Andrzej Wajda: Three War Films (Criterion Collection)
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In 1999, Polish director Andrzej Wajda received an Honorary Academy Award® for his body of workmore than thirty-five feature films, beginning with A Generation in 1955
Andrzej Wajda's first three features form a landmark in Polish cinema, and a monument of that great decade of European movies, the 1950s. Working mostly during a thaw in Soviet control over his homeland, Wajda and his collaborators created three films that looked back at the Second World War from the perspective of a new generation whose youth was defined by the catastrophe of Nazi occupation and Soviet control. The first film is titled A Generation (1955), as though to sum up the collective feeling. It's set in Warsaw in 1943, as young workers join the anti-Nazi resistance movement (including an attempt to help Jews escape from the ghetto). Shot in real locations, but with an expressionistic eye, A Generation is especially drawn to the ambiguous supporting character played by Tadeusz Janczar, a much more conflicted and modern character than the nominal hero. (Roman Polanski plays one of the fighters.)
Kanal (1957) tracks the final hours of the Warsaw Uprising, a rebellion by the Poles and their Home Army against the Germans. (The Russian army, parked on the other side of the Vistula River, allowed the Poles to be wiped out without interference.) First we meet the characters in a last stand at a bombed-out field of urban rubble, then follow them in a miserable escape through the dank, gas-filled sewers beneath the city. The desperation of final heroic acts, and Wajda's ingenuity in finding new ways to shoot in the sewer sets, keeps the film balanced in nerve-wracking suspense.
Set on the final day of World War II, Ashes and Diamonds explodes with mixed-up passion and anger, and with the deliberately James Dean-like performance of Polish icon Zbigniew Cybulski. Wadja expands his range here with a visual dynamism that includes a heady use of symbols and striking borrowings from Citizen Kane and film noir. The nervy, dark-spectacled Cybulski plays a Home Army member out to assassinate a Communist official, an assignment bungled in the opening sequence. So the job still needs completing, but the would-be assassin is diverted by a melancholy barmaid and the possibility of turning away from violence... but this is Poland, and wry fatalism prevails. The doomed national feeling is maintained in powerful fashion in these three movies--which are not, technically speaking, a trilogy, though they have always spiritually been of-a-piece.
Criterion assembled this DVD set with Wajda's approval, and he appears in illuminating half-hour interview segments on each disc (along with filmmaker Janusz Morgenstern and critic Jerzy Plazewski). Valuable production stills and posters, Wajda's film-school short "Ceramics from Ilza," and essays are included. Most importantly, the digital transfers themselves are perfectly stunning. --Robert Horton
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Kanal is a very compelling film, very accessible to American audiences. It is taut, suspenseful and portrays the WWII conflict from a perspective I think many Americans will be unfamiliar with. Much of the film takes place in a sewer, as the refugees try to find an escape from certain death at the hands of the Nazis. Fans of claustrophobic thrillers will appreciate this. The atmosphere is almost choking at times. It's a powerful experience. Steven Spielberg revealed in an interview that he screened Wajda's war films to his crew in preparation for Saving Private Ryan, to give them a better sense of how to create the mise-en-scene of war torn Europe. Kanal contains some virtuosic camera work that should be of interest to any serious film student.
Ashes and Diamonds is a monumental film, probably the most important in all of Polish cinema. (the only other one that comes close is Wajda's Man of Iron, winner of the Golden Palm in 1981). Zbigniew Cybulski is the antic, nervy hero, indeed a James Dean-like persona. Tragically, Cybulski also died young, missing a step while hopping onto a moving train, he fell and was crushed. Ashes and Diamonds will be of most significance to those familiar with the politics of the time and place. It's not an easy film. In fact, it's heartbreaking. But the staggeringly honest portrayal of conflicted allegiances to government and one's soul will resonate with all who see it. A man is hired to assassinate another man. A simple story treated realistically, with all the second guessing and anguish a real person would feel. The Polish sense of compassion extends even to her enemies.
