November 27, 2022

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Andrzej Wajda: Ashes and Diamonds (1958) [by Lewis Saul]

2 min read

creeping authoritarianism. Shaking Democracy. Dangerous political leadership.

No, I’m not talking about A.’s USA, but about the centuries-old sadness that stands for the historically fragmented country of POLAND.

Specifically the 24 hour period (May 8-9, 1945) that this film is set in and the year it was shot – 1958.

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Joseph Stalin’s death in 1953 ushered in what is sometimes referred to as the “Stalinist thaw.” The ground was still fairly frozen, but a few branches sprouted up in both the Soviet Union and its satellites. Shostakovich enraged the dictator with his Ninth Symphony (1945), which – rather than a paean to the glorious victory of the Patriotic War – was a light-hearted, brief banter. He saved the good things for his Zehnten (1953), which, in addition to dealing with the tragedy of war, also contained a bitingly satirical portrait of the madman.

Polish October (1956) ushered in a period of amazing artistic freedom for Polish artists – just three years after the death of Josef Stalin – we get the outrageously innovative music of Penderecki and Lutoslawski and a trilogy of war films by young Andrzej Wajda. [The first two were A Generation (1955) and Kanal (1957), about the Warsaw resistance.]

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Maciek (Zbigniew Cybulski) and Andrzej (Adam Pawlikowski) made a big mistake. In one of the many prominent scenes in this film (influenced by Citizen Kane), Andrzej is on the phone with his superior – Major Florian (Ignacy Machowski). The mistake must be corrected, but not before Wajda shows us the three important characters sharply – Andrzej in the foreground on the phone; Maciek tries desperately to get Andrzej’s attention, and the survivor of the bug in the background, Szczuka (Waclaw Zastrzezynski).

Maciek – who looks so cool in his sunglasses (the result of spending so much time in the Warsaw sewers, he casually tells us) – is the central character. He represents the anti-communist freedom fighter, but communism and the communists (along with the aristocracy) all saddle up in front of the bar. [Wajda had the censors so confused that they passed the film (to much subsequent consternation) after a few rounds of vodka.]

Drewnowski (Bogumil Kobiela) – the mayor’s assistant, Swiecki (Aleksander Sewruk) – seems to swing between the two sides on the hinges of the door. He had great prospects for promotion in the communists, but screwed it all up by deliberately getting filthy drunk at the big banquet he was supposed to organize. His transformation of a fire extinguisher into a gun is one of the film’s most hilarious moments.

Last, but not least, is the gorgeous Krystyna (Ewa Krzyzewska). All woman, she confuses men’s political work with intense, concentrated love. In the end, Maciek is obviously much more interested in her than any political theater.

But unfortunately …

Andrzej Wajda: Ashes and Diamonds (1958) [by Lewis Saul]Cybulski

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