A blog formerly known as Bookishness

By Charles Matthews

"Dazzled by so many and such marvelous inventions, the people of Macondo ... became indignant over the living images that the prosperous merchant Bruno Crespi projected in the theater with the lion-head ticket windows, for a character who had died and was buried in one film and for whose misfortune tears had been shed would reappear alive and transformed into an Arab in the next one. The audience, who had paid two cents apiece to share the difficulties of the actors, would not tolerate that outlandish fraud and they broke up the seats. The mayor, at the urging of Bruno Crespi, explained in a proclamation that the cinema was a machine of illusions that did not merit the emotional outbursts of the audience. With that discouraging explanation many ... decided not to return to the movies, considering that they already had too many troubles of their own to weep over the acted-out misfortunes of imaginary beings."
--Gabriel García Márquez, One Hundred Years of Solitude

Thursday, May 4, 2017

Ashes and Diamonds (Andrzej Wajda, 1958)

The plot of Ashes and Diamonds is simple: A group of men carry out an ambush on a road in the countryside only to discover that their intended target was not among the men they killed. So they return to town to plot another way of assassinating the man. The youngest, most volatile member of the group discovers that the man has taken the room next door in the hotel, but while waiting for his opportunity, his flirtation with a pretty young woman turns serious -- they begin to fall in love. Still, renouncing that chance at happiness, he follows through with his mission: He kills the man, but before he can make his escape from the town he is gunned down. It could have been -- probably has been -- the plot of a Western, a gangster film, a spy thriller, or a war movie. But because it's a film made in Poland during the Cold War, and the story it tells is set on the very day in 1945 when the Germans surrendered, it's an intensely political film, not just in what's on the screen but also in what went on while it was being made and released. I mention this because while I want to think about movies in purely aesthetic terms -- i.e., assessing the quality of acting, writing, direction, camerawork, etc. -- it's  almost impossible to approach a film like Ashes and Diamonds without taking so-called "external" factors like politics and history into consideration. If you try to watch it without knowing anything about the political situation in Poland in 1945, with the Germans retreating, the Soviets advancing, you'll miss half of the motivation of the characters and most of the intensity of the conflict. And if you disregard the fact that Poland in 1958 was a communist country, you can't understand why the plot to kill a communist leader was such a touchy subject for Andrzej Wajda to handle in a film -- and why the way he handled it was so audacious. It's a film that asks you to do your homework. On as pure an aesthetic level as I can get in thinking about the film, it's visually fascinating, with some splendid deep-focus cinematography by Jerzy Wójcik that pays homage to Gregg Toland's work on Citizen Kane (Orson Welles, 1941). Wajda was quite open about the influence of Welles on his filmmaking -- like Welles, Wajda wanted sets to have ceilings -- but he also expressed a love of American gangster movies and film noir, citing Scarface (Howard Hawks, 1932) and The Asphalt Jungle (John Huston, 1950) among his inspirations for Ashes and Diamonds. The American influence is probably most felt by viewers today in the performance of Zbigniew Cybulski in the role of Maciek, the young assassin. It's a showy, jittery, almost over-the-top performance that validates Cybulski's reputation as "the Polish James Dean." Wajda initially resisted casting Cybulski, wanting a more traditional actor for the role, but once Jerzy Andrzejewski, his co-screenwriter and author of the novel on which the film was based, persuaded him to hire Cybulski, Wajda realized that the handsome young star would attract the younger audience the film not only needed to succeed, but also to educate this audience about their country's past. He even gave in to Cybulski's demand that he be allowed to supply his own wardrobe -- not at all the kind of clothes that a young Polish partisan would have worn in 1945 -- including his signature sunglasses. (A line was inserted to explain that Maciek wore them because he had damaged his eyesight by spending too much time in the sewers of Warsaw during the uprising of 1944.) But Wajda added some idiosyncratic touches of his own to the film, including the bullets setting fire to the jacket of one of the unintended victims of the ambush, and some ventures into symbolism like the upside-down crucifix that looms over Maciek and Krystyna (Ewa Krzyzewska) when they visit a ruined church and the white horse that wanders the streets of the town near the film's end. Maciek is shot in a field where white sheets are drying on clotheslines, and when he clutches one of the sheets to himself, his blood shows through -- even though the film is in black and white, this is a reminder that the colors of the Polish flag, like the one the hotel keeper takes out to wave at the film's end, are white and red. Wajda also delighted in the ambiguity of Maciek's death scene, one of Cybulski's most extravagant moments, which takes place on a garbage heap. For the communist censors, he observed, this could be interpreted as the fate of rebels against their rule, while young would-be rebels could see it as the state treating them as garbage.

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