Andrez Wadja: Three War Films
A Generation, Kanal, and Ashes and Diamonds
The Criterion Collection
Starring Tadeusz Lomnicki, Urszula Modrynska, Tadeusz Janczar,
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Review by Damon Houx
These days, if a Hollywood film spawns one or more sequels it's because it was a solid success, box-office gold that studio suits then earmarked for follow-up. But internationally, some of cinema's greatest artists have visited the same themes and characters over the course of multiple efforts. François Truffaut had Antoine Doinel; Satyajit Ray had Apu; Marcel Pagnol had his Fanny series. Among the best of these efforts is Andrzej Wadja's "war trilogy" the directors' first three films concerned the Polish people and their resistance to Nazi occupation from 1943 until to 1945, forming a loose series. Wadja survived the ghettos and was a member of the resistance, making his films invaluable not only because of their artistic merit, but because they offer the perspective of a man who survived the things he filmed.
It's interesting to note that Roman Polanski (who appears in A Generation and other Wadja efforts the two schooled together) returned to this subject matter almost 60 years later with 2002's Oscar-winning The Pianist. But though both artists achieve zeniths in their form through this exploration of their pasts, Wadja's work has the currency of the immediate Poland, ten years after the war, was still a shelled, wrecked landscape. Today, Wadja's career is still going strong, but like many directors it's hard not to see his earliest efforts as his best. That's not to say he hasn't done other great movies; he achieved other high points (1981's Man of Iron, 1983's Danton) and continues to work with 2002's Zemesta (starring Polanski) his most recent effort. And yet if one was to single out what earned him a lifetime achievement Oscar in 1999, it would be these films, which have weathered time to remain poignant portraits of Poland's struggles during and after the war.
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A Generation (Pokolenie, 1955) quickly sets its tone: With a sweeping shot through the ghetto where Stach (Tadeusz Lomnicki) lives, he plays a knife-throwing game with his friends. Already the mixture of childish sport and violence is present, and then the boys see a German train hauling coal. Often they steal bits of it to keep warm, but this time one of their gang is shot and killed. The boys seek to save the body, but they are unable and quickly move on with their lives.
Stach is then advised to get a job; he finds work in a carpenter's shop, making door frames and bunk beds (for the Germans). But in this workplace his Polish coworkers also are hiding guns. Learning his craft though mentor Sekula (Janusz Paluszkiewicz), he is taught by Sekula the Communist's code of ethics, with Sekula showing him how they're being exploited by their boss, which leads to Stach inquiring about the resistance. But Stach's interest in the underground is mostly due to the presence of female resistance leader Dorota (Urszula Modrynska). After meeting the motley assembly, he and his friend Jasio (Tadeusz Janczar) join with them. But after his group of fighters take on their assigned task, another member of their group is killed, and a crackdown is made.
Based on the novel by screenwriter Bohdan Czeszko, A Generation represents the naiveté of youth (and the country) in this wartime setting. Though Wadja didn't set out to make a trilogy, this is the happiest of the three films. When taking the three in whole, the series reveals a slide into spiritual decay caused by war. It also takes place in 1943 before the tenants of the occupation worsened and though conditions are rough and trouble looms (there are shots of dead Poles hung in the streets to keep the ghetto in line), the film is about innocence and the loss of it. The main characters are young, embracing the fatalistic romanticism that comes from being involved in secret organizations; for them it's all fun and games until it becomes all too real. As much as Stach wants to make a difference, he also wants to be a part of something and be with a woman his goal may be noble, but his intentions aren't. Some critics interpret the upbeat conclusion as little more than agitprop because the communist resistance members look proud towards the end. But in context of the period, it's a false hope that the uprising might have installed. Wadja was also working within the communist government of the time, but like any great artist working under conditions of scrutiny he smuggles enough ambiguities into the work to prevent it from succumbing to propaganda.
The film begs talk of its content, but what makes A Generation still important and enthralling is that Wadja understands cinema. Initially trained as a painter, he has a great eye, and the film opens with a marvelous crane shot through the ghetto that sets up the environment, finally closing on Stach and his friends. Wadja's sense of framing and dramatic angles give the film a sense of life that pulsates through the works of many great artists who finally get their chance to make a movie. But Wadja also has a sense of discipline; one of his first films (included in this box set) was a documentary on pottery. Perhaps it was through working on documentaries that he learned the value of patience.