The cover art on this box set depicts a blood soaked bed sheet flapping on a clothesline. When I visited Poland, white sheets drying on clotheslines was a common sight, be it a rural or urban area. But beyond the evocation of war and bloodshed, the red blood has another significance. Red and White make up the bi-colored Polish flag, which closely resembles the bedsheet in the graphic. It is a symbol of Poland's bloody history and the traumatic turmoil of this period in time.
This box set and Kieslowski's the Decalogue comprise a healthy chunk of the brilliant cinema found in Poland, a country with one of the earliest and most successful film schools in the world.
Criterion has provided an excellent treatment. The transfers are terrific. Wajda himself, along with his co-writer Morganstern, and a prominent Polish film critic, Plazewski, provide interviews, filmed in 2003 - there is 90 minutes of this and, while highly illuminating in many details, it also hints at the spirit which leadens the actual films. The weight of history and circumstance is felt by the director, and his peers, and it is hard for them to evade a tone of self-importance - this is well-justified, but still confers a heavy tone to proceedings. Criterion also include an early short of Wajda's and period newsreels and historical matter, and a commentary by a film scholar on Ashes and Diamonds - if sold separately, these would all be premium releases, so they represent good value here.
Ashes and Diamonds is billed as the best of the trilogy, and the lead performance by Zbigniew Cybulski is especially lauded. It is set on the night of the German surrender, May 8th, 1945, and the plot is roughly given in the Amazon editorial. In his interview Wajda explains that Cybulski insisted on wearing his own clothes during the film, and on dark glasses - his Maciek looks like a Godard protagonist or, as was the explicit influence, James Dean - initially Wajda resisted this, as he knew such a look was ludicrous historically, but he relented, and now analyses the appeal of the film in terms of Maciek being a figure the youth of the time (1958) could relate to - he was one of them. Interesting, for sure, but distancing too, and possibly a reason why Maciek's fate evokes less emotion from a viewer than it might.
There are many instances of overt symbolism in all these films. This can make for indelible images, such as the inverted splintered crucifix in Ashes and Diamonds, or the extended symbolism of the canals in the eponymous film - it can also force one to view the films as political statements, prising one out of a purely aesthetic appreciation - the director does not leave you free to choose how you approach these works.
As Wajda points out, neither he nor his Polish contemporaries were free to make the films they wanted. Controversy marked the release of each film, and the Communist censors had to be placated. In this light, the implicit strong criticism of the Communist regime, and particularly of the Russian role in allowing the decimation of Warsaw and attendant crushing of the uprising there, is an incredibly brave act. Kanal can easily be read as saying that the Russian 'liberation' forced Poles 'into the sewers', to live in filth and stench, both literal and metaphorical; Ashes and Diamonds suggests that Polish identity was at best left confused, at worst outrightly betrayed, by the importation of Communism from Russia.
So all this is an incredibly dense history lesson, laced with multiple ironies, and coded in sometimes arcane, sometimes condescendingly simple, symbolism. The history itself is bleak, and the circumstances in which the films were made ideologically compromised. It is hardly surprising that watching these films is taxing, and that admiration for the enterprise is ready, while love for the experience is less forthcoming.
A GENERATION (1955) - 9/10
For an audience to appreciate the magnitude of A Generation, Andrzej Wajda's first film and the initial story in his war trilogy, some historical background is necessary. The story is set in 1943 in the middle of the Nazi occupation of Poland where the Poles were held under the fascist shadow of Adolf Hitler while the Communist leader Stalin was infiltrating the Polish community for future expansion. Initially, the Poles welcomed the help from Stalin, as they were fighting the same enemy. However, Stalin made a deal with the Allies in the 1943 Tehran Conference, a year and half before the war was over, that would grant him parts of Poland. Consequently, after the war Poles went from fascist regime to communist control while Poland also had suffered the loss of approximately six million Polish lives in the war between Hitler and Stalin. A Generation takes place during this year when the story's protagonist Stach (Tadeusz Lomnicki) gradually becomes involved with the Polish resistance and the Communist party.
