Andrzej Wajda, now in his eighties, has had a long and generally distinguished career. A particularly memorable experience for me was staying up late to catch Man of Marble on its first TV broadcast (New Year’s Day, 1981), followed a few days later by Man of Marble while it was still showing in London cinemas. Wajda was a staple of British arthouse distributors up until the late 1980s. The War Trilogy (Ashes and Diamonds in 35mm, the other two in 16mm) turned up regularly as a repertory triple bill in the 80s and 90s in London, and that’s how I saw the three films originally. However, like other veteran directors he has gone in and out of fashion. Since 1991’s Korczak Wajda’s films have not had British distribution – at least until this year’s Katyn. The last attempt was by Eureka, who released the three films I’m reviewing here, Man of Marble and Landscape After Battle on VHS in 1998. Much as I said about Bertrand Tavernier recently, DVD distribution of Wajda’s films is distinctly lacking in the UK.
It seems that Wajda is generally only commercially viable in the UK when dealing with World War II themes. That’s the case with his two most recent cinema releases, and it’s also true of his first three films, each standing alone but known collectively as the War Trilogy, now released on DVD as a box set.
A Generation (Pokolenie) (1954, 83:11)
After World War II ended, Wajda studied painting before enrolling at the Lodz film school in 1950. One of his teachers there was the veteran Polish director Aleksander Ford. A Generation began life as a project for Ford to direct, but he stepped aside in favour of his protégé, retaining a credit for “artistic supervision”. Adapted from his own novel by Bohdan Czeszko, A Generation was not only a debut film for Wajda but it was also for his DP Jerzy Lipman, and for much of his young cast. In the minor role of Mundek is a future director by the name of Roman Polanski. Also in a small role is Zbigniew Cybulski, who would make a considerable impact four years later in Ashes and Diamonds.
A Generation is the story of Stach (Tadeusz Lomnicki), who is coming of age in Nazi-occupied Poland. Working as an apprentice, he learns about Marxism from a shop steward. He meets Dorota (Urszula Modrzynska), a leader in the Youth Underground, and, attracted to her, joins up.
Although Wajda’s talent is clear from the outset, A Generation is best seen as a stepping-stone to greater work. The film is also compromised somewhat by having to toe the Communist Party line. On the other hand, Wajda’s visual confidence – helped no end by Jerzy Lipman’s very contrasty black-and-white camerawork – is also much in evidence, particularly in his staging of action scenes. There’s a very Hitchcockian fall down a stairwell. Lindsay Anderson declared A Generation his favourite film.
Kanal (1957, 91:50)
Warsaw, 1944, the last days of the Polish Uprising. Lieutenant Zadra (Wienczyslaw Glinksi) leads a Resistance platoon of forty-three men and women. Facing the German onslaught, Zadra is ordered to retreat via the sewers.
An opening narration advises us to “watch them as they live their last hours”, which is warning enough for a particularly intense and downbeat hour and a half. Most of the second part of the film takes place underground, in semi-darkness. This is a very physical film: everyone looks genuinely dirty and if a film could smell, this one would. Lipman’s black and white photography is again a standout: it’s impossible to imagine this film in colour and I’m not sure I’d want to try.
Kanal was a major step forward for Wajda. (The title is unsurprisingly often translated as “Canal”, though “Sewer” is more accurate. If you want to be really nitpicky, the final letter is the Polish “dark” or slashed L which is pronounced like an English W, but I can’t reproduce that character here, unfortunately.) The film has autobiographical overtones in that Wajda himself fought in the resistance and several scenes are based directly on his experiences.
The film was invited to competition at Cannes, where it won a Special Jury Prize, which Wajda shared with Ingmar Bergman for The Seventh Seal. (The Golden Palm went to, believe it or not, Friendly Persuasion.) Actress Teresa Izewska was bought a new dress and pair of shoes by the Polish authorities so that she could attend the Festival.
