Out of the Ruins and Masterpiece

<strong>The <em>New Statesman</em>

14 June 1958

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The Polish director Andrzej Wajda has made some memorable films over the past 50 years about his country's tortured history. His latest, Katyn, a devastating portrayal of the mass murder of Polish officers on Stalin's orders in 1940, was nominated for an Oscar this year. Kanal and Ashes and Diamonds, two parts of the trilogy he made in the 1950s, remain masterpieces of poetic realism. G W Stonier, the New Statesman's literary editor, paid tribute to each on its release.

Among the daydreams brought to us by the cinema I find none more resistible than the war jaunt: every week, by plane and by sub, in the desert, off the Pacific isle, we do our bit in the shadow battle. This week’s instalment brings Mr Clark Gable and Mr Burt Lancaster in Run Silent, Run Deep (London Pavilion); they are rivals in a submarine for beating the Japs; one wants to wipe out an old grudge and a killer of the seas, the other thinks of the crew and hopes to get on; they collide, they collaborate, they win through; and they remain Mr Gable and Mr Lancaster. And the surroundings, if you ask me, aren’t much livelier than if we were always getting stuck in lifts.

Film warfare has about as much impact as the guards outside Buckingham Palace, so when real war hits us from a screen, it shocks. This is so with Andrzej Wajda's Kanal. Its tremendous opening sweep over Warsaw, risen against the Nazis in August 1944, and nearing final destruction, awes the imagination, and the tale of doomed Resistance has a background that would dwarf Griffith's Babylon.

Everything battered, black sky, pages in sunlight strewn round a stranded bath, flame-throwers playing on the gaunt ruins, tanks and planes still worrying the last live pockets: one such pocket, 43 men from a company of 70, fight back, yawn, make love, smoke, listen to a tune, knowing it's their - and Warsaw's - last day. They are ordered to retire through the sewers. Angry or weary they pass the queues to that underground: a mad, polite mother asks about her daughter wearing a brown coat, touches a wounded arm and is brushed aside. They descend. Their enemies now are filth, stench, retreat, the panic of being gassed or lost. They are in the entrails of a city at its last gasp, war unspeakable. More and more fall by the way.

The great achievement of Wajda's film is that, starting with encounters of the war's most tragic spectacle, it then explores a worse fate. One can't - till the descent and the floundering in hallucination - understand why these men are so loth to make their foray which will, theoretically, bring them to some final centre of resistance. But once there, they never emerge. One will go mad and wander off; a colonel, distantly recognised, will float by; a drunk playboy's girl will shoot herself, when he brings out the photographs of his wife and children - for there are women and boys in this contingent too; two lovers, one wounded and dying, will take at last the tunnel leading to light, only to find it barred; a soldier will come up through a manhole to stagger into the middle of a shooting party.

Warsaw died; and these 43 died, the last with a revolver dramatically pointed as he disappeared once more underground. Kanal fights its way through realism to poetic vision, to Romanticism; its story of death and destruction exultantly lives. And seeing such a film, and Wajda's earlier A Generation, we may feel that only such films, which flinch from nothing, have the right or the ability to lead us out the other side.

Wajda took part in the terrible events he now reassembles. It is a mark of his own fortitude, and of the peculiar condition of Poland, that A Generation was made under the Stalinist regime and Kanal since Gomulka, but both sustain integrity and passion, a new poetry of realism.

27 June 1959

The third film of Andrzej Wajda to be shown in England, Ashes and Diamonds, is possibly the best film made since the war. It has a Dostoevskian passion and sweep, so that not merely is it Wajda's masterpiece, but also the masterpiece of a tormented society; it personifies Liberated Poland, with its Communist saviours and destroyers, its underground leading back to Fascism, its common humanity trained to bloodshed and sick of it; where this hectic embodiment differs from Dostoevsky is that its beliefs are humanist and in the end even non-political, and that instead of exaltation it aims at unerring realism. It hopes, within the bloody impasse of Pole killing Pole, to attain to ordinary humanity: ordinary humanity, that is, as released by the new order.

All this - the hopes, conflicts, intransigence, betrayal, remorseless killing, the mercenary degeneration of place-seekers, the hopeless reaching of lovers towards the good, the beautiful and the true - is resumed in the action-packed story of a single night in a provincial hotel on the night the war ended. The Mayor, who has just been made Minister, leads the banquet; there's a patriotic singer in the bar; the dance hall jigs on; a Freedom killer instals himself in the bedroom next to the Communist secretary, whom he has already tried to kill at the expense of other lives; the killer himself, with dark glasses covering a war injury and youthful crocodile smile, entertains the barmaid in his bed, and would but can't escape free into love; he gets his man, in a horrible embrace; he is the hero, the Dostoevskian sufferer, who has all human experience in his grasp, but can only kill "in the name of Poland". He is himself, in the final superb sequences, killed while the wretched victory revel goes on.

I happen to have seen the film twice in two days; but I feel that I am only at the beginning of this remarkable if gruelling enjoyment. It says all it sets out to say; and that needs some taking in. It is ferociously compelling. I can see that in twenty years' time, whatever way by then the world may have taken, Ashes and Diamonds will bring audiences back to the grip of the revolutionary Fifties. If I say that the performance of Zbigniev Cybulski in the killer role is magnificent, that is merely because among unknown names his is brought closest in appeal; but in fact the acting throughout is a tribute to the director, and the camera work (witness the lovers' heads in their dark idyll, and the purging death of the hero) maintains a rare authority.

Japanese films have been too long absent, and the Curzon’s The Rickshaw Man introduces a director new to us, Hiroshi Inagaki, with a work both popular and refined, ramshackle and yet gathering appeal. The protesting, staunch, and in the end tragically overlooked rickshaw man (Toshiro Mifune) makes a fine picaresque figure; beautiful revolutions of wheels divide the episodes; the local colour is fascinating, and it is in colour and in the breadth of Tohoscope. The lure of this film should ensure that more films from this director find their way to London. Here, too, there is a notable second film, the experimental Polish Two Men and a Wardrobe, brilliant proof that the film school is as essential to art as the ballet.

Selected by Robert Taylor

This article first appeared in Secret Israel

2008-05-19