In the backdrop of the World War II, the poverty-stricken seem to assemble in the outskirts of Warsaw, as they can only afford living in this location. The naïve Stach is one of these poor who finds himself living on the fringe of shattered society. Together with his friends Stach steals coal from passing German trains, until the day when one of his friends are shot by the Nazis while leaving him wounded. In a tumbling escape from the German train Stach enters the sewers where he encounters a man that introduces him to Sekula (Janusz Paluszkiewicz) who later finds him an apprenticeship as a carpenter. Through his newly acquired friends Stach learns much about life. Eventually, Stach finds himself in a crossroads where he must choose his own path relying on his values and morals.
A Generation provides several layers of the Polish society during a part of World War II, which provides an cinematic mosaic with numerous small and large portions expressed in a visually artistic manner. Stach becomes the story's narrator, as he is slung into adulthood from being an innocent teen. Through this rapid maturation that Stach experiences the mosaic comes to life before the eyes of the audience, as the audience gets to witness his coming of age. The values and morals that Stach acquires mature from observing Poles selling bunk beds for concentration camps, the Jewish Warsaw ghetto rebellion in the spring of 1943, learning about Karl Marx, the Polish social classes, being abused by Nazi soliders, building connections with the resistance, and meeting a beautiful girl with whom he falls in love. Through the many experiences the audience gets an chance to learn much about what happened and the mentality of the Polish society, which provides several interesting thoughts.
The director Andrzej Wajda maximizes the visual experience through the use of terrific cinematography, which offers thoughtful analogies that elevate the film. One of these wonderful scenes provided through Wadja's direction is when Jasio (Tadeusz Janczar) escapes the Germans up a spiraling staircase where he finds himself not being able to get further. A thought of only being allowed to a certain place within society comes to mind from the scene at the staircase. Another small sequence is when people are calling for glue in the beginning of the film, which offers an opportunity to think of how some abuse their powers while others nurture their leadership. When the film descends towards its poignant ending several scenes will display marvelous camerawork, terrific mise-en-scene, and artistic framing of each scene. All of these aspects of filmmaking enhance the cinematic experience, which in the end offers much to ponder in both a historical and contemporary perspective.
KANAL (1957) - 10/10
Kanal is the director of Andrzej Wajda's second tale in his war trilogy based on real events that took place starting in August 1944 when the Poles rose up against the Nazis with hope of getting help from the Soviet Red Army. The story takes place in September, as much of Warsaw remains in ruins where human lives seem to be extinguished by the minute. Throughout the revolt, approximately 250.000 people died in the city, as many of the participating rebels were both teens and women. In the shadow the Red Army little did the Polish people know about the true intentions of the Soviets, as they had plans of keeping Poland under the rule of the Soviet sickle and hammer. Ingeniously, Wadja captures both the past and the future through this dark and ominous film, where the Poles were trading one occupation for another.
A city in ruins followed by a large group of tired men in dusty patched uniforms and an attitude of perseverance are the first things to strike the retina when viewing the Kanal. This group of partisans, led by Lieutenant Zadra (Wienczyslaw Glinski), used to consist of 70 men while gunfire and explosions have reduced the number to 43. The noticeable men and women in the story are Zadra, Second Lieutenant Wise (Emil Karewicz), Wise's messenger girl the innocent Halinka, Zadra's assistant Sergeant Major Bullet, Officer Cadet Korab (Tadeusz Janczar), Slim (Stanislaw Mikulski) Korab's aide, and lastly the composer Michal (Vladek Sheybal),. These men and the rest of the 3rd Platoon are on a mission to relive another unit battered by the Nazis when the audience finds out that they will not live more than a day.
The arrival to their destination welcomes them in an exchange of small arms fire with the enemy. Eventually the noise and tumult settle and a moment of serenity emerges within this place where the Grim Reaper frequently seize new souls. This silence brings about an extraordinary situation where the men and women return to their own humanity, as they move beyond war and death into a personal place where they can exercise their freedom of what they desire the most. For example, composer Michal plays the tango La Comparsita with energetic liveliness and Korab gets to meet the blond beauty Daisy (Teresa Izewska) who has arrived through the sewers to meet him. This moment, however, will soon be crushed under the overhanging threat of the Nazis and symbolically the arrival of the Red Army.
