Up until the past couple of weeks, this was the only film from the acclaimed Polish director Andrzej Wajda's 'War Trilogy' that I'd ever seen. 1958's Ashes and Diamonds was the final chapter in the trilogy and I'd previously seen it as a teenager and had been rather bowled over by its depiction of the power vacuum that occurred in ravaged Poland during the final days of the Second World War.
Following Wajda's death earlier this month at the age of 90, I decided to have a bit of a binge on his films starting with the first two chapters in his War Trilogy that I hadn't seen, before rounding it off with this rewatch. I have to say, watching them as a whole, I've now changed my mind; Kanal, the second film, is to my mind the much stronger offering overall. But that's not to say that Ashes and Diamonds - adapted from his own novel by Jerzy Andrzejewski - is anything other than the classic it is rightly regarded as, and it remains a superb example of 20th century Polish cinema.
The action takes place over the course of just 24 hours on the day that Germany signs their surrender. Faced with the prospect of peace, Poland is effectively in open season and, having spent the war under the Nazi jackboot, the mood in the Resistance is one of an understandable refusal to welcome a post-war future under an equally harsh regime of Communism from Russia. A charming and roguish young resistance fighter called Maciek (Zbigniew Cybulski) and his senior, in both age and rank, Andrzej (Adam Pawlikowski) have been ordered to lie in wait for a newly arriving Communist Party Secretary Szczuka (Waclaw Zastrzezynski) and his aide and to assassinate them on sight. Unfortunately, the assassins get the wrong men and two innocent civilians have been killed instead.
Undeterred, Maciek and Andrzej catch up with their quarry and the former books a room at the hotel where the official is staying. As he waits for the right moment to make amends and complete his orders, Maciek meets and falls in love with the barmaid Krystyna (Ewa Krzyzewska). It is this unexpected connection with the girl leads him to reconsider his role in what has become an endless cycle of violence and potentially offer him a way out.
Wajda brilliantly mirrors Maciek's increasing life crisis and inner turmoil with the political and social context of Poland, with its uncertain future under the approaching Soviet rule. But cleverly Wajda doesn't just depict a black and white situation here, as the party official Szczuka appears to be to all intents and purposes a good man, who wants the best for his country and wishes to be reunited with his 17-year-old son, who has been captured by the authorities after fighting with the resistance in the uprising. There's also a good deal of satire and caustic commentary to be had about Poland's political turmoils, with party officials drinking too much and squabbling over their splendid banquets about who did what and who should get what as the city beyond lies in rat infested ruins and the aristocracy hatch their plans to leave and live in exile. It's also deeply symbolic, with some great visual motifs of fireworks and flames lighting the way through darkness.
What most people remember about Ashes and Diamonds is of course the extraordinarily charismatic star turn from Zbigniew Cybulski as Maciek. The film may be set in 1945, but Wajda et al made a conscious decision to depict their (anti) hero with the mood and fashions of the year it was made - 1958. Clad in army fatigues and wearing sunglasses almost constantly throughout (even at night) Maciek, and Cybulski's performance in turn, is a deliberate attempt to create a cultural film icon for Poland and was a style that was emulated by Polish teens for years to come. It is no surprise that Cybulski was known as 'The Polish James Dean' and, like his Hollywood counterpart, Cybulski too suffered a premature demise via a tragic accident; falling under the wheels of a train he had attempted to board in 1967. He was just 39 years old. Tragedy later struck Cybulski's co-star here too - Ewa Krzyzewska, who delivers a soulful, subtle and honest portrayal of the barmaid and potential saviour Krystyna, died in a car crash in 2003 at the age of 64.