(Ashes and Diamonds)
Director: Andrzej Wajda
Production: Film Polski; black and white, 35mm; running time: 105 minutes; length: 2938 meters. Released October 1958. Filmed 1958. Cost 5,000,000 zlotys.
Producer: Stanislaw Adler; screenplay: Jerzy Andrzejewski and Andrzej Wajda, from the novel by Jerzy Andrzejewski; photography: Jerzy Wójcik; editor: Halina Nawrocka; sound engineer: Bogdan Bienkowski; production designer: Roman Mann; music: Rhythm Quintet of the Polish Radio of Warsaw; costume designer: Katarzyna Chodorowicz.
Cast: Zbigniew Cybulski ( Maciek Chelmicki ); Ewa Kryzjewska ( Krystyna ); Waclaw Zastrzezynski ( Szczuka ); Adam Pawlikowski ( Andrzej ); Jan Ciecierski ( The porter ); Bogumil Kobiela ( Drewnowski ); Stanislaw Milski ( Pieniazjek ); Arthur Mlodnicki ( Kotowicz ); Halina Kwiatkowska ( Mme. Staniewicz ); Ignacy Machowski ( Waga ); Zbigniew Skowroński ( Slomka ); Barbara Krafft ( Stefka ); Aleksander Sewruk ( Swiecki ).
Award: Award from the International Cinema Press, Venice Film Festival, 1959.
Andrzejewski, Jerzy, and Andrzej Wajda, Ashes and Diamonds , in Three Films by Andrzej Wajda , London, 1973.
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Jakubowski, Jan Zygmunt, " Ashes Falsified," and Zbigniew Zaluski, " Ashes Simplified," in Ekran (Ljubljana), no. 42, 1965.
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Hendrykowski, M., "Realizm i symbolizm Popiolu i diamentu Andrzeja Wajda," in Kino (Warsaw), January 1972.
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Macnab, Geoffrey, Sight and Sound (London), vol. 8, no. 2, February 1998.
* * *
The best work of Wajda begins in 1958, and his epic Popiol i diament represents the climax of the entire Polish school. The literary source for this film is the novel of the same name by Jerzy Andrzejewski published in 1948. The book, which openly speaks of the complicated Polish society at the end of the war and in the first days of peace, was initially criticized, but was eventually accepted as the best work of prose published in the postwar years. Filmmakers soon became interested, but several attempts at adapting it in the early 1950s fell through. In 1957, when a promising scenario appeared, its author was the young director Andrzej Wajda, and the novel was somewhat changed. The novel differs from the film in that it takes place in one day and one night. The setting of the story, with the exception of a few short scenes, is the hotel in town. The principal character in the novel is young Maciek Chelmicki, a member of the guerilla group "Armii krajowej," which fought against the Germans during the war, jointly with communists. The deep political differences between the two groups led to the communists engaging in acts of terrorism, aimed toward the forming of a new society for the people of Poland. Maciek is a bold young man, prepared to give up his life for higher ideals, After the end of the war, he is given orders to kill a man, and so is faced with the tragic choice between a growing awareness of the absurdity of the command and his loyalty to duty. The decision to kill or not creates a conflict of conscience. To kill is to violate the law of peace; if he does not go through with it, he creates discord in a situation of war.
