The European Masterpieces Part 3: Ashes and Diamonds (1958 Andrzei Wajda)

Andrzej Wajda’s masterpiece Ashes and Diamonds is set in a small provincial Polish town during early May 1945. Specifically on the day that Nazi Germany surrendered to the Allied forces. Here, we find a snapshot of Polish exiles and Soviet army occupants confronting the dawn of a new Poland. The events of the film are played out over an approximate period of 24 hours where we loosely follow the Polish soldier Maciek (Zbigniew Cybulski) and his more senior compatriot Andrzej (Adam Pawlikowski) in their attempts to assassinate the incoming communist Commissar Szczuka (Wacław Zastrzeżyński). After failing in their first attempt, they both find refuge at a local hotel where Szczuka happens to be checking into. In plotting to assassinate him a second time, Maciek becomes infatuated by a beautiful barmaid called Krystyna (Ewa Krzyżewska), who provides him with a glimpse of what life could be like outside of his murder profession. The ensuing suspense and drama takes place at the hotel and its adjoining banquet hall, where a newly appointed minister is being celebrated, throughout the night and into the morning.

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Title and Meaning

And as the windshield melts
My tears evaporate
Leaving only charcoal to defend.
Finally I understand the feelings of the few.
Ashes and diamonds
Foe and friend
We were all equal in the end.

From Pink Floyd’s ‘Two Suns in the Sunset’ (Lyrics by Roger Waters, 1981)

The title of the film in Polish is Popiół i diament, which is taken from a poem by 19th-century Polish poet Cyprian Norwid. Norwid’s eloquent verse ponders whether ‘flames bring freedom or death’ and asks whether the ashes hold the glory of ‘a starlike diamond’? Like Pink Floyd’s song from their album The Final Cut (which is about a nuclear holocaust), the reference specifically refers to the geological connection between diamond and ash formation (basically through carbon and extreme heat). To the layman, it would appear that the two words are antonyms (opposite meanings), but obviously not. In essence, the title of Wajda’s film refers to the future of Poland in the aftermath of World War II – are there diamonds left behind from the war (rebuilding, new hope, chance for prosperity) or is it just ashes (continuation of the persecutions through Soviet control, the hopelessness of pain, death and destruction)? I guess in using ‘and’ rather than ‘or’ in the title, he is likely saying that there will be both.

Political background

After watching Ashes and Diamonds, you get the distinct feeling that there is much to be lost but also much to be hopeful about in post-war Poland. Wajda was certainly a realist but there is no error too in pointing out too that he was an optimist. His film of course is made with the benefit of hindsight – set at the very end of World War II, but made in 1958. He provides an exemplary retrospective on events that had already occurred, but equally he was referring to the current transition of a new Poland in the late 1950s trying to unshackle itself from the chains imposed by the old Stalin regime. As Wajda had pointed out in discussions about the film, many people in Poland had seen violence and killings become normalised before and during World War II. It was likely that for a young Polish man to kill someone else at that time was just not uncommon – widespread death had become a reality. However, in introducing political change and a general establishment of peace around the world, there was an opportunity for a healing process. As Wajda explores here, this process was far more complex than anyone could have anticipated.

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When defeat of the Nazis by the Allies was proclaimed, a certain numbness paralysed the country. Unable to come to terms with what had happened, the default for many people was to scramble to be in power (to look for the diamonds amongst the ashes, so to speak). Poland had been literally caught in-between the Soviet forces and the German Nazis. The Soviets allied with and recruited many Polish communists in their fight against the Nazis, and that fight took place throughout their cities and rural communities. The country was divided on many fronts, and the notion of an independent Poland had become a faded dream. There was therefore a debilitating confusion as to what would be the best way forward for a country in ruins at the end of the war. It’s as if it had taken Poland by surprise. This certainly appears to be Wadja’s views of the time.

Andrzei Wajda

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Wajda was born in 1926 and his father, who served in the Polish army was murdered by Soviets at the Katyn Massacre in 1940. This no doubt moulded his outlook of events from the time. Clearly not a Nazi sympathiser, but also not a Soviet sympathiser either. Instead he always exuded a certain pride in his home country. His film-work up to this point in 1958 and since, has chronicled the country’s political and social history in painful detail – his masterful wartime trilogy consists of A Generation (1954), Kanal (1956) and this film; while his later films (equally masterful) Man of Marble (1976) and Man of Iron (1981) deals with the loosening grip of Soviet power under the Polish Solidarity Movement. His cause was clear and unapologetic, and he presented his work in a passionate and vivid way. He always offered insightful theses about the myths of Polish identity, effectively communicating again and again the effect that a tragic history could have on ordinary people, and how it can divide them.

