Many filmmakers harbor a deep admiration of Ashes and Diamonds, probably the most famous Polish film ever made. One of them is Martin Scorsese who first saw it in 1961. 45 years later, he reportedly had Leonardo DiCaprio watch it to prepare for The Departed, thinking the actor would learn something from the similarities between his character and the one played by Zbigniew Cybulski; they were both hunted and torn between loyalties. Any film set is likely to benefit from a director who knows his cinematic history.
Striking against communist opponents
Near the very end of World War II, Polish Home Army soldiers strike against what they believe are communist opponents, including Konrad Szczuka, secretary of the Polish Workers’ Party. Only after they’ve murdered two innocent civilians do they realize their mistake. Back in the town of Ostrowiec, their superiors order two of the Home Army soldiers, Andrzej (Adam Pawlikowski) and Maciek (Cybulski), to make another attempt on Szczuka’s life. While preparing for the task, Maciek gets to know Krystyna (Ewa Krzyzewska), a bartender he’s flirting with; their fling turns increasingly serious.
As he and Andrzej wait for the right time to assassinate Szczuka, they ponder what they’ve been through… and the third Home Army soldier, Drewnowski (Bogumil Kobiela), gets very drunk and considers his job prospects in postwar Poland.
Third part in a trilogy
Ashes and Diamonds has often been described as vibrant and offering something new at the time, a prime example of the Polish Film School, which was inspired by Italian neorealism. It was the third part in a trilogy where the predecessors, A Generation (1954) and Kanal (1956), also had depicted Poland, but earlier in the war. The reason why Ashes and Diamonds made such an impact likely had to do with its intriguing and original depiction of the country at a crossroads after the war, thus providing some context to Poland’s situation a decade later. The protagonist of the film is not what the nation’s Communist dictatorship would describe as a hero – but they did allow Andrzej Wajda and the filmmakers to present a complex portrait. Cybulski in fact became a screen icon, especially in those dark glasses, a new kind of James Dean (and that comparison didn’t exactly vanish when he died in a tragic accident in 1967). Even though he belongs to the Home Army, a communist’s enemy, we in the audience are made to sympathize with his doubts. Wouldn’t it be better if he didn’t kill the communist and simply ran away with the girl in the bar?
Wajda didn’t please any ideological hardliners; communist critics were reportedly displeased with the lack of educational purposes, and after the fall of the Berlin Wall Wajda was accused of having falsified history. After all, communists were more likely to hunt men like Maciek after the war than the other way round. But I think most of us do take things like that into consideration when it comes to movies made in a dictatorship.
Uneven, with many smoky bar scenes, but a classic nonetheless, not least for some of its memorable images. There’s the opening attack on the innocents, the flaming drinks, and, above all, Maciek and Krystyna’s visit to the ruins of a church where an upturned crucifix symbolizes our hero as a warped Christ figure.
Ashes and Diamonds 1958-Poland. 96 min. B/W. Directed by Andrzej Wajda. Screenplay: Jerzy Andrzejewski, Andrzej Wajda. Novel: Jerzy Andrzejewski. Cinematography: Jerzy Wójcik. Cast: Zbigniew Cybulski (Maciek Chelmicki), Ewa Krzyzewska (Krystyna), Waclaw Zastrzezynski (Konrad Szczuka), Adam Pawlikowska, Bogumil Kobiela, Stanislaw Milski.
Trivia: Original title: Popiól i diament.
Last word: “Even though in communist Poland we lived under harsh censorship, we had a certain advantage: we knew the war from personal experience. So the regime’s propaganda, which often distorted the truth about the war to serve its own ends, could not manipulate our vision of it. We wanted others to remember that we fought in the Polish army, alongside our allies, for a different Poland. At that time, the Polish army was the fourth-largest force on the Western front.” (Wajda, Film Comment)