“Our generation was a generation of sons who have to recount the faith of their fathers, for the dead cannot speak.”
- Andrzej Wajda
In this essay I will be discussing Andrzej Wajda’s Ashes and Diamonds (1958) and the influence it has had in reshaping the landscape of post-war European cinema. Released just over a decade after the end of the Second World War, the films political message has taken away much from its visual brilliance and romantic impulse. Still today it is arguably regarded as Poland’s greatest ever film and high even on a global scale, but it too has encountered wide criticism since its release fifty years ago. Fortunately, though, it was able to slip through strict censorship laws and launch Wajda to international prominence. Poland’s forgotten yet significant history is essential when analysing Wajda’s films, therefore my analysis will bring a brief introductory to Poland’s position during World War II in order to properly understand the film itself. The latter part of this essay will pay close focus to Wajda’s use of symbolism in the film. While many claim for it to be over-the-top, a deeper understanding of Wajda’s roots is required to grasp his intent in using the form in what has become his renowned trademark. His carefully planned shots in Ashes and Diamonds is one of the reasons it has become his favourite and best overall film and the most popular of the war-trilogy. Poland’s long romantic tradition gives the film a whole new meaning and Wajda’s filmic expertise combines both political and poetic to speak the truth for the unconsciousness of a whole nation and as he understood it. My argument will be that even though there is a certain nationalist ideology behind Wajda’s work, it should not merely be read as political ‘finger-pointing’.
Boleslaw Michalek said it best when he stated that to the common viewer “[Ashes and Diamonds] cannot be understood without a map” (1973: 7). Poland was a nation that even after the end of the war and the removal of the Nazi’s, was still left occupied by the Soviets for over another decade. Only in October 1956 – the event known as ‘the Polish Thaw’ – did Stalin’s Red Army hand its power to Wladyslaw Gomulka in its first steps toward de-Stalinisation and liberation. This event helped liberate distribution of films from The Polish Film School – young filmmakers and graduates of the National Film School in Lodz, 1948 – which particularly dealt with Polish patriotism and the Home Army. Influence from early Soviet filmmakers such as Sergei Eisenstein, Vsevlod Pudovkin and Alexander Dovzhenko, up-and-coming young Polish filmmakers continued the same techniques “which was innovative, complex, symbolic, as well as documentary, in ways which the Soviet socialist-realist canon of the Stalin period was to forbid.” (Eagle 1984: 340) Wajda himself, coming from Krakow Academy of Fine Arts, was interested in the arts and visual expression from the very beginning. He was a successful painter, winning several awards for his work during what was considered to be “one of the worst periods of modern Polish history” (Falkowska 2008: 14). Socialist Realism – a form of art which glorifies poverty instead of realistically depicting it – was being implemented on artists in Krakow by Soviet rule. Anyone resisting the ideology was expelled, including Wajda’s influential Professor Eisbich. Wajda then was accepted in Lodz Film School to further expand his artistic desire basing his short films on poems and short stories only to end up working as assistant director to Alexander Ford. Ford’s film The Five from Barska Street (1954) shared similar themes of sociorealism which Wajda would use in his own films, including Ashes and Diamonds.
A key theme which remained in Polish national cinema was Romanticism from 19th Century literature which dealt with heroic martyrdom. “Their passionate, highly emotional poems and ballads awoke national consciousness and brought the attention of Poles to issues of patriotism and national identity.” (Falkowska 1996: 149) The film’s title itself is a citation from 19th Century Polish poet (and Nationalist) Cyprian Norwid’s work, which in brief begs the question of whether after the revolution the remains will be that of ash or diamond. The poem, though, hides much deeper symbolic meaning, which I will discuss later on. The film takes place on the last day of World War II in Poland May 18, 1945 and the course of the film runs within that day when a war-ridden nation a year earlier had its citizens result to measures of their own; Polish Nationalists created the Home Army in an attempt to liberate Warsaw from Nazi-Germany which eventually cost the lives of 250,000 and left a million homes torched. It follows the protagonist Maciek’s attempts to assassinate Communist official Szczucka until his heroic journey from the grassy fields of a church setting ends up in garbage wasteland.
A number of readings can be made from the film, which among its praise has seen its number of criticisms. Wajda himself fought in the Home Army and his father, a cavalry officer, was killed in the war when Wajda was fourteen. Particularly Wajda’s use of symbolism which runs throughout the course of the film has been interpreted in two ways: political and poetic. Referring back to Polish Romanticism, Ashes and Diamonds as a political critique can just as easily be read as a romantic tragedy particularly with the transformation of the very charismatic central character, Maciek. Maciek – played by Wajda’s favourite actor Zbigniew Cybulski – speaks for a whole generation of young men wanting to experience the luxury of freedom. His charisma and charming appeal certainly contributed to the film’s success in Poland; the women wanted him, the men wanted to be him. His dark shades are the very first of Wajda’s obvious symbolisms – he is a survivor of the Warsaw Uprising, having escaped Nazi capture through the city’s sewer system. From the beginning of the film, Maciek function’s as a machine-like character; he lacks sympathy and carrying out his mission is all that matters to him. In the following I will focus on Wajda’s filmic techniques and his use of parallel images.
The effect of these visual parallels is to identify all of these characters as mutual victims and martyrs, particular incarnations of martyred Poland, superficially opposite but essentially the same: Maciek as well as Szczuka, the anti-communist Home Army fighters as well as the communist factory workers. (Eagle: 342)
In the opening sequence Wajda takes the spectator (particularly a Polish spectator) to a familiar environment easy enough to recognise: the countryside where a Catholic church pays homage to the nation’s religious roots. A young girl even more so establishes the child-like innocence of the scene where Maciek lies without a care in the world only to transform the setting into a violent crime scene moments later. Wajda even goes so far as to setting one of the (innocent) victims on fire by Maciek’s intense machine gun fire against the church. The message is clear: in war there will be casualties, some of whom are innocent if appearing at the wrong place at the wrong time.
