My task as director is not just to provide a nice evening’s entertainment. The most important thing is to make people think.
— Academy Award Tribute to Andrej Wajda.
The Horrors of Nazism and Tragedies of Communism
Our movie this month, Ashes and Diamonds, brings the horrors of Nazism and tragedies of Communism to the screen. The story takes place over a twelve-hour period in Poland at the end of World War II. It is about a young Polish soldier who is ordered to assassinate a high-ranking Communist figure. Drama, irony, romance, and unexpected twists give the viewer a thought-provoking experience.
The main character, Maciek Chelmicki, played by Zbigniew Cybulski, is a young soldier in the right-wing Nationalist Army who, at the close of the war, is ordered to assassinate the newly arrived Communist district secretary. Maciek is a slightly dandified Polish Hamlet (Shakespeare?) who has fought in the uprising but is now uncertain about continuing to espouse an inevitably lost cause against the left. He bungles the murder, killing two bystanders.
Maciek is Hopelessly Conflicted
Told to try again, he remains hopelessly conflicted between the demands of conscience and of loyalty and is further upended by falling for a girl in the hotel at which he and the communist official are staying. She makes him feel that his lifestyle is meaningless in the new post-war climate.
Though he manages to accomplish his mission on the very evening that fireworks announce the end of hostilities, he is accidentally shot when running from a military patrol. He dies alone on a rubbish dump.
Cybulski manages, through Wajda, to express a uniquely Polish sensibility—reflecting his nation’s troubled history—as well as the kind of youthful frustrations that are still recognizable today. But Wajda’s deeply romantic and personal vision makes Ashes and Diamonds a gripping experience too.
The title of both the movie and the novel by Jerzy Andrzejewski, who also wrote the screenplay, is taken from romantic poetry written by C. K. Norwid, 19th-century Polish poet: “Will there remain among the ashes a star-like diamond, the dawn of eternal victory?”
Wajda doesn’t try to answer this question, and it is the film’s ambiguities that continue to render it fascinating.
From an interview with Wajda, a comment about the star of our movie, Zbigniew Cybulski (Yakir, 1984):
The two actors I associate most closely with your work are Zbigniew Cybulski and Daniel Olbrychski. Let’s talk about them.
Cybulski, more than any other actor, represented his generation. He created himself in such a precise manner that you couldn’t distinguish between his film work and his real self. He wore his own skin all the time. It was impossible to have him wear a different costume and make him play somebody else. But these were external characteristics. Inside, what was beautiful was his sense of responsibility to the public, which I never saw anywhere else. I worked with him twice in the theater—we did ‘A Hatful of Rain’ and ‘Two for the Seesaw’, and I must say, he was born for this material. In one performance of ‘A Hatful of Rain’ in Cracow, in a theater where he once had walk-on parts, he went on the stage and started acting. Then he suddenly stopped and said, ‘Excuse me, I made a mistake.’ And he began the play once again. No other actor would dare do such a thing, but he felt he had a right to it. He had a fantastic imagination.
You know, he was practically blind, so his eyes were expressionless. This is why a close-up of his face would reveal very little. He attempted to compensate for this by movement, by using his silhouette. In Ashes and Diamonds, there are scenes where his legs are the most important thing in the frame—as seen in his silhouette. Directors who didn’t understand all that would not be able to convey what was special about him in their film, even though his work for them was just as good.
Later in the same article . . .
I think that Ashes and Diamonds was influenced mostly by the American noir films such as Scarface and The Asphalt Jungle. They were beautiful films. I think that Man of Marble also bears the influence of American cinema.
We are in for a fascinating evening in the movie room! See you there.
Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences (Producer). (2000). Jane Fonda presents an honorary Oscar® to Andrzej Wajda. Retrieved from https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=rImCpUzwGx0
Brooke, M. (2008, May 6). Andrzej Wajda—An Introduction. Retrieved from https://michaelbrooke.wordpress.com/andrzej-wajda-an-introduction/
Martin Scorsese presents masterpieces of Polish cinema. (2015). Kinoteka Polish Film Festival. Retrieved from https://kinoteka.org.uk/martin-scorsese-masterpieces-polish-cinema/
Merleau-Ponty, M. (1964). Sense and Nonsense (H. L. Dreyfus & P. A. Dreyfus, Trans.). : Northwestern University.
Oleszczyk, M. (2012, Oct 13). Ashes are for Ever. Retrieved from https://www.rogerebert.com/far-flung-correspondents/ashes-are-for-ever
Yakir, D. (1984). Interview: Andrzej Wajda. Film Comment (Nov/Dec). Retrieved from https://www.filmcomment.com/author/dan-yakir/