Maciek's counterpart is the communist, Szczuka, an ex-soldier of the Spanish revolution. Only a short time before they fought on the same side against their mutual foe. At the time when the film begins, they are confronting one another, foes in life and death, cruelly tied together by the past. Their conflict is obviously not a personal matter, but a conflict of two different conceptions of the future. It reflects a disorganized society at the boundary between war and peace. Wajda presents it with dramatic conciseness at a banquet held on the occasion of the signing of the German capitulation. At one table are gathered the former allies, and also the bourgeois politicians and an assortment of careerists and opportunists who are prepared for defeat while (at the same time) seeking the largest share of the spoils. Against the background of this gathering the fate of both heroes is being decided. These two have a divided ideological orientation, differing experiences in life and in politics, and belong to different generations. Nevertheless, they have much more in common than is seen at first glance. First of all they share an allegiance to the ideal for which they fight and work, allegiance to those with whom they together fought, and a determination to strive for the best in the positions they have been entrusted with. Their relationship becomes an image of self-contradiction or paradox; for instance, Maciek has the order to kill; that he has mistakenly killed someone else instead of Szczuka means he has done his job badly. Szczuka and his friend realize that they are incapable of the art of governing, that they do not have the necessary experience; that depresses them, exhausts them, but they know they must work for their ideal until the end of their lives. The most obvious similarities between the two are seen in consecutive sequences, Maciek, at the bar, is lighting glasses filled with alcohol as a memorial to his fallen comrades and is remembering with enthusiasm the years of fighting, which were so difficlt and at the same time so simple, where everything was clearly understood because all activities were directed to one purpose—to annihilate the foe in war. So too, Szczuka reminisces with his friend about times past, and comrades that fell in Spain. Their reminiscing is marked with sadness and nostalgia, and they also realize how, after the victorious war, everything about their nationalistic ideals was uncomplicated. Maciek and Szczuka are kept distinct from the other guests that are gathered in the hotel, and from the closing sequence, when both rebels are dying and the drunken group at the banquet is mostly asleep, emerges the main idea of the work. By validating the character and deeds of both protagonists. Wajda avoided the infertile narrative conventions which place the hero in one system. The result of understanding the complications of the story is comprehension of how difficult it was for an honest person to find his way in that mixed up situation. Maciek and Szczuka are honest people, and beyond everything that pitted them against each other, they belonged to the best that existed in the land. That is why their death, unthinkable and absurd, is a tragedy of Poland.
A new look at reality characterized Wajda's unprecedented style which sprang out of two previous films, but here reaches the epitome of art. Immersing the film in actuality and concreteness, in contrast with Kanal , he returns to classic dramatic construction, the unity of place and time, and gradually uncovers the heroes' character and motives. The picture is saturated with symbols and metaphors, which are capable of expressing the tension between objective actuality and the subjective aspect of expression. The use of narration and picturesque symbolic metaphors sharpens Wajda's drama and broadens the gamut of associations evoked by the conflict depicted. This may be illustrated by two important sequences. The first takes place in a cemetery and in a half-demolished church. Maciek falls in love with the girl Krystyna, he spends a night with her, and before he departs, they walk to a church. Krystyna reads an inscription on a grave stone, verse of the Polish poet Cyprian Norwida, which explains Maciek's situation and also provides the title of the film. "Here nothing but ashes will remain, the storm in an instant to oblivion will sweep them, from the ashes perhaps a diamond will emerge, shining victoriously for centuries, it will have blossomed for you." Dominating the church's interior is a picture of a statue of Jesus Christ, hung head down as a symbol of the overthrown values. It is a scene of extraordinary visual impact, but at the same time is very meaningful, because here end Maciek's doubts, his loyalty to a lost cause and his yearning for a normal life, his thoughts conform to reality. With the same intensity, symbols also inform the ending of the film, depicting the death of both protagonists. Dying Szczuka, felled by Maciek's shots, falls into Maciek's arms, and his death is accompanied by the clanging fire engines celebrating victory. Maciek is killed by a drunk from the banquet. In agony Maciek stumbles to the huge rubbish heap, like the rubbish heap of history.
In the accomplished cast, it is impossible not to mention the significance of the main character. Wajda chose the unknown actor Zbigniew Cybulski who made his debut in the film Pokolenie in a cameo role. This choice proved to be a happy one. Cybulski, with his capability of making an effortless transition from a state of maximum concentration to being relaxed, managed to embody in his character the zeal of exultation, emotion, strength, and gentleness. Maciek in his characterization is a boy who becomes involved with insignificant people and causes, but he is also a warrior, who is constantly in the line of fire, one who loves weapons because they give him a feeling of freedom. In that he is a man of the generation of 1945. But Cybulski, in realizing the director's intentions, communicates more. His hesitation in searching for meaning shields him from reality. The soft, thoughtful charm, underlined by black glasses and a costume which does not represent that time, makes him representative of the young people of the 1950s. With that he became a hero of two generations. This "double character," as Cybulski grasps it, added markedly to the clamorous acceptance of the film by young people. Even Andrzejewski was satisfied. "The measure of my satisfaction is that during the writing of the book, I pictured Maciek Chelmicki entirely differently. Now when I see the film, I see him only this way, as Cybulski played him."
In the postwar history of Polish film the premiere of Popiol i diament was the most extraordinary event in terms of opening up consideration of problems which up to that time were schematically or falsely pictured, leading to open criticism by the newer generation. Added to Wajda's success was the fact that he spoke with a new artistic tongue, without arrogance and declamation, and that he found a voice in harmony with the warmer political climate of the second half of the 1950s.