Cahiers du Coco: Ashes and Diamonds

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Join Ettes leader Coco Hames as she moves through the Janus Films Essential Art House DVD box set one film at a time.

ASHES AND DIAMONDS directed by ANDRZEJ WAJDA (1958)
Polish with English subtitles
Running time: 103 minutes

From the Essential Art House liner notes: "Andrzej Wajda's 'war trilogy' of the 1950s announced the emergence of the 'Polish school' of filmmaking." As a huge fan of Krzysztof Kieslowski, this matters and makes sense to me. I start there simply because it is true and I can't say it better. This is one of those movies whereupon viewing any of its screen shots you go, "HEY, wanna watch some post-war Polish cinema?" in your most sarcastic tone, because it looks so bleak and depressing (if artistically framed).

Yes, Ashes and Diamonds is so gloomy and miserabilist it's pretty much the mocker's punching bag for European art cinema. But once you see past that stereotype and open up to it as a story and a film, you get an experience that is part of why this collection exists: it's an expression of an era we'd have a hard time understanding otherwise. That's what films can do. 1958 was a long time ago. It wasn't forever ago, but for instance: I wasn't around. And I wasn't in Poland. Part of why these films are so important is because in addition to being works of art, they are also time capsules that give us insight into a different time and place.

Ashes and Diamonds is the third installment (after 1954's A Generation and 1957's Kanal) in Wajda's aforementioned "war trilogy" and takes place on May 6, 1945, the day Germany officially surrendered. To bluntly summarize (which often helps me in wrapping my head around such dense and serious films) our hero Maciek (played by Zbigniew Cybulski, "the Polish James Dean") is an assassin, a part of a resistance to the growing force of Communism in the country at the time.

When the film opens, we are introduced with a bang (yep, literally) which sets this dizzying film off right, jarring and confusing and practically putting us there with a sight on our backs. The story is his story, and we follow him through his assignments, meeting his friends, enemies, and (especially) a lover along the way. Like James Dean, Cybulski's Maciek sulks, scowls, fights, loves, and has existential crises. And like Dean, his presence is so strong and yet so vulnerable, you identify with him as you grit your teeth and hope he makes it out alive. Unfortunately, also like Dean, Cybulkski died young, killed in a train accident in 1967.

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