Thursday, May 15, 2014

Ashes and Diamonds (orig. Popioł i Diament) [1958]

MPAA (UR would be PG-13)   Fr. Dennis (4 Stars)

IMDb listing listing* listing

Official Website of Polish director Andrzej Wajda article on the directing career of Andrzej Wajda
Martin Scorsese Presents: Masterpieces of Polish Cinema: [MSP Website] []

Ashes and Diamonds (orig. Popioł i Diament) [1958] [IMDb] []* [] (directed and screenplay by Andrzej Wajda [IMDb] []* [] [en.wikip]] [pl.wikip]* based on the novel (en.wikip / pl.wikip*) by Jerzi Andrzejewski [IMDb] []*[en.wikip] [pl.wikip]*) opened recently a remarkable film series entitled "Martin Scorsese Presents: Masterpieces of Polish Cinema" currently touring the United States and organized the famed American director Martin Scorsese [IMDb].  (In Chicago, the series is playing at the Gene Siskel Film Center of the School of the Art Institute of Chicago in downtown).

The film definitely deserves its billing as certainly one of the greatest films of Polish Cinema and as Martin Scorsese [IMDb] himself claims "one of the greatest films of all time."

Why would it deserve such praise?  American viewers would recognize the film as "A Polish Casablanca [1942]" (much of the film takes place at a hotel in a random provincial town somewhere in Poland in the closing days of World War II with much, much intrigue, indeed the fate of post-war Poland -- the West-leaning Polish Home Army (en.wikip / pl.wikip*) vs Soviet backed Polish Communist forces (en.wikip / pl.wikip*) -- playing out) with the young lead character Maciej played by an ever smiling, ever sun-glass wearing Zbigniew Cybulski [IMDb] []* [en.wikip] [pl.wikip]* who (thanks to performances like his in this film) came to known as "The Polish James Dean [IMDb] [en.wikip]" ;-).

This characterization of the film -- A Polish Casablanca starring a Polish James Dean -- itself would have made the film remarkable.  BUT THEN ADD TO THIS THE TIME / PLACE IT PORTRAYS (Poland at exactly the end of World War II) AT THE TIME / PLACE IN WHICH IT WAS FILMED (Communist Poland in 1957 - one year after the unrest in Poland had finally put a somewhat more moderate Communist (by the standards of the time) Gomułka (en.wikip / pl.wikip*) in power in Poland, and one year after the 1956 Soviet invasion of Hungary).  This, like director Wajda [IMDb] []*[en.wikip] [pl.wikip]*'s film of the year before Kanal [1957] [IMDb] []*[en.wikip] [pl.wikip]* about the 1944 Polish Home Army-led Warsaw Uprising (en.wikip / pl.wikip*), the first Polish film of its kind following the War, MADE MORE THAN A DECADE AFTER THAT WAR, was a film that needed to be made BUT COULD ONLY BE MADE AFTER 1956 AND THEN STILL WITH MORE OR LESS OBVIOUS (OUT OF HAND) CONCESSIONS TO THE DEMANDS COMMUNIST IDEOLOGY (AND CENSORS...) OF THE TIME (otherwise neither film would have been made). 

Then finally, even after taking into account the political dance that Wajda, et al, had to go through to make a movie like this in Poland at the time (the Polish Home Army had to portrayed as "bad" while the Communists supported by the Soviet Army as "heroic / good"...), PUTTING ASIDE THIS HEAVY HANDED POLITICAL BURDEN IMPOSED "FROM ABOVE" (AND THEN "FROM THE EAST"), the very HUMAN STORY and ITS VERY HUMAN MESSAGE is ALL THE MORE REMARKABLE:

Young (late teen / early 20s) sunglassed / smiling Maciej (though he lost all his family in the war) comes to town (along with two others) with the "dark/nefarious" mission assigned to them by the (in Communist eyes of the time) "evil" Polish Home Army to assassinate a newly arrived "brave/heroic" Polish Communist official (played by Wacław Zastrzeżyński [IMDb] []*), finds when he arrives at the hotel in the random Polish town where all this intrigue was about to play out, that he'd really just like to chat-up the bar-maid Krystyna (played magnificently in the film by Ewa Krzyżewska [IMDb] []*) ;-).  AND WHY NOT?  POOR MACIEJ, perhaps he was a true Polish A Rebel Without a Cause [1955] but both OBJECTIVELY AND MORE HUMANLY he was a "Rebel without a Family" WHO _NEVER HAD A CHILDHOOD_ and up to that point PROBABLY HADN'T HAD MUCH OF A YOUNG ADULTHOOD (much less one that would inspire much confidence IN A FUTURE).  Why shouldn't he WISH FOR SOMETHING MORE than "just another mission?"

