Ashes And Diamonds

Ashes And Diamonds

****

Reviewed by: Jeff Robinson

When I was at university in the mid-80s, Andrzej Wajda was the bees’ knees among the film studies students; a director who combined strong narrative with poetic symbolism and refused to kowtow to the Soviet authorities, supporting the Solidarity movement through his personal actions and a brace of films, Man Of Marble (1976) and Man Of Iron (1981), about the Polish working class.

But his star seems to have waned in recent years, and outside of film buff circles, he’s probably best known for the 1983 international co-production Danton (1983) starring Gerard Depardieu. It’s a shame, because at his best there are few filmmakers more powerfully lyrical. And Ashes and Diamonds is undoubtedly Wajda at his best.

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It opens with two young men, Maciek (Zybigniew Cybulski) and Andrzej (Adam Pawlikowski) lying on a bank in the spring sunshine near a pretty village church. The war is over, but they still have work to do. Veterans of the struggle against the Germans, their anti-communist superiors in the Polish Home Army have now ordered them to kill the new commissar of a small town as he travels to take up his appointment.

A double agent, Drewnowski (Bogumil Kobiela), gives the signal and in a taut, brutally gripping scene, the assassins gun down two men – the wrong men. Their victims turn out to be minor shopfloor officials from the nearby cement plant and the commissar, Szczuka (Waclaw Zastrzeyzinski) has reached the town safely. They are told to make good their mistake before the end of the day and travel into town incognito.

In an American or British war film this would probably be the catalyst for a tight cat and mouse thriller, as the assassins plan their strike while Soviet troops scour the town for them. Instead, Wajda turns the setting into a microcosm of Polish society in its all too brief moment of liberation.

The recently installed mayor, also a minor minister in the new government, is preparing a banquet in the main hotel to celebrate the end of the war and figures from every social strata whirl in orbit around this central event. While finding out which room is the commissar’s, Maciek flirts with one of the barmaids, Krystyna (Ewa Krzyzewska). Despite her initial scorn (and despite Cybulski’s disconcerting resemblance to the young Cliff Richard) their relationship blossoms.

So much so, in fact, that Maciek begins to dream of a life involving something other than blind obedience and random violence against arbitrarily designated ‘enemies’. But escaping from such a world, as Poland moves from one tyranny to another, is easier said than done...

Wajda does a masterful job in distilling the essence of a country’s suffering, illustrated ironically through what should be a celebration of one of history’s most joyous days. But Ashes And Diamonds graphically illustrates how constant oppression can change the character of an entire nation. Everyone in this film has been bled dry by loss and pain, accepting even victory over the Nazis with a fatalistic melancholy. The only alternatives are a frantic hedonism or a cynical realignment with the new masters.

The banquet symbolises both, and Wajda takes an anarchic glee in sabotaging it. Drewnowski, who is also the mayor’s secretary, gets drunk and flushes his career down the toilet. Meanwhile Maciek has decided to leave the resistance but Andrzej reminds him of his duty to the cause and his comrade in arms.

The thriller elements are re-integrated seamlessly but again, with much more depth than the average war movie. The commissar is a sympathetic figure – another resistance veteran, from as far back as the Spanish Civil War, on the point of being reunited with his teenage son (a volunteer in the same unit as Maciek), but caught in the same spiral of violence as all the rest.

The performances are universally superb. Cybulski was known as the ‘Polish James Dean’ (he died in a train accident in 1967, aged 40) and he shows a similar level of charisma and intensity as the tortured anti-hero. Krzyzewska is a luminous screen presence, but she too has an inner sadness, refusing to reciprocate Maziek’s love because she knows their relationship is doomed to be brief.

Their tragedy is at the heart of a film rich in memorable images – a victim in the first shooting falls through a church doorway with his jacket on fire, the doomed aristocrats perform a Bergmanesque waltz of death as the film approaches its climax. Some of the symbolism is a little heavy-handed (white horses and upside-down Christs hammer home a point already well made).

But this is still a must-have for connoisseurs of European cinema and well worth a look for anyone who wants to see a profound work of cinematic art and a great story well told at the same time.

Reviewed on: 30 May 2007
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On the last day of World War Two, A group of Polish resistance fighters make a botched attempt to kill a Soviet commissar. As they wait to try again, one of them falls in love.
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Director: Andrzej Wajda

Writer: Jerzy Andrzejewski

Starring: Zybigniew Cybulski, Eva Krzyzewska, Waclaw Zastrzezynski, Adam Pawlikowski, Bogumil Kobiela

Year: 1958

Runtime: 98 minutes

BBFC: 15 - Age Restricted

Country: Poland

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