Andrzej Wajda's Ashes and Diamonds is looked at as one of the greatest of all postwar East-Central European films, and also the most vital work of the Polish School, completing what many believe to be Wajda's war trilogy, which followed A Generation and Kanal. The story explores a cool and suave resistance fighter named Maciek has been given orders to assassinate an incoming commissar. Unfortunately a mistake stalls his progress, which eventually leads him to meet a beautiful barmaid, who if only for a short period of time, will give him a glimpse of a more peaceful and happier existence, and of a life that could have been.
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
Ashes and Diamonds is known for being filmed right in the aftermath of the liberalizing 1956 'thaw', otherwise known as 'the Polish October.' It seems to be a very small world that these character's inhabit in Ashes and Diamonds, where everybody seems to know everybody, liasions are easily made and just as easily broken, and character's simply betray, manipulate, and deceit one another; as long as it fulfills either some form of political ideology. And yet it's the fascinating creation of the character of Maciek Chelmick, with his dark glasses and smooth exterior that took European audiences by storm. Maciek blends the existential toughness of the gritty resistance, and the boyish vulnerability of fashion and coolness; as he was often called Poland's James Dean and Marlon Brando.