' ' Cinema Romantico: Friday's Old Fashioned: Ashes and Diamonds (1958)

Friday, June 22, 2018

Friday's Old Fashioned: Ashes and Diamonds (1958)

Andrzej Wajda’s “Ashes and Diamonds” takes its title from a 19th century Cyprian Norwid epic poem, one read aloud in a bombed out Polish church in the middle of the film, a poem wondering after some cataclysmic event if only ashes will remain, or if the ashes hold the glory of a diamond, a morning star of everlasting triumph. In a way, the posed query’s answer is the movie itself, because it was released in 1958 in the midst of Poland’s oppressive Stalin regime giving way. But then, if the movie, set in the immediate aftermath of WWII, was afforded the opportunity to truly stick it to its oppressors given the loosening of restrictions on art, Wajda chooses not to, evincing the gray area as ultimate truth. Indeed, “Ashes and Diamonds” is movie of contrasts, in characters, in narratives, in images; for every action, and all that.

The film opens on the day WWII ends with Polish resistance soldiers Maciek (Zbigniew Cybulski) and Andrzej (Adam Pawlikowski) lazing in the grass outside a rural chapel. The sun shines and birds chirp conspicuously. That post-war idyll is shattered, however, when we learn they are waiting to ambush a Communist Commissar and assassinate him. The plan unknowingly goes awry when they kill two innocent men instead, a frightening scene in which bullets and birdsongs go hand-in-hand on the soundtrack, an early indicator of the treasure trove of juxtapositions. It is only later, in town, at the hotel where they are staying, that Maciek and Andrzej realize Commissar Szczuka (Wacław Zastrzeżyński) is still alive and staying at the very same hotel. It’s a narrative coincidence emblematic of how close they are to their goal which, in turn, is emblematic of how close Poland was to freedom as WWII wound down.

This one hotel becomes a symbol for all of Poland, where conflicting ideologies run right up against one another. The Commissar’s son is eventually revealed as a right-wing revolutionary while the town mayor organizes a grand fête without knowing his assistant Drewnowski (Bogumił Kobiela) is a status-hungry double agent. An old journalist, Pieniazek (Stanisław Milski), meanwhile, whose drunken flippancy seems to  , choosing to get drunk and then goading Drewnowski into invading the fête by way of stumbling into it, making a noisy, soused mess, eventually grabbing a fire extinguisher and spraying the guests, a kind of ghoulish mockery of freedom fighters.

The waning resistance is further glimpsed in a scene where a Polish national song is sung while Maciek extinguishes the flame of alcohol ignited in cocktail glasses in honor of deceased revolutionaries, a perhaps obvious allusion that is no less striking for its presentation, both visually and emotionally. Cybulski plays the scene not sadly, exactly, but wistfully, as if nostalgic for the war’s fever pitch.

If the flame of his passions is dying, he finds them re-ignited in a different way by the beautiful barmaid Krystyna (Ewa Krzyżewska), with whom he shamelessly flirts at first before being drawn to her more deeply. If you wish her character might have been afforded more narrative depth, there is still something about her presentation that stays with you, like a Polish approximation of the woman in Édouard Manet’s painting “A Bar at the Folies-Bergère.” If Poland’s chilly future waits on the other side of the bar, either in the form of the Commissar and his cronies or the fête bootlickers, she icily resists. No, only Maciek is able to get through to her, and that is because they are kindred souls, each one stuck between a rock and a hard place.

This is what draws them together, and in a walk they take through the nighttime streets and various nearby locales, their conversation does not so much hint at a possible alternate future as pine for its impossible possibility. Here is when they see an upside-down crucifix in a famous sho , but the sequence ends with Maciek comically trying to repair her shoe and then happening upon the very bodies of the two men he killed earlier in the day, a light moment flipped into darkness, underscoring how the overriding situation’s reality cannot be escaped.

That becomes more evident when Maciek tries to wiggle his way out of seeing through assassination. He quietly unravels, his charisma mutating into twitchy panic as he follows the Commissar through the streets, waiting to strike. When he does, the moment is unforgettable, the Commissar falling into Maciek’s arms as fireworks erupt from above. This shot is framed looking up, the two men dwarfed by the explosions, suddenly rendering this moment the whole movie has been building to as meaningless. Indeed, a few scenes later, Maciek, shot in his attempts to escape after the assassination, dies in a dump amidst garbage piles strewn as far as the eye can see, a shot cribbed, as many critics have noted, from Luis Buñuel 1950 film “The Young and the Damned.” Fair enough, but it made me think of a 2018 Neko Case line. If to so many God is Love, or some equivalent, to her “God is a lusty tire fire.”

No comments: