Tuesday, May 11, 2010

The End of Poland

Film: Popiol i Diament (Ashes and Diamonds)
Format: DVD from Davenport Public Library through interlibrary loan on laptop.

I took a much needed mental health break for a couple of days. Well, that and the fact that I had a massive pile of work to finish up kept me away from the DVD player for a few days. Regardless of the reason, I figured that when I came back it would be with something I’d never heard of in a foreign language. Thus, today I’m looking at a film from Poland from the height of the Cold War.

Popiol i Diament
(Ashes and Diamonds) takes place on the last day of World War II in Europe. With the defeat of the Nazis imminent, Soviet Russia has moved into Eastern Europe and making a play for control over as much territory as it can get. The people of Poland are naturally of two minds on this. Protection would be nice, of course—it was the invasion of Poland that touched off the shooting war, after all. On the other hand, communism is one of those ideas the works only for the true believers. If you’re not a communist, you generally aren’t a big fan of communism.

Maciek (Zbigniew Cybulski) is a Polish soldier who is strongly against the rise of communism in Poland as well as the effective Soviet takeover of the country. On the final day of the war, he is assigned the task of assassinating a Soviet official who is in town to establish a new communist government. Maciek has no problem with this, but he’s also tired of war. He meets a pretty girl on the evening of the war’s end, and would much rather spend time with her than go kill yet another person.

It’s a more than worthwhile film, but that’s not what I want to get into here. There are much more important things to discuss about a Polish film about World War II made in the late 1950s.

Anyone who was alive and relatively sentient during the 1980s remembers Solidarity and Lech Walesa and the Polish movement for freedom from the Soviet Bloc. Poland’s stand against the military might of the USSR was admirable, and captured the attention of the world. This filim is proof that this thread of resistance to outside domination had a long history. Imagine creating a film of this topic directly under the eye and thumb of an oppressive regime. The main character, the one we are supposed to identify with and like, is tasked with the assassination of an important communist official. Remarkable.

While certainly a risk for any of the actors who appear in the film, creating this story and filming it had to be a significant risk for director Andrzej Wajda. Maciek, our hero, carries around a U.S. Army surplus bag, almost a direct admission of sympathy for more Western ideas. Maciek, Western ideas and clothing, is a charmer, as he was designed to be. His flirtation with Krystyna (Ewa Krzyzewska) is cute—a little annoying, perhaps, but cute. Cybulski, who plays Maciek, was dubbed “the Polish James Dean,” and the comparison is apt. He’s ruggedly attractive, a touch smarmy, and completely likable.

Much of this film is not about the war, or Soviet occupation, or communism, but Poland itself and its identity in the new world created at the end of the war. Everyone in the film is conflicted by almost everything they do. Andrezej (Adam Pawikowski), after a botched assassination attempt, questions the need to assassinate Szczuka (Waclaw Zastrzezynski). He merely wants an end to the killing. His superior officer is more pragmatic, claiming that for the past six years, they have fought for the freedom of Poland, and the Soviet version of a free Poland is not what they fought for. Again, strong words to put on film in a film made under such circumstances.

Maciek is just as conflicted, though. He’s happy to kill whomever he’s pointed at, except that he’d really rather just have a good time—a completely understandable position based on six years of constant fighting.

Popiol i Diament is a powerful story. Wajda pulls no punches from the very start. The opening scene is the botched assassination attempt in which two completely innocent men are killed. This happens with submachine guns blazing, in front of the watchful eyes of a young girl. Later, Maciek is confronted by the woman whose lover he killed accidentally.

Additionally, the overall grime and terrible condition of Poland both at the end of the war and as it will exist under communist rule is not hedged in the slightest. Cabinets pop open at inopportune times. Shades don’t close correctly and are filled with holes. Doors don’t close without effort. Nothing works as it should; the explicit reason is the war, but the implication is that things will get no better under Soviet rule. This is especially true with the badly tuned instruments owned by musicians attempting to play a song they don’t know at the end. Could there be a better metaphor?

There’s plenty of symbolism here—fire, a white horse—and plenty of ways to interpret. Even Maciek’s constant wearing of sunglasses means something. But this is a film that is better left to individual interpretation. Determine your own meaning, just as I have determined mine.

A masterful film. While I can’t say I’m in love with the ending, it is the only ending that really makes sense here.

Why to watch Popiol i Diament: Depressing realism in post-war Poland.
Why not to watch: The longest death scene in freakin’ history.


  1. How on Earth were they able to make this movie in Poland in 1958 and how was it recieved? Were subversive elements allowed in Poland so shortly after the crackdown in Hungary?
    It is amazing that this movie even exists.

    1. Agreed. This is a film that is interesting for what it is, but more interesting in that it simply exists from its time and place.