When the intended target of the assassination arrives, Comrade Szczuka is questioned by a surrounding group of locals of how much longer must the innocent suffer. The camera peers under him towards the open sky placing him into an authoritative position while he holds his speech; “[Szczucka] informs the workers that the real fight for Poland has only recently begun and that it will necessitate the elimination of their (read: his) political opponents” (Falkowska 2008: 54). Janina Falkowska criticises Wajda’s depiction of the scene as “plainly out of place in the context of the rest of the film” (ibid: 55) and that by “presenting Szczuka in this somewhat overly zealous and thereby mocking manner, undermines the character’s otherwise objective presentation.” (ibid.) The effect of using a Socialist Realist filmic technique rather self-parodies the Soviet’s propagandist ideologies.
The film then moves from the outskirts of Warsaw to Ostrowiec, a town close to the capital itself where politics and romance combine. It is only until Maciek’s brief encounter with Krystyna the barmaid that transforms his ideologies and brings deeper meaning to his life. Wajda uses Krystyna quite literally as a symbolic image of purity: her pale white skin, blonde hair and white clothing creates a sort of tongue-in-cheek attitude. When the pair enters a church that has been a victim of the war, Krystyna notices Norwid’s poem on the wall, which Maciek himself knows by heart. “[Norwid’s] words express the aspirations of Maciek himself and, by extension, the deep convictions of many young Polish people regarding their nation’s fate.” (ibid: 58) Krystyna symbolically is the diamond, who offers him salvation, but Maciek as a Nationalist chooses to carry out his mission which leads to his death – it is his duty. Wajda’s camera-work from his Welles-inspired downward sliding movement into low-angle shots revealing the skies or ceilings at all times but once follows a negative event – the first two being the opening sequence and the inverted crucifix scene, which I will soon move onto – until his love scene with Krystyna. “When the camera moves down Krystyna’s back as she makes love to Maciek... [there is] a transforming potential of love. One from flame to diamond here, the movement here is generally one from flame to the residue of ash.” (Coates 2005: 33) In the next scene an upside down crucifix of Jesus Christ hangs explicitly from the ceiling among the ruins; an icon meant to represent contempt towards Jesus Christ and as an insult towards the Catholic Church. The scene follows with the couple stumbling upon the dead bodies of the innocent victims that Maciek killed in the beginning of the film. Their youthful playfulness when Maciek tries to fix Krystyna’s broken heal is only interrupted by the realisation of the present deceased. In the climax of the film Maciek holds Szczucka in his arms after he has killed him, which “arguably... maybe have arisen out of Wajda’s own longing for a father.” (Falkowska 2008: 56) As he compassionately holds Szczucka in his arms in the light of fireworks signalling the end of the war, evoking the religious and romantic connotations of Poland by placing Szczucka in a crucified position.
This is where I wish to return to Wajda’s blatant use of parallels. While Wajda favours freedom for Poland through the acts of the young (see: his) generation, he still manages to link the ‘good’ and ‘bad’ together which presents both parties in a way not so different. The most noticeable of these is the comparison between Maciek and Szczucka. This relationship literally is professional, but symbolically can be read as that of a father-son relationship. Szczucka has fallen out of contact with his son Marek who is about the same age as Maciek. Marek has been brought up by his sister-in-law during the war and Szczucka fails to re-establish a connection with him. He does however, find a father-like connection with Maciek, who when shooting Szczucka, does it with great emotion unlike before. Other parallels can be drawn from Maciek choosing Hungarian cigarettes while Szczucka chooses American ones. Maciek and Andrzej, representing the young generation drink for their fallen ‘heroes’ in the Warsaw Uprising, while later on Szczucka and his deputy Podgorski drink to those fallen in the Spanish Civil War.
To conclude, through the examination of Poland’s history, Ashes and Diamonds can be read in a different context rather than its simplistic political perspective. Certainly due to the time in history in which Wajda and other Polish School directors were politically inspired to direct patriotic and critical films concerning their nation’s state, it comes as no surprise that it can merely be reduced to crude political ‘finger-pointing’. Wajda’s use of symbolism follows Poland’s long traditions of Romanticism and can be read in more than one way. As a Nationalist himself, it is no mystery why he has chosen to direct the film in the way I have tried to analyse – through overt uses of symbols. His symbolisms are heavy-handed and obvious indeed, which furthermore attributes to its national identity. Before making swift assumptions on its political ideologies, I find the tragedy and the film’s aesthetics to be more essential than its politics.
Coates, P. (2005) The Red & the White: The Cinema of People’s Poland. London: Wallflower
Falkowska, J. (1996) The Political Films of Andrzej Wajda: Dialogism in “Man of Marble”, “Man of Iron” and “Danton”. Providence, R.I.; Oxford: Berghahn
Falkowska J. (2008) History, Politics and Nostalgia in Polish Cinema. Oxford: Berghahn
Orr, J. & Ostrowska, E. (eds.) (2003) The Cinema of Andrzej Wajda: The Art of Irony and Defiance. London: Wallflower
Eagle, H. (1984) Andrzej Wajda: Film Language and the Artist’s Truth Property. [Online] Available from: http://www.ucis.pitt.edu/eehistory/H200Readings/Topic3-R4.html