Bitter-sweet can’t have come near to describing the experience of living through VE Day. Nazism had finally been vanquished, but much of the continent lay in ruins. This bewildering day makes an ideal backdrop for Ashes and Diamonds, a complex film about the aftermath of the Second World War.
While in the UK bunting was hung and trestle tables set with tea and cake, the Polish were at the beginning of another phase of conflict. On one side were the Russians (and Polish communists) whose armies had forced out the Germans. Against them stood the hopelessly outnumbered Home Army of non-Communist resistance fighters who had taken their wartime leadership from the government-in-exile based in London.
Made in 1958, Andrzej Wajda’s Ashes and Diamonds is the last in a trilogy of films looking at the Polish experience in World War II. The film is set over the 24-hour period of the final day of the war: 8 May 1945, otherwise known as Victory in Europe Day or VE Day. Previously A Generation (1954) had told of the responses of two young men to the Nazi occupation in 1942 and Kanal (1956) followed a group of resistance fighters in the Warsaw sewers (or kanal in Polish) during the Warsaw uprising of 1944.
Ashes and Diamonds follows Maciek, a former Home Army resistance fighter who has been assigned to kill a Polish communist commissar, Szczuka (Wacław Zastrzeżyński). His first attempt fails when he shoots two innocent cement plant workers. Wajda never allows us to forget that violence is senseless and involves human consequences. The man Maciek must kill has not only fought bravely against the Nazis and Fascism in Spain, but he also has a son who has been fighting for the Home Army. Unlike with the Germans, the lines of conflict are not clearly drawn.
Maciek, the resistance fighter and hero of Ashes and Diamonds is played by Zbigniew Cybulski, a Polish actor who is often referred to as the Polish James Dean. He earned this sobriquet by playing young rebellious characters and having the misfortune to die young (in 1967 he fell under the wheels of a train while trying to jump aboard). Despite being set during the Forties, Cybulski still manages to wear dark glasses through much of film. His eye wear is explained as a sensitivity to sunlight due to the time he spent in the darkness of the Warsaw sewers, but luckily it allows him to create a rather more modern, cooler persona.
The Fifties were golden age of World War II movies, and we’re all familiar with The Dambusters and all those other films of stiff-upper-lipped, stoical Brits or happy-go-lucky, courageous Yanks. Set after the Nazis had been vanquished, Ashes and Diamonds was bound to be far more equivocal. The political climate in Poland influenced the film too. Although Wajda made the film after a loosening of strict communist censorship in the mid-Fifties, free speech was hardly the order of the day. But if criticising Russia and communism was difficult, the memory of the Home Army was sacred to most Poles.
Most of the action takes place in around a hotel, a place of jazz, booze and chance encounters, and hardly the standard arena for heroics. As Maciek moves closer to his prey, he meets the hotel’s beautiful barmaid Krystyna (Ewa Krzyżewska). Through his growing affection for her he is offered a chance of redemption. The difficulty of killing a man he has come, in some small way, to know becomes compounded by love.
Not only is the plot intriguing and the characters compelling, but there are moments of great beauty and originality throughout Ashes and Diamonds. Most famously, Maciek light a series of shot glasses on the bar he is drinking at with his friend and commanding officer Andrzej. But there are many more including when Andrej runs down a banquet table spraying diners with a fire extinguisher, and revellers sleepily waltzing around the dance floor as the sun comes up. Another great re-release from Arrow Academy.
As usual this Arrow Academy release comes with a host of benefits, including both HD Blu-ray and Standard Definition DVD presentations of the film. Extras include a filmed interview with director Andrzej Wajda. Also included is a comprehensive booklet by writer and film historian Michael Brooke, which includes new writing on the film, a re-print of Marek Hendrykowsk s monograph on Ashes and Diamonds, Andrzej Wajda’s lecture on Cinema Past and Present. The artwork presentation packaging includes three original posters and a piece of newly commissioned artwork.