Thursday, May 4, 2017
Ashes and Diamonds (Andrzej Wajda, 1958)
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.