Subtle assaults on the serenity begin with a phone call that Michal makes to ensure that his family is ok, but he is cut off in the middle of the conversation and this leaves him with strong anxiety and trepidation. This angst that Michal and many others, no doubt, experience seeps out through the way he later plays the piano with a distant and icy touch, as if his humane side has gotten lost in some wilderness. However, Michal complains about the piano, "It's out of tune. Too many musicians around here." This is a very clever manner in which Wajda creates a sense of emotional isolation and coldness in war. Yet, it is only the beginning of the horror to come, as they are forced to escape through the sewers.
The journey into the darkness of the sewers takes the survivors on what the composer refers to as an Alighierian venture, as they descend into a nauseating stench of knee high fluid feces while things only get worse as they continue. This notion holds up with what the audience can read in Dante's Devine Comedy and the purgatory where he ventures through hell and purgatory in order to reach heaven. However, in Wajda's version they have trouble reaching heaven, as several different blockades prevent them from reaching the fresh air above. This blockade could very well be an analogy for the imminent occupation by the Soviet Union, which forced the Poles to be under the rule of foreign power.
In the end, Kanal offers the audience an improvement from Wadja's first film A Generation, which enhances the artistic quality of the story while also having a cast that provides more complex characters. The lighting, cinematography, mise-en-scene, and the framing of each scene enhance the claustrophobic atmosphere in the film to such a degree that it is almost unpleasant as smells of the sewers perforates through the screen into the room where one views the film. Altogether, Kanal is a brilliant piece of cinematic history that should not be forgotten, as it retells the horrors of World War II and the perseverance of the Polish people.
ASHES AND DIAMONDS (1958) - 10/10
Days after Hitler's suicide Germany signs an unconditional act of surrender, which leaves Europe in peace. Poland on the other hand faces another invader, the Soviet Union, that intends to make Poland a satellite state with a Communist government. The Soviet Union succeeded in this matter, which can be read in the history books. This also made it very difficult to film the story Ashes and Diamonds based on Jerzy Andrzejewski's novel, as the director Andrzej Wajda had to balance multiple political issues in order to prevent the censors from cutting his film or angering any Communist leaders that could prevent the making of the film. Nonetheless, Wajda accomplishes deceiving the censor board and makes an exceptional post-war film that finishes his war trilogy, which compares to Wolfgang Staudte's Murderers Among Us (1946).
Ashes and Diamonds focuses on the Maciek (Zbigniew Cybulski) the films protagonist who constantly wears sunglasses while being the hatchet man for Andrzej (Adam Pawlikowski). Both were operatives for the Polish Home Army, as they drove the Germans out of Poland. Now they try to usher the Soviet Union out of Poland. However, this is a far more complicated issue than defending Poland against the Nazis, as the Poles now suffer from war fatigue of a bloody war that cost them 25% of the Polish lives. The opening scene when Maciek and Andrzej await a recently appointed Communist official, Szczuka (Waclaw Zastrzezynski), that is suppose to arrive in a jeep symbolically displays their fatigue and the difficulty of driving the Soviets out of Poland, as they accidentally kill the wrong man.
Maciek is a man of principles, which shines through when they await for their snitch. However, he also has soft spot for women, as he must have spent most of his youth fighting the Nazis. In a bar waiting to make a call to confirm their assassination, of which they made a mistake on, Maciek meets the bar girl Krystyna (Ewa Krzyzewska) with whom he begins to flirt. Eventually, Maciek and Andrzej discover their error, and they have to stay another night to get the job done by killing Szczuka. To hasten time Maciek continues to flirt with Krystyna, whom he invites to his hotel room, but he has no allusions that she will visit him, which she does.
