Brilliant film. It follows a young Polish hoodlum, Stach, as he progresses from an apolitical, delinquent existance to becoming a hardened leader in the communist Polish resistance against the Nazis during WWII. However, it’s not as simple as that. Going into the film, I was expecting the usual rigamaroll, i.e., the resistance was perfect in every way, yeah us! But this film was far from that.
Wajda took great care in showing many different facets of the Polish resistance. For instance, the resistance movement was not shown as some monolithic, all-encompassing entity. Rather, he shows a movement that has its own internal divisions; namely, the division between the bourgeouis, nationalist resistance and the revolutionary, communist resistance. The nationalist resistance is represented by the owners and managers of the factory that Stach works at, and at first we align our sympathies with them because we know from early on that they are stockpiling arms to fight the Nazis. As the film progresses, however, we see that the workers have organized a class-conscious resistance that opposes both the Nazis and the bosses. Beyond that, we see that the communist underground is quite active while the nationalist resistance spends most of its time talking and stock-piling weapons, but never using them. It is quite clear which side Wajda is taking in this film (although this might have been more influenced by Poland’s political situation at the time the film was made).
However, and this is the part that is most interesting, Wajda doesn’t glorify the communist resistance, either. For instance, Stach joins the resistance not because of fierce anti-facist beliefs or class-consciousness, but because he saw a particularly attractive young woman (Dorota) giving a speech, imploring students to join the resistance. He is more smitten with the woman than he is by the cause. He goes on to enlist his friends (including a young Roman Polanski), but the friends are more in it for the thrill than for the ideology. What we see of the Stach’s circle of freedom fighters is more inspired by teenage hormones than by any kind of reasoning. This is the strength of the film, that it is so sensitive to the seriousness and complexity of the situation that it documents.
Eventually, Stach realizes the gravity of his situation when he loses what drew him in in the first place: Dorota. And Dorota herself fell into trouble through her seemingly insignificant mis-step: she grew too attached to her apartment and didn’t want to leave the one small comfort she had in her life. In this, Wajda conveys the merciless reality of militant resistance. It’s not a game, it’s not romantic, but somehow we still see it that way.
One last thing: the cinematography was brilliant. That is all.