Ashes and Diamonds (1958) is the third among a trilogy of war films that spurred Steven Spielberg to write a passionate letter to the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences recommending its Polish director, Andrzej Wajda, for an Honorary Oscar. Wajda was awarded that Oscar in 2000.
Born in Poland on March 6, 1926, events leading to World War II and the war itself shaped Wajda’s formative years. The aftermath of the War also heavily influenced his film-making career, working under a Communist regime where censorship limited creative production. Since censors paid attention more to dialog than images, Wajda slyly filmed his movies accordingly.
As an example, the end of Ashes and Diamonds shows the hero dying in a waste disposal landfill site. Wajda informed the censors that this scene could be translated as “whoever raises his hand against People’s Poland will end up on the rubbish heap of history.” However, Polish audiences interpreted the scene in a different light.
A workaholic, Wajda has been prolific in making films, TV programs, and stage productions in an active career that has spanned from the 1950’s to his most recent film, Walesa, A Man of Hope, released in 2012.
On directing movies, in Wajda’s own words (1998):
The good Lord provided the director with two eyes – one to look into the camera, the other to observe intently everything that is going on around him. It is a skill which you should develop and endlessly improve, until you stop making movies (in the case of those trying to make political films this might happen at any moment, so time is running out!) For example: when the camera starts running, the director should watch and see simultaneously:
- how the actors are playing;
- what the crew members are doing: are they watching the take so that later they will be able to draw conclusions who’s responsible for what?
- whether the lights haven’t been moved: do they illumine the actors as agreed? (basically this is the operator’s job, but it is worth taking note of)
- the sky: can the take be completed before the clouds obscure the sun?
- that actor walking over the rails; is he going to brush his sleeve against a priceless Chinese vase? the microphone, already dangerously low; is it going to get into the frame? and many, many other things, happening on location.
This seems not only difficult but almost impossible; but do you recall your first, terrifying experience when driving a car? Many years ago my friend, the known film critic Boleslaw Michalek, bought his first automobile. He wasn’t too sure of himself behind the driving wheel, so he asked somebody to help him drive the car from the factory. But when they went out of the gate and into the street, the driver said with a tremor in his voice: ‘I’ll concentrate on the engine and you just watch the road’ – because he too was a beginner. After a few minutes they landed in a ditch.
Many years ago, at the start of my career as a director, I used to ask my assistants to take note for me of some things during a take. This inevitably led to misunderstandings, and the evaluated material usually turned out to be disastrous. Unfortunately, this is a job the director cannot share. The members of the crew must know that at any given moment he is in control and has an eye on absolutely everything; only then will they accept his wishes and work really effectively.
For a comprehensive and thorough study on Wajda and his works, read Michael Brooke’s well-written piece entitled, “Andrzej Wajda – An Introduction.”
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. (6 May 2008). Andrzej Wajda – an introduction. Retrieved from https://michaelbrooke.wordpress.com/andrzej-wajda-an-introduction/
Merleau-Ponty, M. (1964). Sense and non-sense (H. L. Dreyfus & P. A. Dreyfus, Trans.). Evanston, IL: Northwestern University Press
Oleszczyk, M. (2012, Oct 13). Ashes are for ever. Roger Ebert. Retrieved from https://www.rogerebert.com/far-flung-correspondents/ashes-are-for-ever
Wajda, A. (1998). The director’s two eyes. Retrieved from http://www.wajda.pl/en/filmy2.html
Yakir, D. (1984). Interview: Andrzej Wajda. Film Comment. Retrieved from https://www.filmcomment.com/author/dan-yakir/