Polish Cinema: Ashes and Diamonds (Andrzej Wajda, 1958, Poland)

               Ashes and Diamonds (1958), arguably Wajda’s masterpiece and certainly his most renowned film outside his native Poland, is a remarkable examination of the soul of post-war Poland. Taking place over the course of a single evening – set against a backdrop of festivities surrounding the German surrender in 1945 (this endless party into the night reminded me of WyspiaƄski’s Wesele) – the film tells the story of Maciek. Maciek is a Home Army hitman, charged with the task of taking out the new Soviet puppet leader Szczuka. Over the course of one evening, he falls in love with a local bartender – Krystyna, played by Ewa Krzyzewska – and his whole raison d’etre is cast into doubt.
               Even though Ashes and Diamonds was made during the cultural thaw in Poland following the death of Stalin, it is remarkable that the Soviet authorities allowed it to be made. While one may interpret Maciek’s Home Army crusade as rather pointless in the story of the film, and Szczuka himself is humanized and even made sympathetic, the fact remains that the most sympathetic character in the film is a Home Army soldier. Polish authorities originally did not want the film shown outside of the country, although their attitude changed after the film received glowing acclaim at the Venice Film Festival.
               Despite the political context of Ashes and Diamonds, the film succeeds even absent this context, largely due to the performances (most notably the legendary Zbigniew Cybulski as Maciek), as well as the incredibly evocative and noirish cinematography from Jerzy Wojcik. Wajda and Wojcik are masters of composition, imbuing each frame with symbolism. A Christ statue hanging upside down in a bombed-out church reflects a world gone upside down. Likewise, Wajda conveys the film’s titular metaphor – from a poem by Cyprian Norwid – in our two leads, with Maciek representing the figurative ashes, and Krystyna representing the diamonds – hope for Poland’s future.



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