Poland after the Nazi surrender

Andrzej Wajda’s famous 1958 film “Ashes and Diamonds” (Popiól i diament) looks striking (très noir) but is very confusing. The intentions of the killings at the start become clear, but I don’t know why the assassin who no one knows is one runs and is shot near the end (other than to provide a photogenic ten-minute dance of death). In between the shootings is a lot of talk, though it does not clarify the politics. The whole movie puzzles me in that I thought Soviet control was established quickly and the movie is set after the fall of Berlin to the Red Army and at the time of the German surrender. With the kitsch Hitler portrait, the anti-Soviet plotters come across as leftover Nazis, rather than as fighters for Polish independence. I guess that must have been a necessary accommodation to the regime that allowed the movie to be made. (Non-Nazi opponents of the communist probably could not be shown.)


At the time, Zbigniew Cybulski may have seemed to be “the Polish James Dean.” From a later perspective, his womanizing and arrogance (and destruction) seem much more like the young Warren Beatty (in movies made after 1958).


And the middle adumbrates “The Fireman’s Ball,” not one of my favorite movies, but hailed for showing aspects of Soviet bloc society that were already on display a decade earlier in this Polish film.

Wajda’s trilogy is available from Criterion as “War Movies by Andrzej Wajda” with “A Generation” and “Kanal,” neither of which is as perplexing as “Ashes and Diamonds” is. (BTW, I’s have labeled the three as “End of the War Films by Andrzej Wajda). The great director, who was born in 1926,  died in 2016.


©2004, 2018, Stephen O. Murray


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