes of the man making the rendez-vous, but in that he has now learned what these smiling partisans soon will about the costs of an insurgency against a military occupation).

Relatedly, I don’t think the movie pretends to provide a representative sample of the political factions in the Polish Resistance, or that anyone ever thought so. The band shown here was not doctrinally communist, and in Lenin’s terms are adventurers engaged in “infantile leftism. “A Generation” does not show the Soviet indifference to the crushing of the Warsaw Ghetto revolt or indicate that the future was trading one set of masters (from the Nazi empire) for another ((from the Soviet empire). There are hints of the latter, but giving the partisans of 1943-44 such foreknowledge would have been anachronistic. The idealism of the characters is tempered by seeing the high costs. Those who survive are not dewey-eyed!

In “On Becoming A Filmmaker” (the 2003 interview running 34 minutes), Wajda provides much interesting information on how a band of recent film school students (including the 6th-billed Roman Polanski; center in the still above) made it up as they were going along in location shooting and the despair at how the movie was transformed before its release by the cultural commissars. He thinks the film is valuable as a record of how things looked in war-devastated Poland, but there is much more of value in the fervently acted and impressively filmed movie.

The Criterion restoration is meticulous, and, along with “Andrzej Wajda: On Becoming A Filmmaker,” (which includes film clips and some explication of the milieu by critic Jerzy Plazewski as well as Wajda speaking) the disc includes the second of Wajda’s three student films, a 10-minute film. “Ceramics from Ilza,” and a gallery of 98 images of the production and publicity for the film. The subtitles are yellow, so do not disappear against white backgrounds.

“A Generation” was the first of what became a trilogy about anti-Nazi activities in Poland in 1943-44 with  “Kanal” (1957) and “Ashes and Diamonds” (1958) (in which it is an official being imposed by the Kremlin who is assassinated) twice. All show the destruction of a generation of young Poles with more enthusiasm for resistance than ideology or political analysis. “A Generation” and “Kanal” were shot by the brilliant Jerzy Lipman (who had shot “Ceramics from Ilza” and would also shoot the first feature directed by Roman Polanski, the very impressive-looking “Knife in the Water” (1962).

 

©2017, Stephen O. Murray

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