There are parallels to this all across the world. Ireland, for example, has had a titanic struggle with national identity ever since independence, partition and the subsequent ‘Troubles’ conflict within the last century or so. Ken Loach’s The Wind that Shakes the Barley (2006) could not have hit the nail on the head better with his brave interpretation of early Irish independence and the mindlessness of young men in their staunch political objections to one another. There are those who hold on to a hollow but heroic interpretation of their history and archaeology, but there are always others who will disagree and see it a different way, with different heroes. In his film-work Wajda, and indeed Loach too, have detailed major gaps in the race towards nationhood – violence and terror being a very obvious one.

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Here in Ashes and Diamonds, we see an outstanding example demonstrating just that. Wadja presents a determined focus to understand the concept of ‘serving one’s country’. When the lines are blurred, it is more difficult to maintain any sense of moral achievement in what you do. The drunken stupor of the banquet feast celebrating a new mayor is a good example of this. Wajda appears to be saying that those in power at the end of the war had no idea what Poland’s actual identity should be – the generals and politicians are all just blurting out ‘for Poland’ without any substance behind it.

The icon of Maciek and Zbigniew Cybulski

Wajda chose an already burgeoning local star in Zbigniew Cybulski to play the lead player, a misguided assassin called Maciek. Cybulski came to be known as the James Dean of Eastern European cinema, as much for his off-screen rebellious image as his posthumous iconography. He also made no secret of his admiration for the Hollywood legend (by the time of filming Ashes and Diamonds, Dean had already been killed in a car accident), so much so that Wajda and Cybulski consciously mirrored the behaviour of Maciek on Dean’s roles in Rebel Without a Cause, Giant and East of Eden (Marlon Brando’s performance in The Wild One from 1951 was also cited as an influence). The chilling thing is that Cybulski, although renowned as one of the greatest Polish actors of all time, died way before his years in a similar tragedy to Dean, when ten years later in 1968, at the age of 39, he slipped under a train on his way to a film set and was killed. Ashes and Diamonds is seen as his most renowned film, and for obvious reasons.

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Cybulski plays the character of Maciek for all its worth. There is a hotheadedness, an arrogance and yet an inescapable sense of tragedy in every action and movement he makes. His character is associated with an underground Nationalist movement from during the War and his mission is to kill a Communist leader who has come to a small Polish town to drum up support with a so-perceived anti-Nationalist rhetoric. Like with many tragic male characters, Maciek’s tendency for distraction facilitates his own downfall – he bungles his first attempt in killing the leader by impatiently spraying machine-gun bullets at two men who have come down the same path. When given another chance, he wantonly flirts and pursues a woman called Krystyna who works at the hotel he is meant to be laying low in. The developing relationship between Maciek and Krystyna, only over a few late night hours it must be said, becomes the centrifugal force of the film at this stage – it provides a relief from the serious political undertones of the film and is probably the reason why the film remains most endearing.

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Krystyna, played with wonderful charisma by Ewa Krzyżewska, appears jaded by the war and confused by the new dawn as much as anyone, but Maciek, having fought in the war directly before becoming an underground killer, sees her as an escape – life will be much better if he could just run away with her. He explains his intentions to go to techinical college, but we must also remember that he is besotted by her beauty as much she is takwn in by his handsomeness. She sets off an understanding in his mind that his murdering lifestyle is meaningless in this new, post-war climate. The war may be over for her but for him, it continues due to the inability of the Nationalists and Communists to reconcile. She is the hope at the end of the tunnel of the turmoil – if he holds her hand, she will magically lead him out to the light. It all makes the ending all the more harder to swallow of course.

Influence on other cinema

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Polish cinema at the end of the 1950s is seen as being the precursor to the French Nouvelle Vague – complex, ambiguous characters, underlying sexual tensions, war and violence artfully presented to provoke reflection and meaning. Indeed, controversy was rife upon the release of Wajda’s masterpiece in 1958. His film was based on a 1948 novel of the same name by Jerzy Andrzejewski, which was also extremely controversial. Accolades were showered upon Ashes and Diamonds at festivals around the world, and it gained an intellectual world audience who were willing to take heed of an emerging generation of brilliant Eastern Europeans artists at the time. It is unsurprising to find many moments from the film that have influenced other filmmakers, let alone the likes of Godard or Truffaut, but in later Hollywood films too. Scorsese and Coppola have stated that it is one of their favourite films of all time. The most lasting iconic image of the film (there are several) is the portrait of Maciek in sunglasses and his mouth agape holding a machine gun – Scorsese professed that he paid homage to this image in Harvey Keitel’s character in Mean Streets (1973), while it would be unsurprising to find the same influence in the equally arresting image of Arnie in James Cameron’s Terminator 2 (1991), with shades, leather jacket and a more nonchalant expression than Maciek’s.

Religious Imagery

There is so much incredible imagery and motifs in Wajda’s masterpiece that you would be forgiven for thinking you were watching a film from more contemporary times. In many ways, Wajda’s work here resembles the early breakthrough techniques of Orson Welles – layered narratives, use of tonal lighting and radical camera angles. But as Wajda would have himself attested to: he was never in the business of copying others, rather utilising inspiration from them. His material was always humbly original as much as it was deeply pragmatic. This is something you would not automatically find on the superficial surface world of Hollywood, or even other European films at the time. Wajda, for example was very critical of the old order of religious power in Poland. Catholicism in Poland had been very strong up until and during the war and there was an argument made by many that it should be a key element in keeping people together after it had ended. It would appear Wajda was not entirely down with this thinking, or else he was keen to point out that there were many others who disagreed.

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Maciek, for example can be seen as an invocation of rebellion in terms of faith. There is a sense of nihilism to his character. The moment when he and Krystyna wander into a morgue after Krystyna breaks her heel, he apparently shows little respect to the religious sanctity of the place and is thus called out by the sleeping watchman who is astonished by his behaviour. He does not seem too perturbed by the protestations until he pulls over the blanket that is concealing two embalmed corpses. Here he is confronted by the bodies of the two people he himself had murdered earlier in the film. Although this is not a moment where Maciek has any revelations in terms of his non-existent faith, what is certain is that this confrontation with death affects his mental state so badly that he slowly begins to unravel in a tragic downturn towards carelessness and despair.

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Wajda presented some audacious symbolism in Ashes and Diamonds, things that would be seen as too radical anywhere else. The stand out being the image of the large upside-down crucifix for example. In the scene where Maciek and Krystyna have a lover’s tryst amongst the rubble, the crucifix hangs in the foreground of the picture – the camera pans around it to follow the characters in the background but it remains central for a length of time long enough to capture its intended symbolism. Wajda has likely included it to resemble the toppling of the religious order during the war. Also, by including it in a semi-romantic scene between two young, unmarried people, there may be a statement here that the post-war Polish youth are moving on from tradition (from no sex before marriage perhaps), and religious issues are now secondary to realistic issues such as inhumanity and persecution.

The scene at the beginning of the film is also of note in terms of its religious imagery. The two executioners carry out their attempted assassinations at a small church tower. Machine guns are used without prejudice on the mistaken victims and the incident is unfortunately witnessed by a small girl who just happens to skip into the scene to leave flowers at the church before the killings begin. As one of the victims tries to flee the flurry of bullets, he sees no other escape than by going into the church, but just as he opens the door to reveal an alter to God, Maciek shoots him in the back, and amazingly, the bullet holes are set alight and his clothes burn up for a short moment. No fuss is made about this, it just happens. The imagery is quick and effective. What it points to I imagine is the seeking of salvation from God prior to the moment of death  – the victim can reach out to heaven but at the last second he is pulled back into the flames of hell.

The role of Death

Although most of the film does not wade in a swamp of violence and murder, death is still a very prominent theme. As mentioned above, Wajda is presenting us with a snapshot of a country that had seen one fifth of its pre-War population perish in the brutalities of the early to mid-1940s, and it was about to brace itself for a potential civil war. Two of the central characters to the story (Maciek and the Commissar Szczuka) are both executed in the final twenty minutes of the film too and their deaths, shown abruptly and astonishingly at two very key moments, provide the tragic basis for the entire story.

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After a tête-à-tête with his compatriot Andrezej who convinces him that he must carry out his orders, Maciek eventually shoots Szczuka in darkness on the street. As fireworks light up the sky celebrating the end of hostilities, Szczuka falls into his arms, perhaps implying the deeply sated wish he had all along for peace among the Nationalists and Communists. The tragedy of the general’s death is compounded by the fact that he was on his way to meet with his son who had been imprisoned for his role in the rebellious Home Army. Having arrived earlier in the film, the robust Szczuka had up until that stage become a sympathetic figure in our eyes. His impassioned plea to onlooking workers for a better future for Poland had represented a feeling of hope and reconciliation between the political sides, but this unfortunately flickered out with his death.

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The tragic execution of Maciek follows shortly afterwards. After having carried out his orders, it is unclear what he must do now and as the dawn breaks on the street, a myriad of confusion leads to him being shot by a patrol of soldiers. His subsequent slow stumble to a rubbish heap, where he falls and dies is what provides the film with its everlasting and startling scene – he first stumbles into a yard with drying white sheets, and hides amongst them but the blood stains reveals him and he must carry on to a dump, where he starts off by laughing hysterically and eventually falling to the ground, devoid of his sunglasses and presumably having died.

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Is Wajda attempting to say that the all Polish young men have died in vain during the war? The squalid remains of a rubbish dump i.e. no dignity, are all that awaits someone who ‘heroically’ carries out their orders. It could be said that the idea of Polish identity, or any national identity for that matter, is just based on a whole load of rubbish – discarded objects that people do not want anymore. Maciek has achieved nothing but he has lost everything – his chance with Krystyna, his understanding of what was happening and why he was doing it, and his chance to see a new Poland outside of the war. It is a terrible tragedy. But a powerful message nevertheless and an indication of the struggles of a country little talked about in the world history books. Without Wajda, the great Polish storyteller and visionary, we would have very little insight into this.

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