Sunday, February 20, 2011

Ashes and Diamonds. (1958) Andrzej Wajda

After the Nazis we were baited by the Russian bear
Our "liberators" wanted Poland for a thoroughfare...

-Steve Taylor, "Over My Dead Body"

The lines from the alterna-ccm song from 1984 kept floating through my head in regard to Ashes and Diamonds.

The third in Wajda's loosely connected trilogy of films based on Poland during the second World War, Ashes and Diamonds is set in May, 1945, in the same few days that their Nazi oppressors unequivocally surrendered to Allied Forces.

Poland is scarred, in battle-tattered shambles, and will stay that way for quite some time due to neglect from the oncoming Communist party which will annex the land as its own. As someone points out early in Ashes and Diamonds, the war might be over, but the battle has just begun.

A group of Polish patriots on a mission to assassinate a mid-level party functionary botch the mission, killing two of their own in the process. The rest of the story revolves around their guilt, their new course of action, and the small role they play in the larger story of Soviet annexation -- their startled country, where millions have already died, is caught in the throes of "liberation."

Maciek, the trigger-man, acts like a duty-bound soldier taking charge of the failed mission, but his interior thoughts are of a man not mentally prepared for the next phase. He's tired of the ever-present destruction, the waste he sees all around him; he no longer cares about Germany from the West or Russia to the East. He simply wants to go back to school, to be a student in his homeland and live a normal life.

While waiting for a second chance at the mark he originally missed, he has a few drinks at a bar and falls for the pretty bartender. To his surprise she stops by his hotel room that night, and they mistake lust for love in a time where both are nothing more than a fleeting thought. He wanders with her through the city in the night trying to decide whether to leave the assassin's life behind, or whether he can pull off the deed that's still to be done and not have to get on the next train out of town.

It was a forceful film in its day, a story resonant with the times and devastation that won't ever be forgotten. I'm not so certain the film is capable of translating to audiences today, especially audiences that are younger and foreign. Even the most educated and pure in the film buff crowd will have a hard time making it through Ashes and Diamonds. It's exceptionally made, especially for the time and place it was made in, with quite a few scenes that are nothing short of cinematic. But it remains a tough sell. It wouldn't be my first suggestion to the artsy hipster crowd trying to find out more about the end of WWII -- however, if a college kid were looking to write on Poland at the end of the war, this might be the best piece to track down.

I've been to Poland, briefly, but admittedly know very little of its history. The film seems to suggest that in 1945 only the Nazi and the Bear had any vision for the country. While there were small groups like the patriots in Ashes and Diamonds, it seems that most were only scrambling, hoping for resistance but more concerned about staying alive. It took decades of oppression and a visitation from a homecoming Pope to galvanize the populace for political reform -- but this is a film about a people who are lost, caught in the midst of a terrible affliction, practically burned blind by the things they've been witness to. They tremble at the notion of an approaching Soviet darkness, but the light of their freedom is decades away.

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