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Kanal (1957) is set in 1944, and it too opens with a masterful tracking shot, this time introducing a squadron of Polish resistance fighters. The narrator intones their numbers were 70 a day before, and now they're down to 43, and as the shot reveals the majority of the film's main characters, the narrator intones that they're all going to die in the next 24 hours. Though this storytelling technique has been used before and after (a more recent example would be 1999's The Blair Witch Project), it is a great device for setting a tone of dread.
It also allows the story to begin leisurely, introducing the main players and making them sympathetic even if their fates are obvious. They are led by Zadra (Wienczysalaw Glinski), but the main characters are mostly the couples. Zadra's aide Madry (Emil Karewicz) and messenger girl Hallinka (Teresa Berezowska) are carrying on, while the arrogant and heroic Korab (Tadeusz Janczar, who also appears in A Generation) has a relationship with the messenger Stokrotka (Teresa Izewska) who's also called Daisy and is known to be of easy virtues. The troops take a rest in a abandoned home of some wealth, and the core is joined by a musician Michal (Wladyslaw Sheybal), who telephones his wife and child just in time to hear them being taken away by the Nazis.
But after their brief rest they must do battle again. Korab is able to take out a tank, but he gets shot and is looked after by Daisy. It's then decided the only thing to do is go into the sewers. The squad tries to stay together, but the poor lighting and gas bombs dropped into the gutters causes the squadron to get separated from each other. And with everyone tired, lost, without food or water, and some hurt or sick, they lose their minds in the endless tunnels.
Taking a descent into the underground may seem like an obvious metaphor for going to hell, but Kanal was based on screenwriter Jerzy Stefan Stawinski's experiences in the resistance, lending a reality to their nightmare setting. That said, this metaphorical overlay is just one of the elements that makes the film a masterpiece. Kanal deserves to be put in the pantheon of great war films simply put, this is the crown jewel of this set and Wadja's best film. With the benefit of growing paranoia and the sense of doom palpably permeating throughout, the second half of the movie takes place entirely in the sewers, where hope and life drain from the characters; where Michal plays an ocarina and wanders through the confusing tunnels as he too quickly descends into madness.
The Polish resistance fighters were hoping to gain military support from anyone (specifically Russia, whose troops were a stone's throw away at the time), but due to political ramifications the resistance like the characters was doomed to failure, and much is made of how fruitless their struggle was. Though these characters are strong and passionate, they are all eventually crushed. Wadja is more than up to the technical challenges, and he manages to wring visceral thrills out of their plight. As an episode that concludes without any hope whatsoever, it has a perfect ending, a haunted resignation from one of the players that is meant to stay with the viewer long after the movie's concluded. This film launched Wadja into the global film market as the picture tied (with Ingmar Bergman's The Seventh Seal) for the Jury Prize at Cannes. However, greater international renown arrived with the final chapter in his trilogy.
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All of the films in the war trilogy were adapted from books by Polish authors (with Kanal it was Jerzy Andrejewski's novel), but 1958's Ashes and Diamonds (Popiol i diament) was the first film to reveal Wadja's fingerprints on the screenplay itself: He gets a co-writing credit. It begins with a shot of a cross on top of a church and sweeps down to reveal two resistance fighters, Maciek (Zbigniew Cybulski) and Andrzej (Adam Pawlikowski), who are relaxing and waiting for their target. The war is over (the film takes place on May 7th, the last official day of it), and they're waiting for a communist who's come back to town from Russia to help with the restructuring of Poland. The two take out men in a car in a stunning sequence in front of the church but as they find out later, they've killed the wrong men. The two then must make good on their assignment, going to the hotel where the bigwig, Szczuka (Waclaw Zastrzezynski), is staying. It's there Maciek meets Krystyna (Ewa Krzyzewska), a barmaid with whom he develops a strong attraction.
Maciek and Krystyna have an evening together and wander through the town, but Maciek has an assignment to complete, which he now questions due to his romantic attachment. His target Szczuka is also a man who's haunted by his past; his son became a rebel, making a surrogate son out of Maciek, while Szczuka like Maciek and Andrzej has survived a war (his was the Spanish Civil War). Plans are made for the future of Poland, and Szczuka is portrayed as a reasonable man but in the end, fate brings the assassin and his prey to their demises.
