Sifting through Ashes and Diamonds (1958)

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To view Ashes and Diamonds click here.

Is it possible for a film to be revered as a world classic and influence an entire generation of its country’s filmmakers yet still be underrated? In the case of Ashes and Diamonds (1958), the best-known film from the great Andrzej Wajda (whom we lost last year), the answer could very well be yes. The film was a major salvo in the onslaught of Polish masterpieces made in the wake of Stalinist control in the country, and it made a world cinema superstar out of Wajda, regularly turning up in film retrospectives and popping up on best-of lists for decades. More recently it was inaugurated into the Criterion Collection and was included in Martin Scorsese’s internationally traveling film series Masterpieces of Polish Cinema a few years ago, which went all over Europe as well as New York and Los Angeles.

Interestingly, it was the Scorsese series that proved how much this film has been taken for granted. Despite the fact that a restored edition was prepared, the film was barely mentioned in most coverage with focus instead on lesser seen (relatively speaking) but very worthwhile discoveries like Pharoah (1965), Knights of the Black Cross (1960), Austeria (1982), Mother Joan of the Angels (1961) and even some later Wajda films like the pivotal two-film character study Man of Marble (1977) and Man of Iron (1981), as well as his epic The Promised Land (1975). Obviously there’s a thrill in discovering something new and off the beaten track compared to the film that’s been written about by decades of film critics, but that also means running the risk of consigning a film to “homework” status: something people watch because they feel they have to but have no expectation of enjoying.

Well, there’s plenty to enjoy here. As the violence of World War II draws to a close with Poland’s future still uncertain, the role that communism will play in the lives of the wealthy, the ostracized and the working class is a big question mark, of course, and into this boiling pot over the course of 24 hours we follow reluctant resistance assassin Maciek Chelmicki (Zbigniew Cybulski), whose failed attempt to take out a prominent target has him going for round two at a hotel in the center of a small town. However, an encounter there with pretty barmaid Krystyna (Ewa Krzyzewska) shows him another possible path he could take.

ASHES AND DIAMONDS

This would be the second of three features with the director and star, bookended by A Generation (1955) and the sublime Innocent Sorcerers (1960). Both Wajda and critics made a point of comparing him repeatedly to James Dean, which seems a little off base apart from their general young, “cool” appeal at the time. Cybulski’s trademark sunglasses are far more hip 1950s teen than wartime assassin, but it’s a choice that works and paid off in spades as it made the film a big hit with impressionable young audiences. (Amusingly, Wajda also tweaked the authorities by transforming the far more black-and-white party-pushing novel’s focus to Maciek instead of his target.) A fascinating presence in many Polish films before his untimely death at the age of 39 when he was tragically struck by a train, Cybulski isn’t all that similar to any Hollywood star of the period (though he sure looks a lot like Josh Brolin to modern eyes!). If you’re impressed with him here, I’d recommend also checking out his fine work in the occult masterpiece The Saragossa Manuscript (1965), Tadeusz Konwicki’s Salto (1965), Innocent Sorcerers and a cool supporting role in Jerzy Kawalerowicz’s Night Train (1959), which is rapidly ascending to major classic status in recent years as well.

If you’re familiar with Wajda and his generally straightforward visual style (extending all the way through his most famous late-period film, Danton from 1983), it’s still a bit jolting how stylized and audacious this film can be. There are lots of wild visual flourishes hiding away where you least expect them, such as the famous image of an upside-down statue with its face transfixed with nails suddenly filling the center of the screen or the subtle but effective flickering of flames in glasses that frame the nocturnal bar scenes.

Wajda has noted on occasion that the rule-breaking cinematography of Citizen Kane (1941) was an influence here, and yes, you can definitely see more ceilings than your average 1950s production. However, if anything it feels far more like a relative of the films of Carol Reed, most obviously The Third Man (1949) with its tapestry of conflicting loyalties in postwar Vienna but also akin to the earlier Odd Man Out (1947), with James Mason as a criminal political agitator on the run in Belfast. You could easily program either of those films with this one and have an unforgettable night of movie watching in store.

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This being a Criterion Channel title, it’s also worth exploring the two bonus features available here, primarily the outstanding 36-minute featurette showing Wajda, fellow filmmaker Janusz “Kuba” Morgenstern and Polish film critic Dr. Jerzy Plazewski chatting about how this film came to be. I was especially intrigued to hear that he had absolutely no interest in the source novel by Jerzy Andrzejewski when it came out right after the war and became required classroom reading; it was only later, at the urging of one of his stars, that his imagination caught fire due to one scene at dawn that would become a highlight of the finished film. He also explains the “totally irrational” fashion choices of his leading man, but as you can see from the final result, it was a gamble that paid off very handsomely.

Nathaniel Thompson

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2 Responses Sifting through Ashes and Diamonds (1958)
Posted By kingrat : July 16, 2017 8:36 pm

One of my favorite films. When watching it, I can believe that it is one of the best films ever made. The visual style is definitely film noir, and this may be the only film noir that works on a national scale.

Although I like James Dean, I like Cybulski even better, and ASHES AND DIAMONDS makes REBEL WITHOUT A CAUSE look a bit silly. Cybulski’s problem is that the Nazis overran his country and ruled it for six years, and now the Soviets are conquering his country and will rule it just as ruthlessly. Dean, on the other hand, has to worry about the mean kids at his new school. Too bad about those mean kids, Jimmy.

Posted By swac44 : August 23, 2017 10:09 am

Recovering at home from a recent injury, I’ve been catching up on Morlocks’ essays (I mean, I just can’t call the writers “Streamliners”) and binging on the films they detail. This one has been MIA from my experience for far too long, especially since it’s the favourite film of a dear friend who included it in a cache of Criterion laserdiscs she left me when she moved to non-NTSC Europe.

So this morning I fired up the LD player and finally enjoyed this masterpiece, reveling in its romance, its humour and its focused sense of purpose. Interesting that Francis Ford Coppola once called it his favourite film, since there are echoes of The Godfather in the assassination scene and even in the music, with a theme that strongly recalls that of the Nino Rota title theme from Coppola’s film.

For some reason, Cybulski reminded me of a more dynamic Warren Beatty (or even young Robert Wagner). I’m eager to see more of his work though, maybe I’ll finally get around to The Sargasso Manuscript, seeing as I’m on a roll.

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