Ashes and Diamonds (1958)

Dir. Andrzej Wajda. Starring Zbigniew Cybulski, Ewa Krzyzewska, Adam Pawlikowski

Even when he’s literally lighting a guy on fire with rounds from his submachine gun (which is one heck of a visual touch), Maciek (Cybulski) doesn’t seem like the kind of guy who kills to survive. He lolls around on grassy hills outside chapels, or messes with the girl behind the bar by pulling his glass away before she can pour him a shot, or recites 19th Century poetry in the ruins of a church in a ruined Polish town. The cold-blooded killer with the toothy grimace certainly doesn’t pop up while he’s making love across the bar to that girl and later, when he’s literally making love to said girl (Krzyzewska). But aside from that first scene, where he and his team of Home Army fellows accidentally shoot down a pair of innocent workers instead of the incoming Soviet bureaucrat, Szczuka (Waclaw Zastrzezynski), there’s no much to indicate that he’s a trained assassin. (Even the scene where he does, in fact, murder Szczuka does not make him seem much like a professional. He fumbles his gun a little bit as he pulls it out of his shirt, looks much more nervous, plugs Szczuka a few times, and holds the body up while illuminated by the fireworks bursting in the sky above; after many seconds, he finally puts the body down and runs.) He seems to realize that himself once he starts falling for the girl, Krystyna; although he realizes that he has one more mission to complete, he has no intention of carrying his career any further. With the war won, he plans on going back to school, maybe living some semblance of a normal life.

If there’s a former Home Army individual who’s capable of that kind of reprogramming, it’s Maciek. His friend and immediate superior, Andrzej (Pawlikowski), is older, more serious, and while “the cause” is as vacant a phrase for one as the other, Andrzej still feels himself duty-bound to carry out the orders of his own immediate superior. Maciek spends much of the film fingering or putting his nose in a small handful of violets that he’s pinched from Krystyna. Andrzej buys a similar handful of violets from some children on the street, hurries them off, walks ten feet to the nearest bin, and throws them away. Although no one says it, or even implies it, there’s no way that Andrzej can look forward to a peaceful death from natural causes. What Maciek and Andrzej have in common is their contempt of their fellow, Drewnowski (Bogumil Kobiela), who is nothing more than an opportunist. He leaves them immediately after “assassinating” the workers, running off at speed and showing up again at the banquet for the newly proclaimed minister for national health; he has gotten drunk, quite literally, with the hopes of his future career, and performs the essential role of the film’s comic relief. Not only does he show riproaring drunk, he stays that way, ultimately putting the fire extinguisher on the distinguished guests and doing a very bad job of that trick where you pull out the tablecloth but leave the dishes and glasses standing on the table. Drewnowski’s plan was to join the Communist regime that Andrzej will almost certainly die fighting; when he’s rejected by the Communists for his buffoonery, he tries to hook up with Andrzej’s unit again and is beaten up for his trouble. Andrzej is too serious to last long, and Drewnowski too clownish. Only Maciek, whose future plans are to lay low and be in love with a beautiful woman, has a future. He is mortally wounded in the dawn by Polish soldiers aligned with the Communists, living long enough to wander onto a trash heap stretching as far as the eye can see, writhing and moaning into his death. It is highly doubtful that the soldiers know who he is, or know that in the wee hours of the morning he’d successfully carried out his mission to assassinate Szczuka. Usually I’d complain about trying to squeeze that much symbolism into a single take (everything from the romance of the violets to Warsaw Pact Poland is up for grabs here), but there’s something especially lyrical in the way that Cybulski contorts his body, that the camera follows him across the trash until he falls, and then stays still while he kicks his feet and cries out. Maciek was doomed from the first time he grinned on screen as surely as Hamlet was doomed the first time he stepped on stage and whined. The point was never to know if they’d die, but how meaningless it would seem once we could reflect on the series of events that brought them low.

Wazjda is addicted to deep focus in this movie; it’s rare to see another director apply it in shot after shot after shot like he does, and the level of detail he manages to squeeze into every frame is astonishing. I was vocally awed in one moment, where the foreground of the shot is Szczuka at the bar; only half of Andrzej’s face and body are visible in the background, but they are as clear as Szczuka, and you only need half of his face to figure out what he’s thinking about the commissar. That has to be the most exciting example of deep focus I’ve seen in a movie in ages, and the film is not shy about using it across scenes with totally different tones. Only Drewnowski fails to receive the same level of treatment, probably because it’s hard to be that focused while one is that hammered. The staging in this film is really a marvel, and it’s obvious why this film is a favorite of directors aside from his technical mastery. Although I’m personally fond of the scene I’ve mentioned above (as much for its sheer novelty as anything else), the obvious deep focus image from the film to meditate on takes place in that bombed-out church. While Maciek and Krystyna are in the background, a great crucified figure hangs upside down with its left arm blown away. The halo remains, and so does the stern look on its bearded face. One imagines that once upon a time, that figure must have been a comfort or inspiration or call to faith for the many parishioners. Now it can’t even right itself. Behind it, Maciek wonders why he shouldn’t apply to the technical institute and get on with his life. Krystyna doesn’t look at him; she’s staring at the back of the upended Christ with a look on her face that suggests she knows that the world has changed too much for anything that normal to come to much good, no matter how honest the intent.

While Maciek is hiding in a forest of white sheets masquerading as flags of surrender, bleeding conspicuously through one of them, the nattily and excessively attired conductor of the little band playing the banquet is attempting to organize a polonaise in A major which goes over about as well as you’d expect from a bunch of tired musicians who appear to have never heard of Chopin. He manages to get the last few partygoers into pairs, dancing as best as they can on their own weary feet. Grand gestures and bold pronouncements echo as flat notes bounce off one another. It’s a comical scene, one which deserves at least as much praise as the finale. Once again, Krystyna is the only one lucid enough to see through the obvious flaws in the poorly laid plans. She looks on from a distance, in a mess of the bar, lit from the window as if she were a saint. The conductor shanghais her into the dance. She scowls. Things are less funny from up close.

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