Where both previous chapters of the trilogy embraced a more neo-realist style modeled upon the works of directors like Vittorio Di Sica and Roberto Rossellini, the sensibility of Ashes and Diamonds is modeled on American films and filmmakers, which in part explains its crossover appeal. Wadja says he was influenced mostly by Orson Welles and John Ford, and there is a sense of film noir inherent in the material (what noir would be complete without a character on the verge of normalcy and marriage who has to fulfill a contract that leads to his demise?) As such, the visual schema is much more pronounced. From the religious symbolism (in the first sequence and an echo in a later scene when Maciek and Krystyna stop at a church), to the appearance of a white horse, to the use of fire (in an opening shoot-out, a set of lit drinks, and a fireworks display during a murder), Ashes and Diamonds embraces a more poetic realism.
Also separating the film from its predecessors is the presence of Zbigniew Cybulski. Almost exclusively wearing the sunglasses that would become copied throughout the world, Cybulski is an electrifying presence and was labeled Poland's James Dean (something Cybulski must have appreciated; he modeled his acting style on Dean's). His performance is the other main reason why Ashes and Diamonds played to international audiences, and what made it so volcanic in its home country. A comic-tragic character who likes to fidget and calls attention to himself with every action, Cybulski simply is on screen. He is also a modern character for the time; Wadja decided to dress him in the period of the late '50s, and this sense of immediacy gave the film the jolt that it still carries. As the revolutionary, his character defines the sensibility of the film, which portrays a world having transgressed too much for redemption, but desperately wanting it regardless.
In making Cybulski the main character of Ashes and Diamonds, and by making him sympathetic, the tragedy was no longer just the assassination of a communist leader, but the death of a rebel who had no place in the new Poland. As the film deals with the restructuring of Poland after the war and the influence of Stalin's Russia, it was a pointed critique of the powers that were. And with this film, Wadja's relationship to his country was rattled the most. The film was nearly censored by the communist Polish government who approved the script without realizing what Cybulski would do to his superficially distasteful character and only gained recognition through its international acclaim. Though A Generation ends on an uplifting note and Kanal was based on facts, here Wadja is more obviously questioning the powers that be, suggesting the crossroads Poland was at both in 1945 and 1958.
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The Criterion Collection's Andrzej Wadja: Three War Films gathers all three films in one box. A Generation is presented in full frame (1.33:1) and DD 1.0 audio in the original Polish, with optional English subtitles. The black-and-white film has been restored and looks stunning for its age. Each disc in the set presents an interview with Wadja, with the first being "Andrzej Wadja: On Becoming a Filmmaker" (34 min.), where he and film scholar Jerzy Plazewski talk about the state of Polish postwar cinema and the making of the film (the featurettes are presented in 1.78:1 anamorphic transfers). This disc also includes Wadja's student film "Cermaics from Ilza" (10 min.), a short documentary about a village filled with people who work in pottery. Also on this disc is a Stills Gallery featuring set photos, production photos, posters, and some of Wadja's artwork.
Kanal is presented in full frame (1.33:1) and DD 1.0 audio in the original Polish, with optional English subtitles. The black-and-white transfer looks better than the original Facets DVD release, but the source materials show occasional wear and scratches. "On Kanal" (28 min.) also features Plazewski, Wadja, and filmmaker Janusz "Kuba" Morgenstern. "Jan Nowak-Jezioranski: Courier from Warsaw" (28 min.) is an interview between underground army survivor Jan Nowak-Jezioranski and Wadja conducted in 2004. There's also a Still Gallery featuring production stills, publicity stills, and a poster collection.
Ashes and Diamonds is presented in anamorphic widescreen (1.66:1) and DD 1.0 audio in the original Polish, with optional English subtitles. This transfer is the best of the bunch, and it improves on the original Facets release. The film comes with a commentary track by Columbia University film studies director Annette Insdorf. Also included is the featurette "On Ashes and Diamonds" (36 min.) with Wadja, Plazewski, and Morgenstern. Also included is a "Behind the Scenes Newsreel" (1 min.), an all-too-brief look at the making of the film and a Stills Gallery with production and publicity stills, as well as a poster gallery.
- Black and white
- Full-frame and anamorphic widescreen (1.661)
- Three single-sided, dual-layered discs (SS-DL)
- Dolby Digital 1.0 (Polish)
- English subtitles
- Audio commentary by Annette Insdorf (on Ashes and Diamonds)
- Short film: "Ceramics From Ilza"
- Featurette: "Andrzej Wadja: On Becoming a Filmmaker"
- Featurette: "Andrzej Wadja: On Kanal"
- Featurette: "Jan Nowak-Jezioranski: Courier from Warsaw"
- Featurette: "Andrzej Wadja: On Ashes and Diamonds"
- Featurette: Making-of footage for Ashes and Diamonds
- Stills galleries
- Three keep-cases in a paperboard slip-case
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