In 1956 there was a seismic political shift in Poland known variously as the Polish Thaw or Polish October. The Stalinist period ended and the entire country went through a process of comparable liberalisation that naturally extended to the filmmaking community. Free of the constraints placed upon the medium by the Soviet Union – which shackled both narrative opposition and formal experimentation – the likes of Andrzej Wajda were able to cast off their irons. With social realism no longer imposed as a matter of course, Wajda set about making the third feature in what is now referred to as his ‘war trilogy’; the remarkable and deeply symbolic, Ashes and Diamonds (1958).
At its centre stands Zbigniew Cybulski in a star-making role. Decked in dark glasses and an anachronistic 50s cool, he is an embodiment of a lost generation, teeth cut in the Warsaw Uprising and tragically unable to extricate himself from the struggle. Taking place on the day of Germany’s final capitulation, this is a Poland caught in limbo between the still smouldering ruins of Nazi occupation and the newly introduced Soviet regime. Cybulski’s Maciek is half of a duo of Home Army soldiers still waging war, but the foundation of whose devotion is increasingly becoming shaky. Cybulski is nothing short of electrifying as a young man annihilated by combat but whose faith is shaken.
While visiting a ruined church with a young barmaid, Krystyna (Ewa Krzyzewska), who he begins to fall in love with, he references the film’s title – regarding whether there will be diamonds amongst the ashes of the settled national debris. As he walks beneath an upturned cross hanging from the ceiling, the screen seems to betray the answer even as he posits the question. There are many dualities in Ashes and Diamonds: captured in Wajda’s adaptation of Jerzy Andrzejewski’s source novel; in Jerzy Wójcik’s rich cinematography; and in the exquisite meeting of the two. Wajda’s cited Orson Welles as a major influence on the film and Gregg Toland’s use of deep focus is put to fantastic use. Characters’ actions are regularly undermined by what is happening further into the frame and a fatal and upsetting shooting is set against the ironic backdrop of celebratory fireworks. Persistent and energetic movement of the camera adds to a sense of real momentum; this is thoroughly exhilarating stuff, despite what may sound like morose subject matter.
Wajda toys with various symbols throughout the film, perhaps most acutely that of fire. When Maciek mistakenly murders the wrong man in an opening shootout, flames dance across his back. This is then repeatedly evoked when Maciek lights the cigarette of the man he was originally supposed to have killed, Szczuka (Waclaw Zastrzezynski). Later on in a bar, Maciek and his partner, Andrzej (Adam Pawlikowski), drink flaming shots in memory of their own fallen comrades. There will be more to light before the battle is done, not least in Wadja’s pessimistic twist on Andrzejewski’s original ending. Where the novelist, writing in 1948, had shown hope of reconciliation, Wajda had already seen there was none to be had. Ashes and Diamonds is both a lament and a cry of pain for country still desperately trying to understand its history.
Ben Nicholson | @BRNicholson