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.
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.