Such an amazing film, my favourite of Wajda’s war trilogy. A really complex portrait of one day, May 8, 1945. The Allied countries are celebrating their victory over Nazi Germany, but not in Poland. There, it’s a case of “meet the new boss, same as the old boss” and the Home Army (the largest resistance movement in Poland during the war) is training their sights on the in-coming Soviet occupiers.
Over the course of the loose trilogy, we see a really interesting portrait of the Home Army, all the more so considering that these films were made in a time when the Soviet-allied communist regime in Poland had criminalized Home Army veterans, killing, imprisoning, or deporting thousands of them. In A Generation, the Home Army nationalists are seen as the boss class, elitists who stockpile weapons and never do anything with them. In Kanal, the Home Army is the sole focus of the film, depicting the common fighters in active and terrible resistance to the Nazis. Finally, Ashes and Diamonds gives us the most multi-faceted depiction of Home Army veterans at a crucial point in Polish history: they took up arms against the Nazis in the name of Polish freedom, and now they find themselves in a difficult situation wherein they must continue the struggle for the same cause, only this time their foes are the new Polish communist elite who would continue a foreign occupation of Poland.
That being said, this is also a formally astonishing film. I was particularly interested in the unnatural use of sound in this film and the two previous in the trilogy. Often, sounds such as gun fire or the closing of doors will drop out of the soundtrack, almost as if they were superfluous. And in essence, they are. We see a door closing or a gun shooting, we understand. But this dropping of sound also connects the audience with the film on a more theoretical level. For those brief moments, we are taken out of the fiction and are reminded of the realities of the present (when the film was made, that is). In this way, we are subtly shown how the events on the screen still resonated with Poles in the late 50’s and throughout the Warsaw Pact era.
Visually, Ashes and Diamonds is stunning, especially on the Criterion edition. Wajda packed so much meaning into every frame, telling us so much about the conflicts, personal and political, of the characters by how he frames his actors in a bombed-out church, in a dirty bathroom, in an empty bar outside of a banquet for the local elite, or in a ballroom as weary party-goers dance in the first dawn of “peace” in Poland.
And how ‘bout that Zbigniew Cybulski? He’s like a Polish Belmondo!