So there they were Maciej and Krystyna, WHO DO (mild spoiler alert HOOK UP) and then walk down the street at night -- as SOVIET T-34 TANKS roll down the street in one direction or another, as do troops in formation, generally wearing Soviet styled uniforms (though some of the soldiers are Polish and others are Russian) with an occasional "white and red" ribbon-wearing presumably former (Home Army?) partisan seen as well -- ENDING UP IN A BOMBED-OUT CHURCH with Christ still hanging on the Cross, but, with arms blown off, head and torso now truly hanging, drooped, LIFELESSLY upside-down (YES, IT'S A SPECTACULAR SHOT) where THERE'S NO ONE LEFT TO CONFESS TO (except perhaps to each other) OR TO MARRY THEM, BUT AT LEAST THEY CAN TELL EACH OTHER THE TRUTH.    And the question is asked: CAN THESE "ASHES" (ALL AROUND THEM) be turned one day INTO "DIAMONDS"?   And one just wants to cry ...

Do they end up together?  What do you think?  He's "Home Army" in the eyes of the Regime (coming into being at the time of the story being played-out, and IN POWER / WATCHING WHEN THE FILM WAS MADE TWELVE YEARS LATER) an "assassin" (terrorist), objectively with "blood on his hands."  BUT ... at least we (the viewers) are allowed "to understand."  And yes, if circumstances were different (at minimum, NO PREVIOUS WAR ... and, though necessarily left unspoken,  _no new intrigue_ of "Communist" and "non") THEY COULD HAVE "LIVED HAPPILY EVER AFTER."

But I do believe that the message, certainly for young Poles of that time (and perhaps for young people in ANY TIME / CIRCUMSTANCE), was MORE THAN JUST THAT: Maciej, was perhaps a tragic figure, doomed perhaps by fate for being born in the wrong place and at the wrong time.  Yet Wajda's film IMHO seemed to be giving the young people of Poland of 1957 PERMISSION TO LIVE ... to forget (in as much as possible) about either "Home Army" or "Communist" AND TO JUST GO FOR THE GIRL.

Yes, ideally one does _not_ have to "forget about history" ... but one has a right to have a childhood, to have a young adulthood and, yes, to be happy.  Maciej and Krystyna lost much of that in the War.  But the possibility seemed to be offered to the young people of 1957 that PERHAPS one could find happiness IN THEIR PRESENT.

This concern (about finding some happiness) EVEN IN NON-IDEAL (OPPRESSIVE) TIMES was _not_ an idle question TO MY OWN FAMILY that comes mostly from the Czech Republic and had to find answers to similar questions regarding during its experience of Communism as well.  About 1/2 my family stayed in Czechoslovakia during the Communist Era, about 1/2 left. Those who stayed, stayed for various reasons.  And those who left, left for various reasons. 

Among those who stayed were one or two early Communist members (who became Communists during the War or even before it).  Others found that they could adapt, found some things in the imposed system that were positive (universal access to higher education that was arguably more merit based than perhaps before - though Party members could famously "cut in line...") and found the rest (the intrusive and arguably paranoid ideology) at least bearable.  There were still others who were "born into the system" and chose to be(come) proud of it - Americans also choose to be proud of a system that also has its flaws (Ask simply someone of color ... or someone who's had a family member with a "pre-existing condition" or even a birth defect about what it was like getting health insurance, or fearing its loss, before Obama Care...).  Finally, there were others like my uncle after whom I am named (my name in Czech is Zdeněk) who even after he being jailed as a student in the 1950s by the Communists for a number of years refused to leave, despite having good prospects in the West if he did (he was talented, educated and multilingual).  I remember in the 1980s, a number of us, nephews of his (who were largely born and grew up in the West) asking him: "Why don't you just leave?"  And he answered: "Why should I abandon my country to THEM? (the Communists).  Someone has to stay or else they'll truly win."

