The opening scene shows a chapel with two figures lounging in the grass. In Poland the Church has always been a refuge in any crisis. However crisis for the two does not stem from their faith but has to do with their conscience: The war is over yet death does not stop.
One of them has to assassinate while the other is responsible for him..
Maciek: “I’ve waited for bigger things.”
Maciek(Zbigniew Cybulski) and Andrzej(Adam Pawlikowsky) are vetran Home Army soldiers, and friends,licked into shape by their struggles as members of a resistance movement. Maciek the assassin is young and is the responsibility of the older Andrzej who in turn is responsible to another. This however does not prevent an attack of conscience. It is an individual thing though Maciek pulls the trigger for the good of many. The dark glasses that Maciek wears is a metaphor: it cuts off clear moral judgment till he does what he is expected to do on a command passed through many hands. Maciek’s intended victim is one who also fought the war on the same side. In a fine performance Maciek brings out his dilemma and tragedy.
The Nazi Germany has just surrendered. The war is over. In such a case why carry on with killing in time of peace? This moral dilemma gives the film its internal energy and it gives each character a point of reference to a particular story set in Free Poland; it also stands true for cases that might be anywhere. Poland as a nation had for long been subjugated by other nations including Russia; in her terrible hour patriots fought side by side suffering the same pain and death; now with their freedom in hand as the Regional Secretary of the Communist says,’The end of war is not the end of our war. What kind of Poland we need to become.’ Szczuka (Waclav Zastrzezynski) representing the pro-Moscow People’s Army, has just survived an assassination attempt and he knows the two cement factory workers killed a little while ago died for nothing. War has decided the fate of nation very little; besides it spills over in times of peace killing the innocents as in time of war. So in the film Maciek gets another chance but very little time to sort out his moral confusion. To complicate matters he falls in love and it tells him that he ought to make some changes in his life. But does he really get that chance?
On May 8,1945 it is decision time: what kind of nation Poland should become. Throughout the night Reds had already fanned out occupying vital installations and deciding who gets what posts and other perquisites the new regime could give. The mayor for his loyalty to the Soviet Bloc has been elevated to a minister. His secretary Drewnowski (Bogumil Kobiela), a double agent dreams that it opens for him plenty of wealth. The newly elevated Minister and his cohorts, mingle with members of Polish bourgeosie during the banquet to celebrate the victory. Maciek and Andrzej slip among the crowd in the bar.
Maciek observes.”He has got a stupid back,” the guest turns around. Maciek tells Andzej,”His front is stupid also.”
There has been a complication in that Captain Wilks in whose detachment the two were members, is killed and Andrzej has to take his place by 4:30 in the morning. Maciek would like very much to go with him but he has to finish his assignment first.
The film resolves the fate of two representatives of the ideological divide Maciek and Szczuka represent. The irony of it all is that each is a double for the other: one could be the surrogate father for the younger. The younger within a span of day is at hand to give a match to light the cigarette of the older twice. Each time the viewer is left with no doubt the two exude certain empathy that only can be because of their close relationship by blood. Their political divide is as superficial as the Hungarian cigarette (‘because it is stronger,’) that Maciek smokes while Szczuka settles for the American brand. They both are Polish through and through and the ideology of old or new is like rustle of leaves. The tree must still stand whether winds of change came across the Steppes or not.
This film is one among 120 great films and is included in my Movie Lists.
Based on Jerzy Andrzejewski’s 1948 novel of the same name, Ashes and Diamonds is the Wajda’s last in the war trilogy, following A Generation and Kanal. Adapted for the screen by Andrzej Wajda and the author time and space have been condensed to less than twenty-four hours in and around a single location—the hotel Monopol. The title comes from a 19th Century poem by Cyprian Norwid ‘…Or will the ashes hold the glory of a starlike diamond/The Morning Star of everlasting triumph.
