If ever asked what’s the most depressing WWII European resistance movie, I’d briefly consider Rossellini’s trilogy before answering Army of Shadows – but now that I’ve seen Kanal, it easily takes the title. But nobody ever asks me these things. Kanal was the first film made about the 1944 Warsaw Uprising, written and adapted for the screen by a participant. It’s Wajda’s darker, more intense follow-up to A Generation, and the centerpiece of his own war trilogy, or at least that’s what critics and marketers belatedly claim.
The Uprising was Polish resistance’s attempt to free Warsaw from Nazi rule, and was a huge failure, in part because they knew the Russian army was just over the river, but the Russians allowed the resistance to get wiped out before entering the city. First half of the movie shows the losing battles, and in the second, they retreat to the sewers, to their slow, dark, confused deaths from sickness and suffocation, injury and poison.
Lt. Zadra has a diminished company of 40 men, including his second-in-command Lt. Wise, messenger girl Halinka, record-keeper Sgt. Bullet, shirtless young Korab (Tadeusz Janczar, who played the charismatic fool hunted down for killing a German in A Generation), and a composer called Michal (Vladek Sheybal, who moved to England and appeared in some Ken Russell films). They already feel defeated at the start, but manage to hold off some weird remote-control mini-tanks before the retreat to the sewers, where the composer starts quoting Dante, making it clear that this will be their hell.
Their guide Daisy claims to know the sewers, ends up with Korab, who was wounded in the mini-tank battle. The men start separating into groups. The composer, plus Wise and Halinka (who’ve been sleeping together before the sewer escape) are in a team until the composer goes mad and starts roaming alone. When they reach a dead end Wise says he has to escape for his wife and child, and Halinka shoots herself. After a long slog looking for a way out, Korab getting sicker, and and Daisy reach an iron grate.
Wise finds an exit straight into the hands of waiting nazis, who are disarming men as they surface and executing them. Meanwhile, Lt. Zadra proceeds, being assured by a spooked Bullet that the rest of his men are behind him. Very tense scene with a grenade trap – the third guy with them is killed disarming it. Finally a safe exit into the ruined Poland, but when Zadra realizes it’s just the two of them, he shoots Bullet and descends into the sewers to find his men.
Learned from the extras: Andrzej Munk, then a documentarian, was going to make the movie but cancelled because the sewers were too dark to film realistically. So Wajda didn’t shoot them realistically, used expressive lighting. To solve another light problem during a surface fight scene, they shot live ammo because blanks weren’t bright enough.
The movie looks wonderful and demands screenshots, but I watched on the big TV and didn’t get any, so here’s Wajda with Jean Cocteau from the extras: