Noirvember 2020, Episode 28: Ashes and Diamonds (1959)
Ashes and Diamonds (Popiól i diament,1959)
Directed by Andzej Wajda
Screenplay by Jerzy Andrzejewski, Andzej Wajda
Based on the novel Ashes and Diamonds by Jerzy Andrzejewski
Cinematography by Jerzy Wójcik
Edited by Halina Nawrocka
Music by Filip Nowak
(1:43) Noir City International, AFI Silver, streaming
“God! Life can be so beautiful sometimes.”
“Life is dangerous.”
The resistance fighters of the Polish Home Army didn’t have much rest after the defeat of the Nazis in 1945. The Soviets were right around the corner, sending Konrad Szczuka (Wacław Zastrzeżyński), a Soviet-backed secretary of the Polish Workers’ Party to run things while most of Poland is still celebrating the end of WWII. A small group of Home Army soldiers, including a young man named Maciek (Zbigniew Cybulski), stand ready to assassinate Szczuka as his car passes by an old country church. Maciek kills the two men in the car, but neither of them is Szczuka. Two innocent men are now dead, and Szczuka is still alive.
For this film adaptation, novelist Jerzy Andrzejewski and director Andzej Wajda changed the novel (which supported postwar Communism in Poland), focusing largely on the plight of Maciek and everything surrounding him. Not only does Maciek have to redeem himself from the mistake of killing the wrong men by killing the real target (who knows he’s a target), he also has to be smart, which doesn’t including falling for a local barmaid named Krystyna (Ewa Krzyżewska).
While Maciek is focused on doing the job right the second time around (and on Krystyna), Andrzejewski and Wajda add several seemingly unrelated subplots that we know will have connections to the outcome of the film (and the future of Poland), including Maciek’s friend Drewnowski (Bogumił Kobiela) who seeks an important post while wasted, a drunken member of the press, Szczuka’s wayward teenage son, and more. But the focus is on Maciek.
Maciek sees his failed assassination attempt as no big deal until he sees and hears a conversation taking place from an open window in a building across from his hotel room. A young woman laments the death of her fiancé, one of the men Maciek mistakenly killed. This event doesn't necessarily cause Maciek to make a play for Krystyna - one he doesn’t really expect to pan out - but it appears to change everything.
Ashes and Diamonds makes significant use of the ruins of Poland, which are important to the film’s ambitious imagery, which sometimes gets dangerously close to becoming overbearing. Jerzy Wójcik’s cinematography isn’t noir-stained, it’s noir-splattered, not only with high-contrast black-and-white photography, but also in how it continually encloses Maciek in corners and situations from which there’s no real escape.
As Eddie Muller mentioned in his Noir City International introduction to the film, Zbigniew Cybulski was often considered "the Polish James Dean," and he's terrific in the film. For more on his career and tragic end, read on.
Many have called Ashes and Diamonds the greatest film in Polish cinema, and if it’s not that, it's at least among the most controversial and one you certainly must see.