In the town’s leading hotel and banquet hall, Monopol., a grand fête is being organized for a newly appointed minor minister by his assistant. Maciek having missed his mission manages to get an entry into a room with the desk clerk who was present in Warsaw even while the uprising resulted in the destruction of the Old Warsaw The old porter recalls ‘It is like losing your arm.’. He also remembers the chestnut trees in particular. This reminiscence echoes in the part of the Party secretary who we understand had taken part in Spain. His sad memories have a parallel in one of the dramatic moments at the bar, where Andrzej is nervously waiting for dawn Maciek lights glasses with alcohol as a memorial to their fallen comrades. Andzej snaps crossly,”We are still alive.” The realization Maciek played with his life and still he has to play with it is a turning point in the film.
Maciek: “I swear these violets smell sweeter and sweeter.”
The episode with hotel’s bar-maid Krystyna (Ewa Krzyzewska) begins here. Their love is physical as he is not totally at ease to receive her love. Even as she visits him in his room(right next that of his target) he is frantically trying to cover up his real mission.( He must similarly lie to the old porter who warms up to him.). His sense of responsibility will not allow him to becompletely on level. Nor the girl is free from her past ( She tells simply her father was killed by the Germans and her mother during the uprising) and it is she puts a full stop realising he is lost to her forever.
Maciek abruptly takes leave of her as his victim is anxiously waiting to reclaim his son Marek. He has been taken prisoner by the Reds. He also belonged to the detachment of Captain Wilks. By inference Maciek is almost like his son.
We are given to understand Marek is a child of Szczuka and his mother none other than the wife of Major Stanieswiez. who has given order for his elimination! Freedom for Poland cuts across love whether illicit or normal. There is a scene in which Maciek witnesses a domestic tragedy. Fiancee of one of the worker killed by him is comforted by one who is none other than her boss and he has nylon stockings as a gift. They are ready for a roll in the bed. She knows the men have only one thing in their mind. Yes social life, open or secret cannot run its normal course. The old order has been completely over thrown and is visually summed up in the broken down statue of Christ in the crypt.
Before the close we are given a chance to probe Maciek’s emotional undercurrents and his need to change his way of life. It underscores the pathos that the tragedy must awake in us. This crucial moment follows when Maciek goes for a walk with Krystyna and ends up in a bombed-out church. Maciek realizes what he had been missing in life. (He could have had an education or settle down to a regular family life every day warmed by love, awakened by his brief love-making with the barmaid.) The aridity of his past, a life of the mind is brought to him with a sledge-hammer force by the two innocent victims he sees in the crypt. The result of his botched attempt. It was all he had to show for his life as a sewer rat. But he is committed to fulfill his duty.
When he does and as Szczuka falls, it is a dramatic moment and the built up tension in the viewer literally explodes: fireworks celebrating the end of the war fill the sky.
At appointed time Maciek goes to where Andrzej awaits in a truck. From concealment he watches as the other accomplice Drewnowski is exposed. Andrzej throws him to the ground and drives off. When Drewnowski sees Maciek, he calls out to him and Maciek flees only to run into a patrol of Reds He is shot and ends up dying in a landscape strewn with trash.
No empire or old order however feeble passes away quietly but makes quiet a din. We have in our time seen in the Balkans and it was so when the Ottoman Empire came crashing at the end of WWI.
What a trash new emerging nations make of the fine ‘ideals’ of the old order!
Quote:’The measure of my satisfacton is that during the writing of the book I pictured Mack Chelmicky entirely differently. Now when I see the film I see him only this way, as Cybulski played him.” Andrezjewski
The entire film takes place over two days, May 8th and 9th 1945.
One of Martin Scorsese‘s favorite movies. He showed it to Leonardo DiCaprio while making The Departed (2006), as main characters of these two movies have to deal with the same dilemmas.
The title comes from a 19th century poem by Cyprian Kamil Norwid and references the manner in which diamonds are formed from heat and pressure acting upon coal.
Director ‘Andzrej Wajda’ realized that his leading man Zbigniew Cybulski would be constrained by period costume so he allowed him to wear clothes that felt more natural to him.
After the film’s release, sales of sunglasses shot up because Zbigniew Cybulski wore them consistently throughout the film.
Wajda was particularly influenced by The Asphalt Jungle (1950).
Because of the film’s nihilistic tone, the Polish authorities were not keen on it being exhibited outside of the country. Until a low-level official had a print shipped out to the Venice Film Festival where it played to great acclaim.
René Clair was a particular fan of the film.