Sunday, 23 October 2016

Kanal (1956)

Kanal is the late Andrzej Wajda's second instalment in his war trilogy (my review of the first, A Generation, can be found here) Beginning on the 25th of September, 1944 and the 56th day of Warsaw Uprising, which lasted from 1 August to 2 October 1944. The Polish Home Armies campaign featured some intense fighting, but was ultimately unsuccessful, with massacres carried out by the SS causing the deaths of some 10,000 armed insurgents and possibly as much as 200,000 Polish civilians. With such sobering historical fact in mind, it is only right that Wajda's tale is a bleak, harrowing and horrifying saga of blind hope, courage, fatalism, tragedy and poor luck.

Wajda opens his tale with Jerzy Lipman's beautiful tracking shot through the rubble-strewn streets that introduces us to the key players, the resistance fighters and Home Army soldiers, who are attempting to hold their Nazi adversaries back, whilst at the same time commencing a tactical retreat towards the supposed safety of the centre of Warsaw via the city's underground sewers (the 'canal' or 'Kanal' of the title).  But a shadow already looms large over our band of brothers, as the film's narrator informs us: 'watch them carefully in the last hours of their lives'. We know that a happy ending does not await anyone here, not our leader Lieutenant Zadra (Wienczyslaw Glinski) or his second in command, Lieutenant Madry (Emil Karewicz) nor the lovers Korab (Tadeusz Janczar) and Daisy (Teresa Izewska) or the artist and musician Michael (Vladek Sheybal - and how good it is to see him play something other than the weaselly KGB spy he was so often typecast as in English Language productions) Their fates have been sealed from the off. 

Kanal is a film of two halves - the first sets up the group's relationships and dynamics and sees them fending off attacks from within derelict, battle scarred buildings, whilst the second tracks their perilous and ill-fated journey through the sewers. Naturally once we reach this second act all hope rapidly ebbs away and Wajda's comparison with the sewers to Dante's Inferno is obvious, even before the educated Michael alludes to it. Once the film goes underground, the atmosphere changes to a dark (literally) and claustrophobic psychological horror, with the sense of tension and foreboding being increasingly ratcheted up with every hopeless waded turn through the filth, as paranoia and insanity begins to creep in and members of the group become lost, taking separate paths to their doom. Wajda excels with these truly haunting sequences and Jan Krenz's eerie score further serves to exacerbate the deeply unsettling mood.  

This sense of desperation is both palpable and greatly affecting in this distinctive and powerful anti-war piece, making it a feature that is leaps and bounds ahead of Wajda's previous instalment in the trilogy, the faltering A Generation. Here is a production from a filmmaker whose confidence is clearly growing, and at a rate of knots. He's also helped immeasurably by a fine cast, with Glinksi's pessimistically honest yet totally dedicated officer whose desire to protect and lead his company easily elicits our sympathy, and the mercurial coupling of Janczar and Izewska proving especially winning. And praise too for Izewska's character Daisy; an assured, hardbitten yet feminine (she's a blonde bombshell in appearance) soldier who is heavily relied upon by the others. This is a rare example of gender equality and forward thinking feminism in a genre often lacking in such opportunities. I especially liked how she tells a near-blind Korab that she wrote 'kiss my arse' on the walls of the sewers in defiance against the Nazi onslaught, even though we the audience know that what she actually wrote was the more revealing, tender 'I love Korab' - such a bittersweet moment.

Kanal uncompromisingly fatalistic tone doesn't make for an easy watch, but it's a vital one which helps educate a Western audience on the horrors and experiences a country such as Poland faced during the war.

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