Between a rock (Nazi occupiers) and a hard place (the Red Army)

There is a composer (played by Wladyslaw Sheyba in his screen debut) among the company that has been reduced to a platoon of the Polish Resistance 43 days in the Warsaw Uprising of 1944 in “Kanal” (1957), the second of the trilogy of tragic movies about the Polish Resistance by Andrzej Wadja (between “A Generation” and “Ashes and Diamonds“). They stream by in the opening shot, with voice-over introduction that concludes with an exhortation to “watch them closely, for these are the last hours of their lives.”. Anyone with even a slight knowledge of the course of the Second World War knows that the Red Army had parked across the Vistula rather than aid the Poles’ insurrection against the occupying Nazis and waited for the Poles and Germans to kill as many of each other as they could. Those defending a bombed-out hill know that they are doomed as they take up positions with a small supply of ammunition.

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“Doom” is an abstraction. They expect to die defending a position that cannot be defended (the hill I mean), but nothing so noble as a Polish Thermopylae stand is ahead of them. After they repulse an attack in which the romantic lead, Jacek Kortab (Tadeusz Janczar), whom I recognized from “A Generation”) is wounded in a brave venture, Lt. Zadra (Wienczyslaw Glinski) is ordered to retreat and escape through the sewer system, an order that particularly enrages the hard-drinking Sgt. Kula (Tadeusz Gwiazdowski).

Impending doom in a position that is certain to be overrun is sometimes represented in war movies (and I’d bet that Stephen Spielberg remembered some set-ups from “A Generation” in making “Saving Private Ryan”), but there is nothing remotely heroic about dying like rats (literally in a rat habitat) in a vain attempt to retreat. There is absolutely none of the exhilaration of the chase through the Vienna sewer system of “The Third Man” in “Kanal.” Life in the sewers is nasty, brutish, and short with sewer gasses, the ordinary (less toxic) stench, and muck (carefully applied, to that the eyes of the actors stand out alarmingly).

The group gets separated, so that there are three groups wandering around lost. The only one who knows the way through the sewers, Daisy (Teresa Izewska) drags and coaxes Jacek to the planned exit point, but wounded, feverish, and exhausted, he is unable to climb up the tunnel. Viewers unfamiliar with the geography/history may find where they go melodramatic, but those who know them know the implicit message of that scene. These two are not the only ones to have melodramatic endings for their journey. Most everyone goes mad to some degree. Wherever there is light there is danger and/or ignominy. The scope for heroism is reduced to almost (but not quite) nothing.

I know that some people survived, because the film is based on the experiences of Jerzy Stefan Stawinski, who had been 24 at the time of the Warsaw Uprising. The second half of “Kanal” is uncompromisingly bleak. The first half is a “war film” above ground, but that there is an armed insurrection being annihilated becomes indistinct with the primal absurdity of trying to find a way out of the muck and confusion of the sewers. This is not what those who enjoy war movies want, even those willing to watch “the good guys” be overrun and die fighting (300 Spartans, Go Tell the Spartans, They Died with Their Boots On, etc.). It is not really an antiwar movie, either. It is 1950s-stylized existentialist absurdism set in a then-recent historical debacle.

The uprising was based on mistaken assumptions that aid would come from the Allies, both by air form England and on the ground from the nearby Red Army. Wajda’s 2004 interview of Jan Nowak-Jezioranski puts the background in perspective without “spoiling” the plot of this particular movie. A courier between the Polish government-in-exile in London and the Home Army (Polish Resistance) at the time, Nowak-Jezioranski, a master dialectician, explains a lot and finds two silver linings to a very dark cloud.

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I found the Wajda interview to the Criterion edition of A Generation useful for putting that movie in its historical context of how and when it was made. The Wajda interview (in which there are clips of the movie and some 2004 interview footage of Janusz Morgenstern (who was assistant director of “Kanal”), and critic Jerzy Plazewski in addition to Wajda) to the Criterion edition of “Kanal” is also very informative, but I would recommend watching it after watching the movie.

The Criterion transfer from the original negative is superb, allowing the viewer to see the clarity of Jerzy Lipman’s cinematography and seemingly infinite shades of gray. The (yellow) subtitles for the DVD are new and readable. There are also three galleries of production photos, publicity stills, and posters. It is another package for which Criterion deserves five stars.

The second half of the movie is so unpleasant to watch and the characters so much types rather than individuals (with the exception of the composer), that I’d be tempted to rate it a 3, despite Lipman’s bravura cinematography.

The movie is great for short-circuiting self-pity: Anyone who is able to watch a DVD is in as enviably good position in contrast to those in the movie!

BTW, I could not find even a hint of what the politics of the fighters was. “A Generation” was criticized for showing a leftist band (though, as I said in writing about it, in Lenin’s terms they were “infantile leftists” rather than disciplined revolutionaries). Polish viewers knew the Red Army was across the Vistula waiting for the insurrection to be put down, and a shot of the river was all the allusion they needed to remind them that the supposed “liberators” waited for the city to be destroyed and those who would rise up against foreign occupation to be eliminated. Somehow, Wajda was able to show one who had opposed Nazi occupation who engaged in a terrorist act against the Soviet-imposed regime in “Ashes and Diamonds,” another bleak but visually stylized portrayal of futility and absurd attempts at self-assertion.

 

©2018, Stephen O. Murray

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