Magazine Poland

CineClub: Ashes and Diamonds (1958), by Andrzej Wajda


Revisiting old classics, discovering hidden gems and exploring the contemporary movie scene: every month, Kafkadesk’s CineClub brings you new insights and expert film reviews of the greatest treasures of Central European cinema. This week: Ashes and Diamonds (1958), by Andrzej Wajda.

Based on Jerzy Andrzejewski’s novel, Andrzej Wajda’s Ashes and Diamonds paints a compelling picture of life in 1950s Poland, offering later generations the opportunity to get a glimpse of how the Polish nation attempted to break free from the socialist ideology.

Filmed in 1958, Ashes and Diamonds centers Poland’s past, present and future following the collapse of the Nazi occupation in 1945 and present the Polish anti-communist resistance through the eyes of an anti-system underground rebel, whose primary goal is to assassinate the local head of the Polish Workers’ Party.

Poland’s cinema New Wave

Arguably one of the most iconic Polish filmmakers of the 20th century responsible for bringing the country’s cinema industry to new heights, Andrzej Wajda adeptly uses society’s World War II-era anti-Nazi and anti-communist ambivalent attitudes, blending it with an artful mixture of irony and realism to give a comprehensive snapshot of post-war Poland.

Along with Wajda’s other dramas, namely A Generation (1954) and Kanal (1956), which take a closer look at the Warsaw uprising against Nazi German forces in 1944, Ashes and Diamonds serves as the fabulous final episode of the director’s war trilogy.

Controversial in many ways, but always intelligent and pragmatic in the treatment of his movie subjects, Wajda is key to understanding the emergence of the Polish New Wave, a movement that largely contributed to the country’s breakthrough on the international cinematic arena in a way reminiscent of what happened in neighbouring Czechoslovakia around the same time.

Beyond war and Stalinism

The simple but relatable storyline follows anti-communist underground rebellion of Maciek, played by “Polish James Dean” and cultural icon Zbigniew Cybulski, and his plan to assassinate Szczuka, the local secretary of the Polish Workers’ Party played by lesser-known actor Waclaw Zastrzezynski.

Beyond the mere historical perspective, which allows the director to lay into the ruling communist ideology while pledging his loyalty to the fundamentals of Polish culture and tradition, Wajda placed a myriad of symbolically charged and visually striking references throughout the film.

This includes the upside-down crucifix or the demolished Catholic church, which serve as allegories or warnings as to where the country might be heading as well as cues to understand key developments affecting the main characters. The two candles metaphor placed at the altar is in that regard a remarkable hint to the two soldiers Maciek kills at the beginning of the movie.

The Polish director cleverly emphasizes the paradoxical dilemmas and inner struggles of all the main protagonists. While Maciek’s primary mission is to kill the communist secretary, he falls in love with a waitress, played by glamorous Ewa Krzyzewska, and isn’t sure whether to pursue his life of crime and rebellion or if he should instead settle for love.

Ashes and Diamonds is a testament to Andrzej Wajda’s clear vision and insightful assessment of the state of Polish society during the post-war era. For those less familiar with the work of Poland’s beloved filmmaker, it also serves as a compelling incentive to discover Wajda’s cinematic universe more in depth and explore other movies from the Polish New Wave.

By Bence Janek