Saturday, December 21, 2013
Ashes and Diamonds
"Ashes and Diamonds" begins with a spasm of violence. Three gunmen are lounging around on meadow near a small rural chapel. A jeep comes down the dirt path and the gunmen ambush the vehicle, spraying it with machine-gun fire. One of the passengers in the jeep escapes and tries to hide in the chapel. He is shot down at such close-range that the muzzle-flash from the machine gun lights his shoulders on fire. In the reverse shot, however, the falling man does not appear to be ablaze. Thus, from the very outset of Andrzej Wajda's 1958 film, the viewer is confronted with a carefully visualized, apparently realistic, historical drama that has distinct, and, even, baroque, symbolic trappings. It is the last day of World War II in Europe, May 8, 1945 and, although the Nazis have ben expelled from Poland, bloody conflict continues in the form of a Civil War between right-wing resistance fighters and Communist guerillas. The gunmen have shot and killed the two men in the jeep thinking that they were Communist officials. In fact, victims of the ambush were an advance party. A few moments later, we see Commissar Szczuka, the intended target, followed by workers from a cement plant. Szczuka speaks to the men standing over the two dead bodies and asks the workers what kind of Poland they want to form now that the war is ending. The assassins follow Szczuka to town and, in fact, the most unpredictably violent of the three, Maciek, checks into the Monopol Hotel where the Communist commissar is also staying. The Monopol is the heavily symbolic and theatrical venue for the remainder of the film's action. The town's new Mayor is planning a lavish banquet to celebrate the end of the war as well as his election. All ranks and orders in Polish society gather at the hotel and the banquet becomes a noisy, and drunken, microcosm for the nation. Outside on the dark streets, fighting continues among huge posters showing Comrade Stalin's benevolent face -- tanks rumble by and soldiers are marching and Szczuka's own son, a youth about Maciek's age (and symbolically equated to Maciek), also an opponent of the Communists has been captured by the garrison of troops defending the twon. Maciek, who has the charisma of James Dean, is a rebel who has lost faith in his cause -- when he sees the widow of one of the men that he has just killed wailing in a flat across the ventilation shaft from his hotel room, he suffers a crisis of conscience. (Many of the scenes in the hotel are staged in a very theatrical style in an implausibly confined space in which all of the film's allegorical figures are closely confined; the movie resembles one of Max Beckmann's late triptychs -- symbolic figures mashed together with a variety of props demonstrating the meanings of the allegorical characters: there is a crucified Jesus upside down in an adjacent church, a "lower depths" toilet to which the characters sometimes retire defended by an old an crone, various weapons including ceremonial swords, as well trumpets and other musical instruments, a white horse that inexplicably appears in one scene, and a big gramophone similar to those that inhabit some of the German painter's canvases.) Maciek seduces a bar-maid and there is a love scene composed in huge close-ups that dissolve into one another. In a crypt the bar-maid deciphers an elegy written on a tomb, something about the flames of the present converting us into either ash or diamond -- and in Wajda's scenario, the lovely bar-maid, offering the hope of love, is clearly intended as a diamond. Maciek can not escape his destiny and he guns down Szczuka in the rubble-strewn street, a showy scene in which the Commissar's death is accompanied by great jets of fireworks shot into the night to celebrate the surrender of the Germans. By dawn, everyone is drunk and disheartened. The Mayor orders the disheveled band to play a polonaise and all the aristocrats, whom we know to be doomed, dance for a last time as the sun casts oblique rays throught the windows of the ramshackle Monopol. Maciek is gunned down and dies picturesquely scrambling across a vast field of garbage. The film is beautifully made. The photography resembles the camera-work in Fellini's films in the late fifties -- the focus is often almost surrealistically deep (we see a huge profile, someone in the middle of the room, and a tiny figure entering the image, perhaps, 100 feet away), the lighting is spectacular although unrealistic, also a characteristic of Wajda's "Kanal" with expresssionistic chiaroscuro and the final scenes bathed in a weird raking brilliance representing the new dawn. Wajda has said that his masters were Orson Welles and William Wyler (particularly "The Best Years of Our Lives") and the film is exquisitely shot and staged. To my taste, the banqueting scenes and some of the imagery are too insistently allegorical -- the imagery is overdetermined and we are always told what to think about it. This is probably a characteristic of Wajda's compromised situation in making this film -- clearly, Wajda is sympathetic to all elements of Polish society shown in the film and, although State censors, require that he portray the Commissar as the film's hero, it is pretty evident that the director's own perspective is deeply conflicted. Hence, I speculate that the overdetermined allegorical trappings to the picture both represent a Polish baroque sensibility that conceives reality in emblematic terms as well as an attempt to set up overt symbols that distract the viewer from Wajda's obviously divided sympathies.