Polish Cinema: Kanal (Andrzej Wajda, 1957, Poland)

               Kanal is a blistering, brutal, and relentlessly bleak tale of the Warsaw Uprising – a film which feels as fresh and immediate now as it must have in 1957. Released a mere 13 years after the events unfolding in the film, Kanal tells the story about a unit of resistance fighters in the Warsaw Uprising using led by Lieutenant Zadra, who use the sewer system beneath Warsaw to evade a German encirclement. From the beginning of the film, we know the destiny that awaits the unit – a narrator tells us we are witnessing the “last hours of their lives”.
               It is remarkable then that – despite knowing what is going to happen to the main characters – the film is still gripping. This is mainly due to Wajda’s artistry. Kanal is Wajda’s first veritable masterwork. He demonstrates his filmmaking craft primarily through the latter two thirds of the film, which takes place almost entirely underground in the sewers – as one character describes it, “a shitty game of hide and seek”. While there is a realism to the proceedings, Wajda adds an element of delirious expressionism – framing his characters at off-kilter angles, playing with a mixture of light, shadow, and smoke, and creating a persistent sense of paranoia.
               The characters also play a major role in the success of the film – from the composer Michal, who begins quoting Dante and gradually descends into madness in the sewers, to the strong-willed and beautiful Stokrotka (Daisy). The film also brings darkness and humor in equal measures, showing the characters as unique individuals with their own flaws and motivations. This is in distinct contrast to the more one-dimensional characters from Wajda’s previous effort A Generation, and foreshadows what was to come with the final film in the war trilogy – Ashes and Diamonds. A harrowing tale told from people who experienced it firsthand.



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