Then among those in my family who left, there were some who everyone in the family agreed, simply could not find happiness unless they felt free.  I'd count my dad (who left in the 1950s, through Berlin before the Wall) as well as a cousin of mine (who left in the early-1980s, after staying-on in the West, ditching her tour group after a state-sponsored trip to some where in Western Europe) in this group.  It's simply true that some people simply cannot feel happy unless they also feel free.  Finally there were cases like that of my mom's family and specifically my mom's father (my grandfather) who was ethnic Russian and had already fled Soviet Russia once.  Like other ethnic Russians who had already fled the Soviet Union once, as the Soviet Army approached Prague at the end of the War, he realized that he faced three possibilities when they did: (1) a bullet in the head, (2) "expedited suicide" at the hands of accomodating Soviet NKVD agents who'd happily come to kick down the door and throw him out the window one early morning, and (3) and this would have been "the best option," a one way ticket to Siberia for an extended "re-education."  So my mother's family _had to_ flee.  I had other relatives on my dad's side, who also faced similar prospects after the Communists took-over Czechoslovakia in 1948 and brooked no further opposition or independent organizations.  (I remember meeting a Czech immigrant when I was a kid who had spent some 15 years of hard labor in a uranium mine -- Jáchymov (en.wikip / cz.wikip*) for having been a junior officer in the pre-Communist Czechslovakian Boy Scout movement). 

Now Wajda [IMDb] []* himself (as did plenty of Czech and Slovak film-makers of the time as well) made a journey in his films over the decades: Most who see this film, will quite quickly recognize the ideological constraints in which he was operating: The Communists were to be portrayed as "Good," the pro-Western Polish Home Army as "Bad," but individual Home Army members could be portrayed as "tragic figures," misguided and naive (and that was actually a "better" / "more open" climate than that which existed prior to 1956...).  But Wajda [IMDb] []* filmography shows that as opportunities arose, he seemed always at the edge of what was permissible.  So in 1980, he found himself this time in the right place and the right time to make the film Man of Iron [1981] [IMDb] []*(also to be shown in Scorsese's Film Series: Masterpieces of Polish Cinema) that ended up documenting the birth of the Solidarity Movement (en.wikip / pl.wikip*).  And since the Iron Curtain collapsed, Wajda [IMDb] []*'s been able to make films like the Oscar nominated Katyń [2007] [IMDb] []* about the Katyń massacre (en.wikip / pl.wikip*) where the Soviet NKVD murdered thousands of Polish army officers captured after the Soviet Union had invaded Poland ON THE SIDE OF NAZI GERMANY and took more than 1/2 the country (Wayda's own father was murdered in the massacre at Katyń).  And last year, Wajda [IMDb] []* made a film about Solidarity founder Lech Wałesa (en.wikip / pl.wikip*) entitled Walesa: Man of Hope (orig. Wałęsa. Człowiek z nadziei) [2013] a film that portrayed Wałesa (en.wikip / pl.wikip*) as having a very similarly hewn skill-set of knowing more-or-less exactly how far he could push the limits of what was possible under the Communist regime. 

Asked why he made films like this one (or Kanal [1957] [IMDb] []*[en.wikip] [pl.wikip]*) in the 1950s, which on one hand were very brave (especially Kanal [1957] [IMDb] []*) and on the other hand clearly had to toe an ideological line, Wajda [IMDb] []* [] [en.wikip]] [pl.wikip]* has answered quite forcefully: "Would it have been better to have spent my life doing nothing at all?  And indeed, these people, who did nothing, have a ready excuse.  But what did we want? We only wanted to expand a little the limits of freedom, the limits of censorship, so that films such as "Popiol i diament" could be made. We never hoped to live to see the fall of the Soviet Union, to see Poland as a free country. We thought that all we could do was to expand this limit, so that the party wouldn't rule by itself but would have to admit the voice of the society it was ruling. If you want to participate in a reality created by an alien power, enforced by a historical situation, then you always risk taking part in some ambiguous game...

So this film is really a masterwork and leaves one with much, much, much to think about and discuss.

One final question, no doubt on the minds of many readers: How to get this film?  In the United States many of the films being shown as part of Martin Scorsese Presents: Masterpieces of Polish Cinema can be rented through the mail-rental service offered by Facets Multimedia in Chicago.  (There are perhaps other services, but that's the one that I know). I've also found this film, Ashes and Diamonds (orig. Popioł i Diament) [1958], available on DVD IN NORTH-AMERICAN FORMAT through

* Reasonably good (sense) translations of non-English webpages can be found by viewing them through Google's Chrome browser. 

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