The meeting with Krystyna provides an opportunity for Maciek to ponder over his existence, as he seems to have been stuck in a rut ever since the war that seems difficult to stop. Krystyna does not intend to fall in love with Maciek, as she has lost her whole family to the war and she does not need further heartache. She also asks why he wears the sunglasses, as he informs her that he spent much time in the sewers during the Polish uprising in 1944. A detailed illustration of how it was in the sewers is provided by the second film, Kanal (1957), in Wajda's war trilogy. In addition, this also delivers another analogy to the aftermath of the war that offers a thought to his darkened perspective of the Polish society, which he seems to have a hard time to getting rid off.
Wajda continues to frame each scene with artistic detail, as the mise-en-scene and the cinematography continue to amaze the audience. The subtle shots of the Red Army marching while tanks makes porcelain vibrate causing a sound of pressing danger. Yet, the people are tired of fighting, as they simply surrender to the arriving Red Army. The surrender finds it way to the audience through several scenes such as when Maciek and Krystyna lay in bed and talk about her losses. In addition, parties and endless drinking also offer the notion of no more war while trying to forget the painful memories of the war. Despite the notion of war fatigue some still find an opportunity to fight against the Soviet involvement in Poland, which is wittingly and comically portrayed through a scene where a drunk reporter asks, "Is this a democracy or not?"
The three movies, "A Generation", "Kanal, and "Ashes and Diamonds" focus on young people involved in the Polish resistance, in the first two movies to the Germans, in the last to the Soviets. In all of them our heroes and heroines fail. They are dealing with events far bigger than them, but they must do something.
The Poles did their best, but were overwhelmed, militarily. The resistance faced enormous odds. These movies are very powerful accounts of the resistance, including heroines as well as heroes, esp. in the first two. The first two movies deal with the uprsising in Warsaw, from diffent perspectives.
I like "Ashes and Diamonds" the best of the three. It's the last day of the war, 1945, a commisar of the USSR is coming to town to take over. Our young hero's job: Kill him. While our hero waits, he falls in love with a local girl. She wants him to abandon the job and go away with her and be happy. He agrees with the going away part, but feels the need to carry out his job first. As good movie goers, we know how that is likely to end.
"Ashes and Diamonds" is an interesting take on the traditional American rural gangster movie, e.g., "High Sierra", "You Only Live Once", "They Live by Night", etc. Wajda's approach is more overtly intellectual, and also more passionate, as he is filming a story of his countrie's history which he lived, a history which included his fathers murder by the Germans at Katyn.
Wajda is, in my opinion, the greatest living movie director, not perfect by any means, but at his best, he can't be beat. These three films are worthy of your attention.
"A Generation"-a little heavy with communist propaganda--but no worse than many American movies with capitalist propaganda! A young man in occupied Poland finds himself drawn to the resistance. A kindly co-worker introduces him to Marxism and he is further drawn in by a pretty communist recruiter. Roman Polanski appears briefly as one of his fellow resistance members.
Not a great movie--but a very good one.
"Kanal"-a classic! The Warsaw uprising is being crushed--to survive-resistance fighters take to the sewers of Warsaw. From the introduction--which seems to have been heavily borrowed upon by Rod Serling for the Twilight Zone intros--to the end--where one man who has survived the ordeal returns to the sewers to look for his men--this movie is outstanding. The feeling of claustrophobia and the stench and grime of the "Kanal"--coupled with the "horror" of Nazi troops and their bullets, gas and grenades are all portrayed masterfully. For anyone who has no interest in this set--"Kanal" is the one Wajda dvd to purchase.
"Ashes and Diamonds"--the weakest of the three--this is still a pretty good movie. Basically the story of the incoming Soviet occupation and those who resist them. The story begins with a failed assasination plot then follows Malciek Chelmicki (Zbigniew Cybulski aka Polands James Dean) until it's conclusion.
I recommend this 3 movie set strongly--but again--if you only purchase/rent/view one of these movies I recommend "Kanal"
Polish with English subtitles
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