As previously reported here, the great Polish filmmaker Andrzej Wajda died earlier this month at the age of 90. The voice of Poland, the director turned out scores of films, many of them masterpieces, so I decided to have a season of his films starting with his first.
A Generation, or Pokolenie to give it its Polish title, was also the first film in what was to become Wajda's 'War Trilogy', a loose series of films exploring Poland's experiences of WWII and the underground resistance movement which Wajda had been a part of as a youth. The rightly celebrated masterpiece, Ashes and Diamonds, was the film to close that trilogy and it did so on a note of some disillusionment, but here in A Generation the story starts with a sense of optimism.
The film follows Tadeusz Lomnicki's Stach, a disaffected young apprentice from the slums of Warsaw who is turned on to communism by his colleague at the factory, Sekula (Janusz Paluszkiewicz) and, in turn onto the resistance movement against the Nazi occupation by Dorita (Urszula Modrzynska) a beautiful resistance fighter with whom, somewhat inevitably, Stach falls in love with. Playing one of Stach's comrades-in-arms in the resistance is a very young Roman Polanski.
One of the film's strengths is the story strand involving Tadeusz Janczar's Jasio, an ambiguous and richly fascinating character who loathes both Nazis and communists alike. He reluctantly joins the movement and, without authorisation, assassinates the local Nazi officer who uses particularly brutal, bullying methods upon the local workforce. This impulsive bloody action earns him a rebuke from Stach, who dismisses him as little more than 'a cowboy', but he is oblivious to Jasio's own remorse for his actions. There's significantly more depth to this secondary character than to Stach or anyone else, and it's clear he feels disgusted by the realisation that he is now a killer. His story concludes with Wajda's most powerful and brilliant sequence in this, his debut film; chased into a tenement by the Nazis, Jasio clambers up a spiral staircase battling his pursuers at every turn. Cornered and with nowhere left to turn, he dives from the top flight to his death - a moment worthy of Hitchcock and Vertigo.
A Generation bears all the hallmarks of a director's first film in that it is far from being an instant classic and is a good deal amateurish in many places, but it shows enough glimpses of promise that Wajda would deliver upon time after time from this moment onwards. One of the things that hampers your viewing experience is the rather murky quality of print on this Arrow DVD; exterior scenes filmed in daylight are bleached and pale, whereas interiors or scenes at night are almost unwatchable. There are several scenes where all I could see is the noses of the cast, their features and bodies were shrouded in darkness.