Ashes and Diamonds (1958, 102:40)
It’s the dying days of World War II. The film begins with an assassination carried out by Resistance fighters at a church, in a surprisingly brutal scene for its time. (One of the less elevated reasons why European films like this one attracted an audience at the time was that its content was frequently more adult, with regards to sexuality as well as violence, than a Hollywood still in thrall to the Production Code would allow.) One of the assassins is Maciek (Zbigniew Cybulski). He is ordered to kill Communist leader Szczuka (Waclaw Zastrzezynski) but soon has to question his loyalties.
A Generation and Kanal were ensemble pieces but Ashes and Diamonds is dominated by its central performance. Cybulski, who has a fleeting role in A Generation, became a star as a result of this performance. Frequently wearing dark glasses, his charisma is obvious from the outset. He became known as “The Polish James Dean” – and like Dean he died young, struck by a train at the age of thirty-nine. Although he’s the lead, cast against type, in Wojciech Has’s The Saragossa Manuscript (he had previously worked with Has in 1963’s How to Be Loved), it’s in Ashes and Diamonds that you find his defining performance. Wajda’s 1969 film Everything for Sale is a homage to Cybulski, made after his death.
Visually, Wajda is on top form, creating several memorable scenes. I’ve already mentioned the opening assassination sequence, but also lingering in the mind is the scene where Maciek lights glasses of vodka in memory of fallen comrades, an assassination with fireworks in the background, and the final scene which you will have to see for yourself.
Ashes and Diamonds played the Venice Film Festival in 1959, winning the FIPRESCI Prize. It is a favourite film of Martin Scorsese: he showed it to Leonardo DiCaprio as a reference point for the latter’s character in The Departed. Fifty years later, it remains of Wajda’s great works.
The Andrzej Wajda War Trilogy is a box set of three single-layer DVDs, all encoded for Region 2 only. Ashes and Diamonds was released separately in May 2007 and is still available. A Generation and Kanal are at present only available as part of the set. The three films are available from Criterion as Three War Films, a set which is much more expensive but clearly the winner in terms of extras. I don’t have a copy to hand to make an audiovisual comparison, though.
A Generation and Kanal were made in Academy Ratio and are presented in 4:3. Ashes and Diamonds has an anamorphic transfer in the ratio of 1.66:1. Clearly the original materials of the first two films have sustained some damage. Scratches abound at the beginnings and ends of reels (which are marked by a cue square followed by a cue dot, throughout). The credits sequence of A Generation, which I presume is stock footage, is very dupey-looking. Both transfers are a little soft, but not unacceptably so. As A Generation shares its disc with a 41-minute interview, an extra layer to accommodate a higher bitrate might have been a good idea. As it is, 124 minutes of material pushes at the limits of a DVD-5. Having said that, there doesn’t appear to be anything missing, and short of a full-scale restoration this is as good as it’s likely to get.
Ashes and Diamonds isn’t free of scratches but is in much better condition. However, judging by the running time it appears to be a standards conversion from NTSC. It’s not a bad standards conversion – I’ve seen far worse – but it lacks the sharpness of a true PAL transfer. (I should add that I’m reviewing Ashes and Diamonds from a checkdisc of the 2007 release, and this may not reflect the 2008 box set release.) On the other hand, the running times of A Generation and Kanal are evidence of PAL speed-up.
All soundtracks are mono, as you would expect, and there’s nothing much to be said that dialogue is always clear and well-balanced with the sound effects and music. Unfortunately for those whose Polish is good enough, subtitles are fixed.
The only extra is on the A Generation disc and is an interview with Wajda. It is presented in 4:3 and runs 41:13. Speaking in Polish (English subtitles are provided), he talks through the making of each film, illustrated where appropriate with extracts. Beware spoilers, though. Oddly, the clips from Ashes and Diamonds appear squeezed, as if de-anamorphised. This is certainly a worthwhile extra, but it’s the only one: if you want more, you’d do better investing in the Criterion set. However, this is much cheaper and is a generally acceptable alternative.