I wanted to see Ashes & Diamonds, but since Criterion released it as the third title in a loose war trilogy, I figured I’d dutifully start with the first and work my way up to the masterpiece. But damned if this one didn’t feel like a masterpiece itself. It’s an anti-nazi resistance movie, more emotionally deep than Rossellini’s Paisan, younger and less world-weary than Army of Shadows. It also sports my favorite kind of 1950’s photography: artful, almost expressionistic compositions with great depth and lighting
Stach (Tadeusz Lomnicki of Blind Chance, a mild-looking Polish Tobey Maguire) and his buddies are introduced stealing coal from trains of the occupying nazi forces, one of them getting killed straight away, but Stach doesn’t join the organized underground resistance until he sees the beautiful Dorota (Urszula Modrzynska of Knights of the Teutonic Order) recruiting. He gradually gets involved with the resistance, seeing a bright future ahead for the two of them, until she is captured – a sure death sentence – in the final minutes, and Stach meets a new group of recruits alone, the struggle carrying on.
Stach’s loose-cannon friend Jasio (Tadeusz Janczar of Kanal) kills a German and is eventually shot down in a stairwell. Another friend is played by Roman Polanski, just about to jump into short filmmaking.
Background from E. Mazierska:
[This, Wajda’s first feature,] “marks the beginning of the Polish School, the paradigm of Polish cinema that arose from the political and cultural thaw of the mid-1950s.
A so-called political thaw followed the deaths of Stalin in 1953 and the leader of the Polish Communist party, Wladyslaw Bierut, in 1956, and the bloody events of June 1956, when scores of pro-democracy demonstrators were killed by government troops during street riots in Poznan. These events paved the way for Wladyslaw Gomulka, who envisaged a more independent, less totalitarian Poland, to become the new party leader in October 1956.
[The Polish School] directors, including Wajda, Andrzej Munk, Jerzy Kawalerowicz, and Wojciech Has, were all trained after the war, mostly at the Polish National Film School, in Lodz, which opened in 1948. They rejected the simplistic world vision offered by socialist realism and wanted their films to appeal to the viewer through images, rather than the verbal tirades of elevated individuals.
I also watched Wajda’s documentary short on the disc, Ceramics from Ilza, mostly of interest for the way he photographs the ceramic figures in natural environments: against a lake or a hillside, instead of in the studio where they’d normally be displayed.