I remember seeing Ashes and Diamonds years ago and being very impressed, so I'm looking forward to seeing it again and the earlier films too - here is an article from the February 1998 issue (page 59) of Sight and Sound on the trilogy that related to a Eureka video release:
Geoffrey Macnab admires Wajda's classic trilogy
There was a time when Andrez Wajda was easily the best-known Polish film-maker in the west. One of the giants of post-war East European cinema, he exercised an enormous influence on young film-makers from Polanski and Kieslowski in Poland to Lindsay Anderson in the UK. The stark black-and-white imagery of wartime Warsaw in Spielberg's Schindler's List bears his imprint (it is no surprise that the production designer on that film was Allan Starski, one of Wajda's proteges).
Nowadays, though, Wajda seems a marginal, anachronistic figure. He has almost disappeared from British screens. His last two features, Miss Nobody (Panna Nikt, 1996) and Holy Week (Wielki Tydzien, 1996), failed to surface in British cinemas. His work is seldom seen on television. As he himself acknowledges, audiences have changed. In the late 90s, his brand of politically committed cinema no longer seems as relevant as when he first sprang to international prominence 40 years ago.
The prospective appearence on video of Wajda's famous trilogy about Polish wartime experience - A Generation (Pokolenie, 1954);Kanal and Ashes and Diamonds (Popiol i Diament, 1958), provides a reminder of just what an influential film-maker he used to be. The tentative way in which Eureka are handling the films suggests that they are not easy to sell. Ashes and Diamonds, the last in the trilogy, was the first released. Boasting a charismatic performance from Zbigniew Cybulski, "the Polish James Dean", as a world-weary fighter in the anti-communist resistance, it is the the most famous of the films and therefore, one imagines, the easiest to market. It is now followed by A Generation, the first part of the trilogy. Kanal (1957) may be released later this year.
When the 28 year old Wajda made A Generation, his debut feature, he was clearly in thrall to the Italian neo-realists. He eschewed the contrivance of studio film-making, preferring to work on location with young, untested actors. The opening shot, a long pan across a bleak, urban landscape accompanied by a haunting pipe music, wouldn't look out of place in a Rossellini film. The nostalgic voiceover, in which the narrator recalls his Warsaw childhood, is the same device Fellini uses in I Vitelloni.
At first, as we see three boys playing with a knife, this seems to be shaping up as a typical rites of passage story. But the gentle beginning belies the harshness of what follows. Bohdan Czeszko's screenplay, based on his own novel, is set in Warsaw in 1942, during the Nazi occupation. There is very little idyllic about the lives of the youngsters. If they transgress or join the resistance, they are liable to be executed. The protagonist Stach (Tadeusz Lomnicki) knows as much. He sees a friend shot by a Nazi sentry merely for trying to steal some coal. Walking the streets, he comes across the bodies of two patriots, hanging from a gallows in a public square (Wajda shows him staring transfixed at their dangling legs).
Just occasionally, a hint of agit-prop seeps into the storytelling. The young communists are portrayed as idealistic heroes. Some of the dialogue, notably when a Marxist old-timer in the carpentry workshop explains to Stach how he is exploited by his capitalist boss, sounds as if it was drafted by apparatchiks. Wajda was making the film for the government, who clearly regarded it as first and foremost a propaganda exercise. However, the energy and lyricism of the filmmaking counters the didacticism. As Roman Polanski, who plays one of the youngsters, put it, "for us, it was tremendously important. All of Polish cinema was beginning with it. . . we worked night and day. Wajda believed in what he was doing. This was something utterly new in Poland (it was the time of Stalinism) that film was different, young". (Quoted in Andrzej Wajda, by Boleslaw Michalek, Paris, 1964).
The protagonists are sucked into political resistance in spite of themselves. "The others say you're tough but I think you're a kid." Dorota (Urszula Modrzynska), the beautiful resistance leader tells Stach. At that moment, we realise just how young he really is. Wajda conveys both the exhilaration Stach and his friends feel when they have guns in their hands and their terror in the face of the violence and death they encounter. They are not allowed a childhood. As if to emphasise the fact, in one beautifully observed scene the smoke from the burning ghetto billows around the carousel at a funfair.
Just as Maciek (Cybulski) in Ashes and Diamonds is able to forget the political struggle for a moment when he has a brief affair, Stach too enjoys a short, doomed romance. The same mood of fatalism runs through both films. Wajda's heroes and heroines are attempting to resist the tide of history. It's a forlorn, even suicidal endeavour, but there is a very Polish heroism in their folly.
As the neo-realists discovered, bombed-out cities provide superbly atmospheric backdrops. In A Generation, Wajda makes excellent use of the wasteland and rubble-strewn streets of Warsaw. The chase sequence, in which Stach's friend Jasio (Tadesusz Janczar) flees his Nazi pursuers over roofs and down side-streets anticipates Maciek's equally forlorn dash for freedom at the end of Ashes and Diamonds. Wajda shows Jasio caught at the top of a maze-like stairwell with nowhere left to go. It's a highly symbolic moment - even at a dead-end, he refuses to surrender.
The Nazi occupation of Poland is a subject that Wajda returns to again and again in his work. As late as Holy Week, he was still obesssively raking over the period of the Warsaw uprisings. His best known films of the 70s and 80s, Man of Marble (Czlowiek z marmur, 1977) and Man of Iron (Czlowiek z zedaza, 1981), focus equally intently on the Poles' fight against the communist authorities. He thrives on opposition. Perhaps inevitably his work began to lose its urgency and relevance after the fall of the Iron Curtain.
A Generation stands up remarkably well. Whether it will find a new audience on video remains to be seen. If it does not, all Wajda fans are liable to lose out. Eureka only plan to release Kanal if sales of Ashes and Diamonds and A Generation make it seem worthwhile.
Last edited by colinr0380 on Wed Jan 05, 2005 12:12 pm, edited 3 times in total.